(Since I first started writing this several days ago, the Detroit Lions have unloaded their 7 year itch and team president, Matt Millen, giving the fans what they want, just not exactly when they wanted it. The timing couldn't have been better for this post, though. See? Every cloud does have a silver lining.)
Several teams are still undefeated in the NFL right now . . . and a few are still waiting for that ever elusive first win. Some will continue to wait for a few more weeks. Some will wait forever.
Mainstream media loves winners. Sure, they talk about losers, but it's not usually the top story unless no winner was also involved (i.e., the Lions firing of Millen, or a story on top 10 worst teams of all time).
But you learn more from losing than you do from winning.
Continually awful teams in professional sports and the fans who love/loathe them are an interesting study in how sport really is a microcosm of life (thanks, dad). In this post, I will take a trip through the "suck cycle" and then wrap up with my two cents on why we, the fans, still stick around to its completion. I decided against giving examples so that the trip can be a personal one. Here we go . . .
There are a few characteristics that apply to just about every awful team: They make few bold moves in the off-season. They're used to being hated so they keep using unquantifiable terms like "rebuild" or "taking it one game at a time." (So when they're still "rebuilding" after 20 years, perhaps they meant waiting for good players to be born?) They ignore the boos from their fans during draft day every year when they pick a dud . . . again, and the resounding boos during the game directed at the latest asinine trade. They even ignore the protest parades through the streets where people carry dolls on sticks dressed like management (yes, that has happened).
But despite all of this, every year, the fans get excited that this will be "the year" . . . just to come to the realization that the happiest moment of the year was the night before the first game. Then, before they know it, 30 years have passed, and while we've all had our ups and downs, the team's only "up" was that hiccup when they made it to the playoffs. Maybe even the finals. That one year. Back in '89. (Or was it '98?) You also remember the entire stat line of anyone who played that game. From time to time, you might even pop in that Betamax of the game that you just knew would be a collector's item when they finally won . . . but you're still waiting.
The "awful" process also tends to follow a familiar pattern:
In the beginning, when they first start stinking, the players individually get the blame - no offense, weak defense, too many turnovers/penalties, off-court/field knuckleheadism, etc. The player's stock may begin to drop at this point unless his individual numbers are at or near the top of the league.
Then, inevitably, the losing continues, perhaps an entire season or more, even though some of the key players have changed. All it takes is one player whom we once considered to be good to come to the team and fail. "It can't be just the players," we say. "Let's keep looking up the chain. The coach. It must be his fault."
But then, that well-respected coach comes to town and he can't turn it around either. Frustration increases, and we're in denial, because we know if player and coach were legit, the fight to get to "good" may be out of our hands. Sadly, that can only mean one thing: the crap is systemic. If a player or a coach sucks, and the fans are behind it, then management probably sees it, too, and acts accordingly. But when blame has made its way up to management level, then we know we're battling an owner who could well be immune to the wants of the people if s/he/they is/are getting paid (read: really paid) regardless of the team's performance. I'm really sitting on my hands here not to provide examples, but I'm keeping my word . . . (And by the way, any time the casual fan knows management by name, rest assured you have yourselves a crappy team.)
And so the "Fire ______!" chant goes on, because if we've gotten this far, then dagnabit, we're not stopping until we get a response. Even if responding wouldn't immediately help the team right now, we'll take anything because nothing is worse than doing nothing at all. And sometimes, when we least expect it, many years after the first tear was shed, the owner responds and fires management.
An interesting phenomenon occurs when management is the scapegoat: The players can pretty much crap (literally) on the field and we wouldn't care. Of course, we'd complain, but that would just take us right back to how poor management is. I can't imagine this is good for the psychology of the player, though. It has to make them worse off in the long run, even if they would have been decent had they never been sent to this black hole of a team. Maybe that's what happened to [insert name of once-thought good player who came to the team and never recovered.]. On second thought, no, [insert name of
QB player who recently lost a job in the NFL] really is that bad.
But what happens if the new management never picks winners? While we like to think there is some science to this, the truth is, every draft and every trade involves a gamble, and hindsight is always 20/20. If the streak of no winners continues for years, then does that mean it's time for a new owner, and if so, do we publicly campaign to force the sell?
Alas, even when we think we've gotten what we wanted (i.e. old management is gone), we come to another sad realization: there is no clear cut solution to what ails the team. We can track what past teams have done and say that's what needs to be done, but I think good results are more of a "perfect storm" than a "perfect science." As I've said in the past, winning covers up a multitude of sins.
When the team is that bad, I truly think the best idea is to blow it up and start over. The fans will remain post-blow up. In fact, most of us would probably encourage the blow up. Just look how long we've stuck out the suffering and not given up. Because, despite the overwhelming odds that the team is going to continue to suck, we still go to the games, we still watch the drafts, we still post "______ sucks! and "fire ______!" messages on the web.
The reason we remain is simple: Deep down (very deep for the most negative among us), we all want to have hope for the best - even if it's just in our sports team. And so the season starts over from scratch every year, and they play the game even though we think we already know the outcome ('08 Super Bowl, anyone? Sorry, my only example!).
And we demand change, because if things change, then we can still have hope that things will improve. But even if we're not 100% certain of the outcome, if the alternative is more of the same thing that created the abysmal situation, then change looks like a much better option.
Yes, I'm still talking about sports . . . among other things.
Cross-published at Pleats 'n Cleats)