Why, sports?

Why do we do it when defeat feels so much worse than victory feels good?

by MATT STOKES | JANUARY 15, 2018

Close, last-minute losses in sports cause the most acute pain. Blowout losses give the sufferer enough time to adjust to life post-loss, but last-minute losses tantalize, allow you to realistically project yourself forward into a world in which you have won, give you room to become used to your new life as a winner, and then dramatically rip apart your world. You’ve lost twice.

Games like last night’s Saints-Vikings playoff game haunt me in a particular way: My team, the Saints, lost the game as time expired, and when losses like this happen, for the next 24 hours or so I become suspended in that moment just before the fateful turn. I relive the moment over and over again, because the outcome of the game doesn’t feel real, doesn’t feel like it’s happened yet, and if I can just think about it hard enough I can change the outcome. If I just concentrate, I can make Marcus Williams tackle Stefon Diggs inbounds instead of inexplicably torpedoing himself at exactly the wrong time and angle.

I thought I’d outgrown this kind of sports fandom, to be honest—gone were the days, I thought, where I’d wake up in the middle of the night, depressed, and then remember that I’m sad because of a sporting event. I wish they were behind me, I really do. People who feel and show gratitude are generally healthier, happier, and have more energy… I’d love to have all those things! I want to be the kind of sports fan who feels immense gratitude for the good times and can easily shake off the bad times. This was a great season for the Saints, and after three straight mediocre seasons, watching them had become fun again. Ideally, I would feel nothing but appreciation that the team was able to bring me five months of joy.

But if I cannot just shake off the bad times, I should at least be grateful for them because they are what make the good times worthwhile. I always come back to a quote from David Carr’s The Night of the Gun whenever I think about the paradox of being a sports fan: “Rats—humans too—continue to push on the bar in the cage of our existence looking for a reward past the point of reason because, every once in a while, something unthinkably delicious comes down the tube.” Being a sports fan means subjecting yourself to repeat misery, to the near certainty that your season will end in disappointment because sports are designed that way—only one team wins it all in the end. When your team wins a championship, when you get that delicious rat pellet, you should feel a level of happiness equal to the misery you experienced previously. But you don’t. If defeat is worth -10 happiness points, victory is worth, at most, +5. You don’t even out.

So, why do it? I don’t want to yell at the TV during Saints games. I apologize to the other people in the room when I do. The Victorian British socialite in my head takes umbrage at my behavior, says, “Sir, you forget yourself.” My wife was talking to our seven-year-old yesterday about when she was a kid and the grown-ups in her house would turn into entirely different people during football games. “It was scary,” she said. And I remember that too—football was making these calm and composed adults who never scream turn into barking maniacs. “Football is scary,” the seven-year-old agreed, then she added, “Scary, boring, and super not interesting.”

Here’s why we do it: Because it makes us yell. There really is nothing else like the feeling that live sports can give you. It reduces you to pure id, makes you feel alive. And I know that eventually I look back on the pain of sports losses and feel grateful for them—at least they’re memories, at least I didn’t turn the TV off and move on to the next thing. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy, and it doesn’t mean being a hardcore fan of a sports team is worth it, but it’s the only explanation I have.

The outcome of the Falcons-Eagles playoff game would have had implications for the Saints if the Saints had won their game. The Falcons-Eagles game happened first, so I watched it with a personal interest in the stakes. The Falcons winning was a better outcome for my team, because if the Falcons won and the Saints won, the Saints would face the Falcons at the Superdome in the NFC Championship Game. It would be the only way the Saints could get another playoff game at home. And yet, for reasons that cannot be articulated using logic or sense, I hate the Falcons so much that I couldn’t stand for good things to happen to them. I was personally invested in the Eagles winning the game, and every time they did something good and I cheered, I had to remind myself: “Don’t do that. You need to root for the Falcons.” But then I’d have another thought: “No, stupid. It doesn’t matter what you ‘root for.’ Your feelings have no impact on the outcome of this game.” If a future time traveler manipulated time to erase me from existence, the outcome of the Falcons-Eagles game would still be the same.

I guess I’m saying that I like being invested in something in which I have no agency. There’s comfort in knowing the rules and knowing that nothing I can do to stop whatever is going to happen from happening. I can commiserate all I want over Marcus Williams and Stefon Diggs, but the play still happened, and would have happened even if I hadn’t watched the game. There’s value in giving yourself over to something you can’t control—I don’t know that it’s good or healthy, but it’s something.