Underdog Daze

February 7, 2010

Tom Naughton can’t decide between cheering for the Colt or the Saints today. I completely understand because I’m in the same position. I’m a regular fan of neither but they are both likable, talented teams. While I love pro football, it’s not quite as fun to watch when you don’t have a side to cheer.

I’m originally from Louisiana and have always thought the Saints were cool. But I also appreciate the Colts more from a pure football perspective. Peyton Manning is a great example of intelligence in the game. On the other hand, Reggie Bush is pure excitement. Or I could let my wife’s favorite criteria decide: the Saints have better uniforms. I’m torn.

But Naughton thinks there is at least one good reason not to pick the Saints:

New Orleans is the sentimental favorite, of course, providing inspiration to the long-suffering victims of Hurricane Katrina and all that.  Plus they’re the underdogs, and sports fans love to cheer for an underdog.  I did too, until I realized cheering for the underdogs in an NFL game just because they’re underdogs is actually kind of stupid.

I came to that conclusion while watching the Patriots-Ravens game in the playoffs.  I realized I was rooting against the Patriots simply because they’ve been so dominant for so many years.  Yes, I was cheering against success.  When that occurred to me, I managed to avoid slapping myself in the head, but I did stop and ask, What am I, some kind of football socialist?  It’s not faaaaaaiiirrr that some teams are so good?  Gotta spread the wealth around and all that?

The NFL already levels the playing field through drafting rules and salary caps.  There’s no football equivalent of the Yankees, buying their way into the World Series every other year.  That’s why the Packers, from little ol’ Green Bay, can end having a better season than the New York Giants.  Teams like the Patriots are dominant because they draft well, trade well, and coach well. (Tom Brady was the 199th  player drafted in 2000. Any other team in the league could’ve had him.)  Cheering for an underdog in the NFL a bit like supporting a mechanic who does sub-par work:  poor guy probably needs the business, you know.

I think Tom is looking at it the wrong way. I think he is confusing forced redistribution of wealth with unforced redistribution of wealth. Why shouldn’t we hope that someone who hasn’t ever tasted success should achieve it if they actually are better? I don’t see any conflict between valuing reward for success and valuing breadth in that value.  Wishing that someone else should be successful just for the fact that they haven’t been and you’d like them to be doesn’t require giving up the idea of rewarding the most successful. There is something really great about seeing someone reach new heights and there is indeed a bit of a diminishing return for fans when dynasties form. Fans might value having something new to talk about around the water cooler.

It we take Tom at face value, we must think that cheering for the Saints to experience first time success would somehow entail interfering with the process of rewarding success. But if they actually win, doesn’t that mean that they were the better team (in theory and according to the rules, at least)? So how can cheering for them to be the better team represent a form of “football socialism [sic]”? It’s not like someone is cheering for them to cheat or for the officials to throw the game for the sake of Katrina victims. Being a favorite before the game is not the same thing as succeeding in this game.  That’s why they bother to play the game in the first place.

To support the mechanisms of the free market doesn’t mean that you have to jettison all other  things you might value, e.g. joy of long-suffering Saints fans, the potential boost to the anti-IP debate, etc. To overcome a long standing dynasty probably speaks to some degree of innovation, which itself is something worth cheering.  It’s what gives us a sense of movement forward. I think the emotion of an underdog win can be a sort of consumer good for fans. They can respect a Colts win while enjoying a Saints victory more and there would be nothing stupid about it.

Here’s to the Saints and the free market!

Well, not quite. On the pure plane of competition sure. But this plane isn’t pure. If we really want to talk about “football socialism” (though I’d prefer to say “football state capitalism”), we really need to keep in mind that NFL teams aren’t the product of a freed market. Instead, they are the product of subsidy. That’s the kind of redistribution that should get you angry.

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