There’s that story in the Bible, you know the one. The Israelites are fighting the Philistines in the Valley of Elah. The Philistines send forth an unconquerable champion, I mean just the most brutal killer you could imagine. This guy’s 9 feet tall and he’s got parking meters for fists. The Israelites cower back. Nobody wants a piece of this nightmare. Believe me, you wouldn’t either. Then, from out of the ranks, looking brave but a little queasy, strides the Israelite champion: the 14th-seeded Runnin’ Bulldogs out of Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. A hush falls over the field house. This is a huge moment in biblical history. No 14-seed has ever made the Book of Samuel before. Over on CBS, Clark Kellogg is explaining to a national audience that the Dogs’ “keys to victory” are “just stay alive.” Jay Bilas likes their “promising young coach” — kid called God, used to be a graduate assistant for Rick Pitino — but concedes that their lack of “warrior prowess” means they’re facing “a very special kind of hell out there.”
That’s not how this ends, though. God has a plan. From the opening tip, it’s as if every play he sketches on the whiteboard works exactly, I mean exactly, as he’d foreseen. It’s like magic. And then, at the buzzer, Gardner-Webb’s scrawny little point guard launches a deep 3 that rips through the net and buries itself in Goliath’s forehead. The giant collapses in the dust. The birds of the air rejoice, as do the beasts of the field, as does the pep band of the student section. The Israelites storm the court. God immediately fields a text from the athletic director of Kentucky, setting into motion the chain of events that will see him sanctioned for recruiting violations just after the 33 A.D. season.
Why root for an underdog? The desire to do so is ancient, of course — even older than the NCAA tournament, which predates Verne Lundquist’s broadcasting career and therefore also the Epic of Gilgamesh — but given its primality, it also strikes me as surprisingly sophisticated. What I mean by that is that the really deep-down, automatic, lizard-brain urge is surely to ally yourself with Goliath, to stand behind the biggest, meanest, baddest guy in the yard. To root for an underdog, by contrast, requires an outlook. You have to think something about the world, something that extends beyond the mere worship of strength; you have to believe in a kind of merit that is invisible. Children, given a choice between two sports teams and no information, will almost always gravitate toward the one that’s winning. It’s only when you’ve seen a little more life that you start to pine for the upset.
I should say here, in case it’s not obvious, that I’m thinking about this mostly because it’s March, which means college basketball is happening all over the place. And like many people, whenever I’m confronted with an NCAA tournament game between two schools I don’t care about, i.e., most of them, I typically root for the team with the lower seed. Do you do this too? Judging from the gleefully chaos-humping way CBS markets the tournament — It’s March Madness! Brackets are fixing to get busted! These outcomes won’t make any sense! — I assume it’s the default protocol for a lot of us.
Which means, though, that for one reason or another, we’re choosing to side against the likelihood of our own happiness. Underdogs usually lose; it’s their defining quality. Rooting for them means taking the straightest route between the point A of hope and the point B of disappointment. So, what are we doing here? Or a better way to ask that might be: What’s life doing to us?
Maybe it’s just that when it comes to gambling with your feelings, a higher payoff can trump better odds. After all, you don’t really care about either team, or else you wouldn’t have to make up a reason to pseudo-care about one of them. If Lollipop Polytech loses to Ribeye State, the wound you sustain won’t be terrible. If, however, the Fightin’ Pops manage the shock win, the improbability of what you’ve just witnessed can give you a license to truly and legitimately freak out.1
I don’t think that’s the whole story, though, because you could also make a kinda interesting case that rooting for underdogs is an unconscious subvert-and-critique move against the basic appeal of watching sports, which is — not to venture out on too wild a limb here — to see people who are good at playing sports. You tune in because these guys are amazing, not because these guys are regular schmoes but, boy, Myrtle they’ve sure got a lot of spirit. Dayton gets a highlight reel, but it’s LeBron who moves sneakers. This is why I’ve never been able to get mad when little kids are instinctively drawn to the Yankees or Duke or whatever: because they’re just responding to the idea that players should be good at winning games, which is the entire stated objective of the activity. Shouldn’t athletic skill be an admirable quality inside the world of hobbyist athletics-viewers? And yet throughout the entirety of no. 2 seed Wisconsin’s ultraviolet 40-6 run against no. 15 American on Thursday, I kept thinking, There’s still time! Maybe they’ll come back.
Of course no one’s watching sports purely aesthetically, or free from all social context, or solely to see 7-foot superhumans contort themselves into ballet swans at light speed.2 The reason every sports movie of the last four decades has featured a lovable misfit or team thereof defying all odds to defeat an arrogant rival is that games are also stories, and stories need conflict, and “invincible powerhouse overwhelms rivals” is only a good conflict if your hero is Secretariat. The narrative logic that dwells in our very synapses insists the win is only meaningful if it involved a struggle, the more hopeless the better.
This leads to what’s in my mind one of the more compelling tensions in sports fandom, the one between what we might scientifically term the HOLY SHIT impulse (the urge to be astonished by kinetic talent) and what we might even more scientifically term the ADRIAAAAN impulse (the urge to identify with a great story). The discord between these two impulses stems from the fact that a competitive advantage is rarely the premise of a good story, while its lack often is. There’s no way to resolve this, probably; if you’re human, you feel both ways, which is why, say, origin stories matter with superheroes, or why the Michael Jordan myth had to include the bit about getting cut from his high school team. Because otherwise he was just a genius; it was the notion that he’d been disbelieved, he’d been cast down, and that his being disbelieved and cast down somehow enabled him to unlock within himself a greatness he might not have discovered without first suffering, that made him a story. Strikeouts are fascist, as the man says.
So it may be that cheering for upsets is just a way to give the ADRIAAAAN impulse some scope. There are so many ways to be excited about sports, and this is one of them, and they don’t all fit perfectly together because why should they have to? But I don’t think that’s the whole story, either. I keep thinking about a famous thing Roger Angell wrote about the Mets, back when they were a new franchise totally overshadowed by the Yankees.3 Angell’s passage makes a simple point in a lovely way, like a lot of the best sportswriting. He’s been listening to some New Yorkers criticize the Mets roster — a bunch of bums, not fit to set foot in Yankee Stadium — and he writes:
I recognised the tone. It was knowing, cold, full of the contempt that the calculator feels for those who don’t play the odds. It was the voice of the Yankee fan. The Yankees have won the American League pennant twenty times in the past thirty years; they have been the world’s champion sixteen times in that period. Over the years, many of their followers have come to watch them with the stolidity, the smugness, and the arrogance of blue-chip stocks. These fans expect no less than perfection. They coolly accept the late-inning rally, the winning homer, as only their due. They are apt to take defeat with ill grace, and they treat their stars as though they were executives hired to protect their interests. During a slump or a losing streak, these capitalists are quick and shrill with their complaints: “They ought to do better than this, considering what they’re being paid!”
Suddenly the Mets fans made sense to me. What we were witnessing was precisely the opposite of the kind of rooting that goes on across the river. This was the losing cheer, the gallant yell for a good try — antimatter to the sounds of Yankee Stadium. This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.
There is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. Isn’t rooting for the underdog more a matter of whom you choose to identify with than anything else? A matter of with whom you elect to make common cause? After all, what Angell writes is not quite true, is it? There is not more Met than Yankee in the cold-eyed executives and capitalists Angell pulls into his metaphors — or if there were, they would never admit it. There’s not more Met than Yankee in most 9-year-olds, who still believe that they’re going to be the president and a karate star and an arctic explorer. I wrote before that rooting for underdogs requires an outlook. This is also a simple point, but I think that the outlook it requires involves the recognition that the world is not transparent to your desires — that privilege is not always a reflection of merit, that the game is often rigged, that what you deserve is seldom what you get. Most of us learn this at some point. Some people never learn it, and they have been Red Sox fans for going on 10 years now.
What I’m saying is that sports, if you have any investment in it at all, is always a metaphor for something. You don’t root for underdogs if, because of innocence or its opposite, you see the game as a metaphor for the world as it ought to be. You start rooting for underdogs when you see the game as a metaphor for the world as it is.