It has been a bit of a strange week. While picking my bracket for the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament (the knockout competition that each year in March decides who the national college champion is in the US and is given a very American moniker of March Madness) I ignored the seedings, form, statistical analysis from ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight, and common sense to pick Temple University, the No. 10 seed in the South Zone, to win it all. That’s because a) I have an alumni obligation to back the University I have attended (picking the NCAA bracket is a national pastime in America and almost everyone picks two brackets, one that has their Alma Mater winning it all, and another that is the logical one) and b) we all love backing the underdog.
I have found myself cheering for Afghanistan in the World T20, even as debates raged on about how much opportunity smaller “associate” nations should get to play against the big boys of international cricket. I have been almost as excited as Gary Lineker (“I don’t think I have ever wanted something to happen more in sport in my entire life.” he wrote in The Guardian last week.) about the most improbable of English Premier League title charges in recent history, that of Leicester City, who as I write this sit on top of the EPL table by 5 points with just 8 more games to play. To put the underdog in perspective, Leicester were a team sitting at 20th (yes, 20th, that is the bottom spot) of the EPL at around a similar time last season and were prime contenders for relegation. Not only did they survive, continuing an improbable run, they refuse to regress to any kind of mean sports statisticians are imagining having gone from 5000-1 long shots at the beginning of the season to favorites now.
We all love to root for the underdog. We always have. The Biblical references to David defeating Goliath are no coincidence but probably a demonstration of the fact that there always has been sympathy for the underdog. In most spheres in life, we have to compete – education, jobs, finding a mate, raising children – and watching a sporting event where an unfancied opponent puts up a great fight, or better still, puts one past the higher ranked opponent makes for a great narrative we subconsciously superimpose on to our lives giving us the glimmer of hope that however insignificant we are, on an even playing field, we all have a shot. (Remember Rocky? Ben Hur? Cool Runnings?)
And this is where a disconcerting line of thought has emerged in the past week with a lot of soul searching about the point as to whether sports exist to make money or make money in order to exist. The purpose of sport in society itself has been reduced to just a form of paid entertainment where money calls the shots. In the World T20 in cricket, associates had to qualify for a qualifying tournament which saw only two teams making it to the main stage from 8 to join the 8 biggest teams in World cricket. The reason was barely disguised no matter how the logic behind the format was sugarcoated – guaranteed big ticket viewership games get priority, equal opportunity be damned.
Charlie Stillitano the chairman of a company called Relevant Sports recently caused a furor by suggesting the UEFA Champions League, for example, does not need “the likes of Leicester” laying down plainly his money making argument behind creating a European Super League that recruits the biggest clubs in the continent and does away with things like promotion and relegation creating effectively a closed league – “I could make a lot more money, I can be a lot more visible, I can help my sponsors out but right now I am locked into doing certain things that are really historic.” On the football podcast, Men In Blazers, Michael Davies, who works with NBC, defended Stillitano’s ambitions saying it is money that talks in the game nowadays.
The problem with money is not that it’s not needed in sport – teams and leagues need to be financially viable to survive – but that when money creates an entertainment product out of sport that is controlled end to end by commercial considerations, you get something like the NFL, a body as powerful as it is rich and with a disturbing ability to sweep concerns such as player safety under the carpet while vacuuming every cranny of the sport for “business opportunities”.
Even if you don’t know anything about baseball analytics you liked Moneyball because of its theme of the little guy being able to take on the big guy, the Oakland Athletics and Billy Beane eliminating the advantage money gave to big market teams like say the New York Yankees. And even a cold calculating Billy Beane concedes that it’s “hard not to be romantic about baseball”.
In the NCAA Tournament, every year there is at least one Cinderella team, a team that defies odds to go deep into the tournament, warming the romantic side of our hearts. If it was just about her privileged twin step sisters, Cinderella would have been a much less compelling story and for the same reason sport would be much less compelling without the underdog. And the windows of opportunities for the underdogs seem to be getting smaller every year. But here’s to the rebels, the underdogs who keep fighting – the Leicesters, the Afghanistans and the NCAA Cinderella teams of the world – to smash one past that narrow window and keep it forced open a little while longer.
For they are purveyors of hope by proxy for us all, or at least the vast majority who wake and tune into the world to look for some sign that tells them ‘it’s going to be all right”.