Thursday, January 31, 2008

Detoxing from Defeat-Worship

By Joseph Kellard

I’ve got a confession to make: I root for sports teams to lose. Sure, this is legitimate if it means one team’s loss benefits my favorite team. But when I actively root against perfection, that’s something else altogether.

I’ve been a Miami Dolphins fan since the team’s glory days in the 1970s. The ’72 Dolphins are the only NFL team ever to win all of its regular and post-season games. A few teams have since come close to joining the ranks of the undefeated, and when they each lost their first game, I was gleeful that my favorite team’s record would still stand.

And what Dolphins fan can forget that Monday Night Football game in 1985, when the then 12-0 Chicago Bears, who won the Super Bowl that year, marched into Miami and fell to Dan Marino and the Dolphins, as members of the ’72 team cheered from the sideline? Yet, while I rooted for Miami to win like I did every week, I was still also rooting for the Bears to lose.

Fast forward to Dec. 29, 2007, the day the New York Giants almost upset the still perfect New England Patriots in their regular season finale. Even as I rooted for the Pats to fall, and even as I anticipate I’ll do the same come Super Bowl Sunday when both teams meet again, I knew then that I can’t go on like this — I can’t keep rooting for perfect teams to lose. It contradicts what I enjoy most about watching sports.

People watch sports for different reasons. Some simply enjoy the competition, others love seeing the Davids slay the Goliaths, while still others like to bet. But I believe most sports fans, to some degree, share my primary motivation: to find the spectacle of human achievement. I eagerly root for athletes to jump higher, run faster, lift heavier weights, swim further, hit more home runs, score more points and, yes, win more games than their record-setting predecessors.

Let’s go back to the 1990s, when I never watched basketball but then caught a glimpse of Michael Jordan. I soon found I was cheering him and his Chicago Bulls on as they broke records and won successive championships. I rooted for them, not because I was a Bulls fan, but because I always hunger to find an extraordinary, inspiring athlete like Jordan, who was the best basketball player I’d ever seen.

Today, as I continue to watch basketball, I hear analysts describe each great, up-and-coming talent as “the next Jordan.” But I don’t watch Kobe Bryant and LeBron James because I want to see Jordan’s equal. I want to be witness to a player greater and more innovative than His Airness.

For a Dolphins fan nothing was better than watching Dan Marino play for my favorite team as he set quarterback records for most touchdown passes in a season and a career. And once he hung up his helmet, I wanted his records to stand forever. But why? Just because he’s my all-time favorite quarterback who played on my favorite team? Well, that would mean I’d ultimately be rooting for the status quo — for non-achievement. But if I primarily watch sports to see athletes and teams reach ever-greater heights, then I’d want to see others break the records held even by my favorite athletes and teams.

So now I’ll try to stop rooting for perfect teams to lose. But, so far, I’m finding that old premises die hard.

My early attempts to detox from my defeat-worship have lead me to realize that Miami’s 17-0 record is one that actually can’t be broken — it can only be improved upon. If the Patriots win Sunday’s Super Bowl, they will have achieved a higher mark, a 19-0 season. And that would further validate two ideas I hold dear: that perfection is possible, and that you can improve on perfection.

Besides, with each new football season, I’m still going to continue to root, first and foremost, for the Dolphins to win. I would do so even if, instead of the Giants, Miami were 10-6 and playing the perfect Pats in Sunday’s Super Bowl. I may root for perfection, but not at the expense of my Dolphins, who success comes above all else.

Since I actually always root for the Dolphins to win all of their games, that means I’m actually always rooting for each new Miami team to go 19-0 and thereby top the ’72 Dolphins’ record anyway.

What could be more perfect than that?

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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