Sunday, October 22, 2006

Proving Us Wrong, Proving Yourself Foolish: Quit Playing The Underdog Card!

As soon as he said the words, my heart sank. Describing his team’s championship run after winning the decisive Game 6, Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade repeatedly mentioned his team “proving everyone wrong” and relishing a victory in which “no one gave them a chance.” “People doubted us all year,” chimed in teammate Shaquille O’Neal, “everyone counted us out, no one gave us the respect we deserved.” The otherwise adorable Wade and O’Neal have now sadly become the latest victims of a disturbing epidemic in sports: the Doubter Boogeyman Syndrome (DBS). If you have been following any sport recently—from tennis to Ultimate Fighting—you have probably encountered DBS, the annoying tendency of winners to proclaim that the most satisfying aspect of their victories is proving their doubters—whom they are convinced exist in legions—wrong.

The tendency of athletes to cast themselves as overlooked underdogs in order to gain a psychological edge is well-documented. Dean Smith famously believed his Michael Jordan-endowed UNC Tar Heels never had a chance against anyone. Many coaches post disparaging remarks made by opposing teams in the locker room in order to “fire-up” their players. Contradictory as it may seem, superior performance through self-fabricated inferiority is a common athletic approach. I suppose therefore that gloating to media pundits and/or society at large for predicting the opposing team to win is a natural behavioral follow-up of this mentality. Nonetheless, it is an unnecessarily tactless act, devoid of any charm whatsoever, that does nothing to augment the athlete’s own accomplishments or ingratiate him- or herself with fans.

DBS can also be utterly ridiculous when the victorious team was in fact an odds-on favorite. The Miami Heat are such a team. Two seasons ago, the Heat finished one game short of the NBA Finals. Then, just prior to this season, the Heat acquired several veteran talents for roughly the cost of some upscale stationary. Along with their incumbent core talent—including the legendary O’Neal and the explosive burgeoning superstar Wade—this amalgamated Super Group was a no-brainer on everyone’s short list of primary contenders. The scales of opinion further tipped in their favor when General Manager and Hall of Fame shoo-in Pat Riley installed himself as head coach. All season, the Heat and Detroit Pistons were interchangeable at #1 and #2 for best teams in the Eastern Conference. Not only were there no doubters, the consensus opinion was that anything less than an NBA championship for the Heat would be an underachievement. Wade and O’Neal’s post-game doubter-paranoia was completely preposterous.

Even when the champions did have actual nay-sayers along the way, DBS can be grating. Take the Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers. Admittedly, there were loads of skeptics, but what is one supposed to think when the team isn’t all that good? In his post-game remarks, Steeler linebacker Joey Porter posited, "It feels so much better to do something people say you can't do. There's no better feeling than that.” Well, Joey, in a game that features two teams, we all have to pick somebody, and let’s face it, your team did not even win its own division and was the last to qualify for the playoffs. Only someone with the blind faith of a jihadist would not see cause for questioning the Steelers’ chances. Further, the Steelers’ two keynote playoff wins (against the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks) were clumsy, forgettable affairs marred by missed opportunities and poor officiating; picture David triumphing because Goliath tripped and fell on his face.

And what’s with the “can’ts?” "There's a lot of people telling you that you can't do it but, you know what, that doesn't mean you don't go try," Steelers coach Bill Cowher waxed philosophically. Cowher also revealed--straight-facedly--that before the game he reminded his team that Christopher Columbus was once told he’d never discover the New World. Forgive me if I don’t start humming “We Shall Overcome,” Coach, but no one said you “can’t.” I defy you to show me a single headline that read: “Steelers Can’t Possibly Win Super Bowl XL (subtitle: Lawmakers Refuse to Allow It).” In this case, as in all others, impartial analysts holistically evaluated the empirical evidence of a 16-game sample set and respectfully proffered the most likely outcome in a single-loss elimination playoff format. The Steelers were hardly Jesse Owens competing in front of Nazi Germany.

Everyone knows that interviews with athletes are a no-win formality. Bland jocks are criticized for their boring clichés, while the more colorful athletes risk creating needless controversy with incendiary remarks. With its passive-aggressive nature (these actual doubters—supernumerary though they may be—are seldom named), DBS probably originated from a well-intentioned desire to say something interesting yet also vague and inflammable. Unfortunately, because athletes clearly take notes on each other’s interview techniques, DBS has become an insidious default comment, accessible to all, even humble churchgoers such as the aforementioned D-Wade. Maybe this mental stance is cyclic, and in another decade the delusional protocol will shift the other way: after every victory, athletes will claim their team to be the greatest of all time.

Either way, I suppose we should be thankful DBS is confined to sports. What if every award acceptor had this sort of fabricated chip on his or her shoulder? What if instead of accepting her Oscar with tear-stained gratitude, Halle Barry launched into a tirade and slammed the haters who told her she’d never win after doing “Swordfish?” How about if Bill Clinton had begun his post-‘96 campaign re-inauguration speech by describing the impossible odds he’d overcome to defeat Bob Dole? Enjoy your win, endear yourself to the public in a series of prefabricated late night talk show conversations, credit your teammates especially when you obviously did all the work, and thank the Lord for blessing you with more points than the other team (if you so choose). Not every victory needs to be an epic triumph of the indomitable human spirit (starring Mark Wahlberg and coming this summer to theatres everywhere).

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