On April 29th, the San Antonio Spurs beat the Phoenix Suns and dismissed them from the NBA playoffs. I’ve been a passionate fan of the Suns for several years, and I was hugely disappointed that they hardly put up a fight, losing this first round series, 4-1. I watched parts of the series, but not all of it. It wasn’t for lack of interest that I didn’t watch it all, though. It was that I couldn’t bear to watch my team play badly or see the Spurs or their fans rejoicing. In the deciding game of the series, for example, I turned the TV off when, with under a minute to play and the Suns down one point, Boris Diaw got the ball in the low post and then turned and threw a cross-court pass to . . . nobody, and the ball went out of bounds. The fans in San Antonio went crazy and I felt sick. So I turned the game off. I was happy to miss the agonizing final seconds.
But what if the Suns had won? Would I have kicked myself for giving up too early? I don’t think so, because I don’t tend to enjoy dramatic victories by teams I’m rooting for. Here’s an example. In the NFL, I root for the San Francisco 49ers. In 1999, they played a Wild Card game against the Green Bay Packers. Steve Young was the 49ers quarterback at the time, and if I recall correctly, he had never beaten Green Bay in the playoffs. Anyway, the 49ers were down by 4 points when they got the ball back with about 2 minutes to play. They drove to the Green Bay 25, but with less than 15 seconds, I figured they were still far enough from the end zone that they had little chance of scoring a touchdown to win. Green Bay would just put a bunch of defensive backs in and near the end zone, and the 49ers would never get in. I was about to turn the game off when my wife pointed out to me that they still might win and I might want to see it. I was persuaded and left the game on, and then Steve Young threw a touchdown pass to Terrell Owens and the 49ers won.
So how did I feel? Thrilled? Elated? Overjoyed? No, I felt more relieved than anything. And this is entirely typical of my reaction when my teams win. I might be happy for a minute, but then it’s over and I quickly forget. But then they lose, I’m bitter and grouchy and short-tempered with my family for a while.
I love spectator sports. I love to watch basketball, football, and baseball more than almost anything else on TV. (I’m far too poor to attend games in person very often.) I love to read about them, particularly about baseball (as you might guess since I’m a number head and baseball writing often overflows with nubers).
But I have two big problems with spectator sports. First, I suffer (and make those around me suffer) a lot more when teams I root for lose than I enjoy it when they win. Unfortunately, it’s precisely at the point where I’m really starting to root for a team that I find I can no longer stand to watch their most crucial games. I just can’t bear the possibility that they might lose. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, since every team but the one who wins the championship in a particular year ends up with a loss, the teams I root for usually end with a loss, so I’m unhappy with my teams’ outcomes a lot.
My second problem is that when I root for one team, this means that I root against other teams, and when I root against teams, I really hate them. I mean, when the Suns were playing the Spurs, I wanted nothing more than to see Shaq body-check Tim Duncan (or even better, Bruce Bowen) into the scorers’ table. Or I would have enjoyed seeing Tony Parker struck down by a meteor to wipe the French smirk off his face. (Needless to say, I entirely approved of French smirks on Boris Diaw’s face.) But as much as I might relish my hatred of other teams (and their fans) in the moment, I know it’s ridiculous for me to be so mean, and I eventually regret hating them once the game or season is over. It’s been nearly two weeks now, and I can almost look at a picture of Robert Horry without wishing for his untimely death, for example. I do still hope the Spurs lose in the second round to New Orleans, but my white-hot hatred for them has cooled to a dull orange.
I’ve found three solutions that make my spectator sports experience more enjoyable. One is to have teams I root for win in huge blowouts. Such games don’t push my anxiety level through the roof and make me sick. For example, I grew up rooting for BYU football. In 1988, after years of regularly beating the University of Utah, they went up to Salt Lake and got whipped, 58-27. So in the 1989 game, BYU fans hoped for revenge. And boy did we get it. BYU jumped out to a 49-0 lead, and ended up winning, 70-31. That game didn’t make me anxious at all, at least not after the first five minutes or so. Similarly, I thoroughly enjoyed the 49ers’ 49-26 victory over the San Diego Chargers in the 1995 Super Bowl. They jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and the result was never really in doubt after the first quarter.
Needless to say, big blowouts by teams I’m rooting for in big games are few and far between, not to mention being difficult to predict. I can easily miss them while trying to avoid an anxiety-provoking nail-biter.
Another solution is just the opposite. When teams I’m rooting for are so badly overmatched that there’s no hope of victory, I don’t get worked up about it. The 49ers, for example, have been bad for what, about a decade now, so I don’t get too worked up over many NFL games. I know they’ll do well to go 7-9 and if they manage to sneak into the playoffs, they’ll get creamed, so I don’t worry I’ll be disappointed. On the downside, rooting for a bad team can get old quickly. I don’t really have the stamina of people like Cubs fans who wait decades for a World Series win and seem to revel in having their team always come up a little short.
My last solution is not to root for anyone. Growing up, I remember my father really enjoyed watching NFL football, but he didn’t root for any team in particular. When I asked him who he wanted to win a game, he would say things like “the referees” or “I just want to see a good game.” At the time, I remember that I always thought this was a cop-out. How can you watch a game and not root? But now I can really see the appeal of this approach. For example, I remember watching the Jets come back from a 30-7 deficit to beat the Dolphins in a Monday Night Football game in 2000. I had no rooting preference in that game; I just enjoyed the drama. So now I use this approach often. Interestingly, my kids are getting old enough to watch sports with me, and when they do, they’re just like I was when I was a kid: they want to know who to root for. When I use my dad’s responses on them, they get annoyed and say “Dad, no really! Tell me who we want to win!” I typically satisfy them by choosing a team to root for on a semi-random basis, like which team has the best-known player who shares one of their names or their friends’ names, for example.
The downside of the no rooting approach is largely that it’s hard for me to maintain neutrality. I can drift into a rooting preference quite easily, even if only for a game. For example, I told myself I didn’t care who won last year’s Super Bowl, but a couple of minutes into the game, I had to admit that I was rooting for the Giants even though they were spectacular underdogs. I just find it difficult to not want one team or another to win.
Okay, so now you know my sports obsession problems. Now I turn the question to you: Do you ever become overly obsessed with your sports rooting? If so, how do you deal with it? Or do you have any suggestions for rooting but keeping yourself at the level of enjoying it without becoming obsessed?