Phantom Winners

The New England Patriots didn’t win the 2012 Super Bowl.  What happens to the hats that say they did?  Minutes after their victory over the Patriots, New York Giants team members appeared in champion apparel boasting their team name, their colors, and their logo. Similar gear must have been ready for New England.

The day after the Super Bowl, I see a man stop a young woman on the sidewalk.  He appears to be informing her about an issue.  I gather no details, but I hear a fragment of his comments:  “…forests are being slashed, mainly for paper products…”   Paper products.  I think of the roll of paper toweling that has hung in my kitchen for five months.

“For your apartment,” my mother said, offering me a grocery bag of salvaged toilet paper, facial tissues, and paper towels.  She works as a personal representative for contested probate cases.   When a recent estate was appraised with a value of zero, the feuding heirs asked her to get rid of a house full of items that had not been touched since their father’s death, several years prior.   Had the home contained anything of particular appeal, an estate auction would have worked.  In this case, a dumpster would have to work.


“I’m assuming they get destroyed,” Adam, of the call center for, says when I ask what happens to the hats with the Patriots’ logo and Super Bowl title.  “But I’m not sure.  I do know we never sell or make that merchandise available.”  He takes my contact details and tells me I should hear from someone with a better answer in three to five business days.  Ten days pass.

Phantom champions.  That’s the title for the losing team.  Images of phantom champion gear logos have been posted online for years by blogger Chris Creamer, who runs  Minutes after this year’s big game, Creamer posted official National Football League designs of the merchandise that might have been donned minutes after the Super Bowl—if only Patriots’ Quarterback Tom Brady’s last-second Hail Mary pass had been caught.

Five years ago, Reebok and the NFL donated 288 shirts, hats, and other phantom Super Bowl champion apparel items to World Vision, an international humanitarian organization.  According to a 2007 article from, World Vision distributed the gear to families in Uganda, Niger, Sierra Leone, and Romania.  “People are just excited to be able to get a new shirt or a new hat. It doesn’t matter what’s on it,” said World Vision representative Jeff Fields.

The arrangement helps the NFL, which stipulates that the phantom champion gear cannot be sold or seen in the United States.  Of the gear entering the U.S. marketplace, NFL representative Susan McBridge Rothman said, “It’s not fair to those fans. It’s not fair to those teams. It’s not fair to the coaching staff.”


Toilet paper has its uses, but I questioned whether I should accept the rest of the contents in the bag from my mother.  On the sidewalk after the Super Bowl was not the first time I’d heard of the forest-slash costs of paper products.  But in this case, the forests had already been slashed, the paper products already made.   They were already destined for disposal—whether unused, via dumpster on an estate property or used, via trash can in someone’s kitchen.

In this case, my kitchen.  I use two or three paper towels a week, ripping them in half and re-using any that aren’t too soiled.  The roll has been there five months and is still thick with towels. When environment-minded friends come over, I wonder if they notice those paper towels, if they judge.

A few minutes after I hear the man and woman  on the sidewalk, I enter a building.  A dusty printer sits on a chair outside of an office.  The handwritten sign taped to it says “TRASH/SURPLUS.”

Where is the line between trash and surplus, usefulness and wastefulness?  Wouldn’t it be most wasteful to let the paper towels be discarded, unused?  Every time I tear a fresh sheet from the roll in my kitchen, I feel helpful, somehow, but guilty.  I don’t know if I want to be the phantom winner.

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