Underdog Appeal Overrated
don’t forget straight up excellence when applauding your Cinderella stories
I never properly appreciated the Chicago Bulls’ run of success in the 1990s, and, in particular, the unique quality of Michael Jordan. A player unlike any other, at his prime, and there I was, hoping he and the Bulls would lose, getting mad when they won another title. I regret not acknowledging what I was seeing: one of the greatest careers of any athlete in modern sports. And I am determined to not let that happen again. Why? I do what is likely difficult for many sports fan to do: root for excellence.
Our sports culture leads us to cheer for the underdog, the Cinderella, the little guy. The player or team no one thought had a chance. Their achievement reassures us that anyone can win. Plus, success by the unexpected makes sports more dramatic and entertaining – after all, isn’t the only reason we follow sports for our entertainment? What’s entertaining about the same team or player winning a championship every year? Surprises keep us entertained, so we root against those who win most often.
I was that way through my teens. The pro teams I disliked the most were the Bulls, Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Braves (more because of the ’91 World Series against my Twins, but they still qualify in this discussion), and the college basketball quad of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky. Teams you always found in the championships of their sport. Boy, did I ever want them to lose, and get some fresh blood on the scene. I didn’t care if they were doing what I would ultimately want my favorite teams to do. I merely didn’t like them because they had the nerve to be good at winning games.
Then a funny thing happened over the past decade throughout many of our pro and college and even high school sports: parity. We started to see more variety in who reached title games and clinched division and conference championships. Certain teams and players could not dominate like they could just a few years earlier. Suddenly, Cinderella seemed to be showing up at the ball almost every night. The little guy was everyone. Dynasties were greatly reduced. The upshot: The thrill of watching the underdog has been reduced, since a different underdog seems to rise to the top in every sport every year. The drama has been reduced. The surprise isn’t there anymore.
Which has led me to appreciate greatness when I see it. With the first-ever chance for four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament to make the Final Four, I found myself rooting against Davidson and for Kansas. Not for my bracket (which was shot, anyway), but so I could see a high-quality Final Four like no one had seen before. Yes, I rooted for the Patriots in the Super Bowl, to see a team go 19-0. I want Tiger Woods to win majors for the foreseeable future. I hope Eleva-Strum can keep their title runs going in football and basketball, and I want the LaBuda era in Menomonie to deliver some more football championships. I’m looking forward to the coming influx of young talent to create a mini-dynasty for the Memorial hockey team.
Sustained excellence – finding the right coaching/management, consistently developing players the right way, having an effective playing system – is something to be admired. When teams and individuals win and win again, and win the right way, we should applaud those feats. Not that we should stop rooting for the underdog. We can cheer for both. The teams we should root against are those that don’t properly respect the sport, whether they win or lose. And, of course, our teams’ and players’ rivals.
I like knowing that I’ve watched something historical happen in sports. Many times it involves the shocking play, come-from-behind win, or out-of-nowhere title run. However, you’ll find yourself just as satisfied watching a dynasty develop before your eyes, and being awed by that special player coming through time and time again. Appreciate it when you witness it, because that is truly where legends are born.