WARNING: The follow Tuesday Morning Rant is a rant in the old style, meaning the way I used to perform these rants when I was a freshman in high school and had 10 minutes to knock out an entire discussion. Points will come fast and time is a necessity so I might not have time to explain myself. Consider yourself warned.
A loss for the underdog is a win for history.
Yeah. I said it. I’m going to come out here and pronounce myself pro-favorite. And I know that’s about as un-American of a concept as saying that crumpets are better than apple pie, but hear me out. I get it I get it I get it: Everyone loves an underdog. The feeling that we get when we watch someone or something come out of nowhere and shock the world is incomparable. It makes us feel like anyone, even one of us, can win a championship, can someday be victorious.
Well, I hate to break it to you guys: You will never win a championship.
You might try. But you will never be in the position Alabama and Clemson were vying for last night. Unless for some reason one of my readers is a top-grade athlete, this point remains. You will never win a World Series and you will never win a Super Bowl and you will never win a World Cup and you will never play in the Final Four. And no matter how comforting it is to see a small market team make it to the championship game or to see a mid-major claw their way up the ladder in the Big Dance, it won’t change the fact that this underdog with whom you’re sympathizing is not you. You might see a lot of yourself in the underdog. But you yourself are not the underdog. You are a fan.
Fans matter. Fans are the most important thing for making sports what they are. We all started off as fans. I started off as a fan and still am a fan of sports. But fans as a group have one major flaw, in my mind of course. That flaw is that as a group, fans are selfish. I’m not saying that it’s selfish to want your favorite team to win. That’s not selfishness. That’s optimism mixed with pragmatism. Striving for happiness is not selfish. What I mean by selfish is that fans rely only on their personal emotions to guide their decision making.
Let’s take Super Bowl 42 for example. I would say other than watching Michael Phelps win eight gold medals in Beijing, no sports moment in my memory had more of a collective support than the Giants did over the Patriots in Super Bowl 42. Everyone wanted to see the underdog knock off the mighty, mighty Pats. And when I say everyone, I obviously include myself. I was in the eighth grade and I was proud to call myself a supporter of the underdog. And in a truly fantastic triumph, the underdog did win. The Giants pulled out the victory in a way that Hollywood barely could’ve scripted better.
But here’s the thing: In wanting this to happen, we stripped history of its shining moment. We, the people who remember watching Super Bowl 42, will always remember why it was such a big deal that the Giants upset the Patriots. But think about 50 years from now. The incredible narrative of the 2007 Patriots will be long forgotten. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will be names remembered in the future, but Randy Moss’s records will likely all have been broken and the names we knew so well then such as Wes Welker and Adalius Thomas will have been long forgotten. 50 years from now, people will think of Super Bowl 42 the same we think about Super Bowl 3. We know Joe Namath made a guarantee. We know the Colts were favored. The Jets won. That’s all we know.
An entire season worth of football boiled down to three sentences. I remember the 2007 regular season really well. It was one of the most fun football seasons I’ve ever watched. But half a century from now when people reflect, the three sentences they’ll know about the year will likely be the following: The Patriots were a great team. The Giants were the underdog. The underdog won.
Call me ignorant, but I don’t think that’s how history should remember that whole season. And that’s just one example. Throughout the NFL and college football and baseball we have year after year after year worth of examples of only remembering the team that won the championship. We reduce entire seasons worth of hundreds of games to one championship game or series. And sometimes the best team wins. But when the best team doesn’t win, we do a disservice to the future.
And you might be thinking to yourself right now something along the lines of how much of a hypocrite I am. You just want to scream through your computer that I have a freaking Rocky poster hanging on my wall and how can I advocate for the hero when my favorite movie is the quintessential underdog story.
Well let me tell you how history would’ve remembered that fight were it a real one. History would barely have given that fight a second thought. It was the second fight between Apollo and Rocky that would’ve been remembered. That fight ushered in a new era in boxing. The first one was the end of Apollo’s dominance. That fight would be remembered about as well as the time that Frazier beat Ali. Everyone knows it happened. No one cares.
But I’m getting sidetracked because I want to talk about Clemson Alabama in this context.
Last night was a perfect situation. In my mind there were two no-doubt, slam dunk best teams in college football this season. And the two of them matched up in the national championship game. This doesn’t happen all that often and when it does it’s the best case situation for the selfish fan and for the historically-minded observer. That game was a challenge as to who would be remembered. The two teams on the field fought to see whose narrative would be the one history tells for all time.
And I know I sound melodramatic here, but legacies matter in sports. Remember when I said that last week? I meant it. Legacies mean something. And when a team that maybe doesn’t deserve legacies comes in and seizes it, to me that defeats the purpose of greatness. Why sustain greatness when all you have to do is be good enough to earn the right to eventually be great?
When the best team doesn’t win it all, we lie to the future. We tell the world that what we saw happen defines a whole year and that no or very little context is needed to explain it. And that does a disservice to the sports we all love.
To go back to and close with the Patriots example, how would you define the 2007 NFL season as someone who watched it and remembers it? Would you tell the story from the perspective of the Giants team that squeaked its way into the playoffs and got hot at the right time? Or would you tell it from the perspective of the best offense ever assembled up to that point, the team with the best chance to go unbeaten since the 1985 Bears and the team that was mired in controversy all season because of the SpyGate allegations? Because as a storyteller, I know which one I would choose.
Legacies matter. And I just hope we choose to remember the correct one. Underdogs feel right in the moment. But I know I wouldn’t appreciate sports if it weren’t for the rich history behind it. And I don’t want the history that I experienced to be tainted because pleasure felt right in the moment.
History is written by the winners. So maybe we should root for the winners. Not for our sake, but for history.