Why Does Anyone Root for Incompetent, Failing Teams?

From The New York Times:

In January 2002, the Oakland Raiders, a football team I have worshiped since I was 5, flew east to face the New England Patriots in a playoff game. I was living 30 miles north of Foxboro Stadium, and I can still remember the color of the sky that morning, the dense gunmetal of a looming storm. By late afternoon, snow was falling at an almost comical rate. It blotted out the yard markers and hampered traction, which lent the game a surreal, slapstick air.

The Raiders dominated, but the Patriots rallied late, led by a rookie quarterback named Tom Brady. Down three points with two minutes left, Brady dropped back to pass and found his receivers blanketed.

If I close my eyes I can still see Brady there, hopping about in the snow like a sparrow. He cocks his right arm as if to pass, thinks better of it, then pulls the ball down and pats it with his left hand. At this precise moment, the Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson (my favorite player of all time) crashes into him and rakes away the ball. Fumble. Raiders recover. Game over.

As all sports fans know, the Raiders went on to win the Super Bowl that year, and the next two besides, while the Patriots descended into a decade of incompetence. Brady, his confidence shattered, soon left football to run a used-car dealership outside Phoenix.

Oh, all right, that’s not exactly how it went down. But you can’t blame a partisan for tinkering with the script a little, especially at such an agonizing juncture.

Consider what actually happened. The referee announced that the play would be reviewed, eventually ruling that Brady was attempting to “tuck” the ball as he was pummeled and was therefore, by some cruel metaphysical logic, still in the act of passing, rendering his fumble an incomplete pass.

The Raiders never recovered from the shock. Not only did they lose the game in overtime; they also imploded as a franchise. I know this because I’ve invested tens of thousands of hours tracking their descent: the carousel of inept coaches; the disastrous draft picks; each and every senseless, drive-killing penalty.

As I prepare to immerse myself in another season of ill-fated devotion, there is a question I can’t shake: Why? Not why do the Raiders keep losing, but why does anyone follow an incompetent, perpetually failing team? It’s a question that resonates across an entire nation of fanatics, from the frigid Cheeseheads of Wisconsin to the yodeling herds of Texas, from the mile-high multitudes to the bellowing masses of New York.

In offering explanations, the afflicted tend to stress the laudable aspects of sport. It’s perfectly natural, we note, to admire the grace and strength of our finest athletes. Their contests reconnect us to the unscripted physical pleasures of childhood. They simplify and lend moral structure to a world that feels increasingly chaotic. And they allow men, in particular, a common language by which to express deep emotions (rage, disappointment, joy) that might otherwise feel forbidden — as well as activating our ancient yearning for tribal affiliation.

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