November 20, 2007


What's worse than watching your teams lose? Watching them win: Boston fans are experiencing one of the greatest runs in modern sports history -- and it's killing them. (Steve Almond, Nov. 20, 2007, Salon)

[T]hese days, Boston fans are suffering a profound crisis of identity. They are winning, in a manner that is historically unprecedented. Last month, the Sox swept the Colorado Rockies to claim their second World Series in four years. The Patriots have become the NFL's 900-pound gorilla. They are 10-0 this season and being lauded as one of the greatest teams ever. Tom Brady, the team's dashing All-Pro quarterback, appears poised to shatter every gridiron record known to man. The Celtics -- after acquiring two all-stars in the off-season -- opened the season with eight straight wins, most of them routs, before losing Sunday night. Even the hapless Bruins have a winning record.

The effect on the local fanotariat has been paradoxical. They're not so much overjoyed as disoriented. [...]

It amounts to this: The psychic mechanisms of fandom are being laid bare here in Beantown. It's becoming clear that the unspoken allure of rooting for a team resides not in the conscious wish for success, but the unconscious wish for failure.

Most fans, after all, pursue their obsession not because their lives are so happy and well-adjusted, but because they lack a sense of vitality and connectedness. The willed helplessness of fandom -- our superstitions aside, there's really nothing we can do to control the fate of our teams -- implies a spiritual surrender. Frederick Exley described this condition precisely in his wrenching account of sports addiction, "A Fan's Notes": "Whatever it was, I gave myself up to the [New York] Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive."

My friend Rich, who is both a mental health professional and a Pats season-ticket holder, takes it a step further: "Most people get used to living within dysfunction. That's how sports fans are. They secretly need their teams to screw up."

This compulsion is simply more extreme in Boston. The fans here are more passionate and knowledgeable than fans in most other cities. By their own reckoning, this intense devotion grants them the right to whine.

There are specific reasons for this. The inherent fatalism of New Englanders, to begin with. The fact that they spend six months a year battling seasonal affective disorder. And, perhaps most painfully, the historic sense that they have been cast in the role of New York's bitch. (It's no coincidence that interest in the Pats skyrocketed after Bill Parcells left the team to coach the New York Jets.)

That said, New Englanders hardly have the franchise on deluded fanaticism. We all believe we're escaping our burdens by watching sports. But the act of rooting inevitably returns us to the disappointment and rage of our internal lives. Fandom isn't an emotional escape; it's a pressure valve. When our teams eventually lose (as they almost always do) we are granted a safe place to channel our primal negative emotions.

But when your teams win -- when all of them are suddenly, terrifyingly unbeatable -- you are left with a confusing dividend: the unwelcome realization that your life is no better than it was before. You are simply one more jock wannabe who sneaks off to a bar to worship physically gifted millionaires for a few hours, then returns home to the same dull and intractable problems.

Does all this really have anything to do with the fact it's happening to New England in particular, or isn't it more a function of the unusual level of sports awareness here and the sheer magnitude of the dominance?

The appropriate analogy might be to the sense of national restiveness that has followed the WoT. After 9-11 everyone was braced for a monumental struggle, along the lines of other great crises like the Civil War or WWII, and instead we got walkovers in Afghanistan and Iraq, with remnants of the enemy hiding in caves and the rest of the region stunned into acquiescent though slowish reform. No matter how tragic that one day in September 2001 was, it was so pegged the emotional meter that nothing that followed was likely to match it on the upside. But few were ready for just how easy the victory over Islamicism would be and the degree to which that would deny us the emotional payoff we in some sense feel entitled to. As Americans wonder why we can't have an Yorktown, Appomattox Courthouse, or V-E Day to glory in, so Sox fans wonder why they can't have a Game 6 1986 moment to bask in.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2007 6:21 AM

Rubbish. Let's get some perspective here - the Celtics won 8 straight titles (as I remember) and 10 overall from 1957 through 1969. The Bruins won at least one with Orr and Esposito (was it more?).

So take the whine elsewhere. There are other cities that have languished a lot longer, cities that suffered the same industrial decline (and minus the innate sense of haughtiness that pervades Boston). Buffalo, Cleveland, Philadelphia, D.C., and many of the smaller towns that originally had NFL and NBA franchises (Ft. Wayne, Rochester, etc.).

And such victory is not unprecedented. In the past 40 years, at least 4 cities have won the Super Bowl and World Series in the same year, with New York also winning the NBA crown one year later. And a couple of others have won one and lost the other (Philly in 1980, when they also lost the NBA final).

This is just more New England navel gazing.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 20, 2007 8:08 AM

No one ever won both so easily.

Posted by: oj at November 20, 2007 11:17 AM

...not in the conscious wish for success, but the unconscious wish for failure.

Something that could obviously never be written by an Arizona Cardinals fan.

Posted by: Brandon at November 20, 2007 11:22 AM

and the Patriots haven't won yet. Indianapolis was 13-0 a couple of years ago and fell apart.

Posted by: Brandon at November 20, 2007 12:36 PM

It appears Sawx fan will not be satisfied until their relentless self-absorbtion renders them the most hated fanbase in the US.

Posted by: Benny at November 20, 2007 1:49 PM

Good Lord, I just realized OJ compared the trials and tribulations of Sawx Nation to the following: 9/11, Yorktown, Appomattox Courthouse and V-E Day.

Get. Some. Perspective. You. Maniac.

Posted by: Benny at November 20, 2007 2:38 PM

Rubbish again. The Jets and Mets won easily in January and Oct. 1969. The Steelers won easily in January 1979 and the Pirates won from an easy 3-1 deficit (just like the Sox) in Oct. 1979. Of course, the Steelers won again 4 months later.

And I forgot that Boston won the NBA title in 1986, having lost the Super Bowl a few months prior, and would lose the Series a few months later.

If you want to be subsumed into the personality of Bill Belichek, go right ahead. Coaches like him are known best for when they get fired (see Paul Brown), no matter their success or genius.

Do Boston fans need to find a different muse? Or are they just getting nervous?

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 20, 2007 3:17 PM

The Jets lost infinity percent more games than the Pats have and the Mets battled the Cubs all season.

Recall that both were even underdogs in the championships.

The Sox and Pats have had no competition in '07. They win too easily for it to mean much.

Posted by: oj at November 20, 2007 6:29 PM

The Sox and Pats have had no competition in '07. They win too easily for it to mean much.

All the more reason that they are turning into Yankees fans, but without that sophisticated class you can only get in the Bronx.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at November 20, 2007 10:03 PM

You don't actually believe the premise of this story, do you? Just because this person found the only couple people who told him what he wanted to hear doesn't mean it represents the views of real Boston fans at all.

Posted by: Mike at November 21, 2007 1:04 AM

Yes, we had noted the phenomenon several times this year, that the Sox were dispatching of the rest of baseball so cold-bloodedly that the season lacked a certain emotional resonance.

No one will ever forget where they were when Buckner whiffed. No one will remember a minute of the World Series they just won.

Posted by: oj at November 21, 2007 7:57 AM

There was enough emotional resonance if you were a Mets fan. Or a Phillies fan. Or if you were waiting for the shoe to drop on Barry Bonds. :>)

The emotional resonance in the American League was the 4-month tightening in the nether regions of the Red Sox nation. I had guys at work looking for rooftops in early September. Once they clinched, it passed.

Of course, had the Sox hit during the season like they did in the post-season, they would have won 115 games.

But the cataclysmic metaphors are way too thick. They should be reserved for all the upsets in college football this year. And while the Pats seem a cinch, so did the Rams in 2001. And so did the Colts in 1968. And the Vikings in 1969. And the Redskins in 1983.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 21, 2007 8:43 AM

No one in New England was concerned about the Yankees. That was a flatlander tale.

Posted by: oj at November 21, 2007 10:55 AM