Until very recently, an allegation of letting a little air out of a championship game football would have been viewed by most as competitive wink behind the back, like overheating the opponent’s locker room, having a little Vaseline behind the ear, or allowing loose boards on the court, which our guards knew, and their guards didn’t. It’s the way we wanted the games within the game to be. We enjoyed a little mischief.

So how is it today that these few ounces of air have set off a Category Four maelstrom on the Internet and in the media that will hang over the eastern seaboard for weeks, maybe years, with repercussions spreading and intensifying in places as disparate as New York, Miami, and Seattle for generations?

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” Paul Simon sang in “The Boxer.” It’s human. Many if not most of us have things we staunchly, vehemently — dare I say devoutly? — believe in without a shred of physical evidence. Or things we believe in with just a shred of evidence, physical or not. Or things where we have ample evidence, but we have to air-brush, photo-shop, and smile-face the rest of the picture to make the story we are standing behind stand up. And we do it with the things we are most passionate about, like religion, family, love, politics, music, and sports.

There are things we all just need to believe in, like perfect heroes and complete villains. Blind allegiance is conviction’s evil twin.

This hit me hard earlier this year, not in sports but in politics, after seeing “Selma“. The film strongly implied that President Lyndon Johnson was complicit in the FBI’s wiretapping of Martin Luther King for the purpose of humiliating King publicly and destroying his leadership. By all accounts, Johnson authorized nothing of the sort. The then-Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, did.

Bobby Kennedy is a hero to me. In talking to people about the film in the hours and days that followed, I kept this little historical fact to myself. I just looked beyond it, avoided it. Deep down, it even revived an old hope that, despite the evidence, it wasn’t so. At the very least, I tell myself, Bobby Kennedy stood for so much that was right and good and just that this horrific act was just a blip on the screen (well, okay, along with his youthful loyalty to Sen. Joseph McCarthy).

In the long run, I know the denial will work. Even though I know that one day Bobby Kennedy tried to, in political terms, assassinate Martin Luther King, I also know it’s not going to dent my devotion. I need to believe in Bobby Kennedy. I have seen too much selfishness, cynicism, hate, and straight-out stupidity in politics and public policy in my lifetime. I need some beacon of hope, altruism, justice, and thoughtfulness. No one is perfect, I’ll say. We all make mistakes — even though I’ll cut no one else nearly the same slack, particularly among conservative leaders.

That’s the way it is with a lot of shaky narratives we cling to. They help us to more easily and neatly sort out the complicated, unpleasant stories that bombard us in 24-hour news cycles and demand us to assess them as threats or not to our own equilibrium. We choose the stories that matter to us. We blow them up, often no matter how trivial they may be in the larger scheme of things. And the narratives we attach to them tell us a lot about ourselves as individuals and as a society.

That’s why the cheating Patriots story is so interesting. Among those who care enough to give it a second thought, few seem ambivalent. We either believe that the Patriots did and do cheat, and construct the evidence to prove it. Or we believe that it’s neither cheating nor consequential and construct stories, often with the same evidence at hand, in the team’s defense. In both cases, we attach it to some pre-existing narrative to bolster our absolute views. Prosecution and defense. Neither has any inclination to consider the other side.

What has been driving all this, of course, is something deeper than the New England Patriots, and even deeper than football and politics. The incredible heat of the vitriol is a matter of identity, how people think about faith and trust, about following the rules or not. It is about frames of fairness and opportunity. It is about believing in “our own” and not believing outsiders. It is about how we feel about those at the top, and where we are in relation to them. It’s projecting our sense of superiority or resentment on the world, to feel we are among the entitled or the trolls, the winners or, unfairly, on the losing side in life.

In other words, when we make hard passionate judgments about faith or politics or sports or life based on scant evidence, when we ignore inconvenient facts, when we attach and stubbornly cling to old narratives even though there is ample good evidence against them, when we deny legitimacy to opposing views, when we are outraged by the trivial, it tells us a lot more about ourselves than it does about the events or personalities at hand.

Deflategate is just the latest example. It isn’t really about the Patriots, or Bill Belichik, or Tom Brady. It’s about us. Deflategate is a Rorschach test revealing something else in our collective psyche, the destructive and very real current of resentment, cynicism, and distrust that runs through this country, deeper than ever, not just in our politics, but in our churches, workplaces, and communities — even in the frivolous games we play and watch on Sundays that are supposed to give us some escape, some relief, from it all.

Bill Parent is director of the Center for Civil Society at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and a long-time Patriots fan.