Sunday, September 4, 2011
In 1950, my Grandpa Orrie was the coach of a small town basketball team in southern Iowa. The town was Winfield and there were about 50 kids enrolled in the school. They were a good team, a very good team. Now, this was back in the time when they didn’t have classes separating the big schools from the small schools, so if they wanted a chance to win a state title, they would have to go through the big schools to do it. Winfield made it through the districts and substate all the way to the state tournament in Iowa City to play in the Field House, where the University of Iowa played. Sounds a lot like Hoosiers, huh? It was a team with a bunch of small town farm kids going up against the bigger, faster teams from the big schools. First up, they beat Des Moines East, a school from the largest city in the state by twenty points. Next, they squeaked by Sioux City Central, another big school. Then, they faced Ankeny, another large school, in the semifinals, with a trip to the finals on the line. It was a close game, but in the end, they ended up losing by five points.
Isn’t it easy to pull for the underdog? You get drawn in. You just want them to pull it out somehow. This is an important element in story. The main character is most often some sort of underdog. Even if they are in a position of power, they are usually an underdog in some way. An important element of the first part of a movie is getting the main character on the viewer’s side, someone to cheer for. The best way to get someone in a position to be cheered for is to make them an underdog.
This is true in the NCAA basketball tournament as well. The tournament is a phenomenon, mostly because of the upsets. If you don’t have a team that you’re cheering for, you root for the underdog, whether or not you even like basketball.
Why do we innately root for the underdog?
Is it because we see ourselves as the underdog in life and want to believe that we live in a world where the underdog can succeed?
I think that’s a part of it.
These are not entirely original thoughts. I was listening to a podcast of one of my favorite shows the other day, Radiolab. The show is amazing. It’s a show about science, but really it’s more of a fun human interest show mixed with different approaches to science. They will always take one subject and look at it from a variety of different angles. This past show they were looking at games and sports, and why were are so emotionally connected to them. One of their segments was about cheering for the underdog. I’m pretty sure that my above statement came from something they said, but I’m not going to go back and listen to it.
So many of our favorite stories are about the little guy succeeding against all odds. I feel like I’m in one of those stories right now. I’m just a kid from the Midwest trying to make it in Hollywood. I wonder if part of my journey is wanting to believe that this sort of thing is possible in my life, that the constraints around me can be overcome. I like the idea of that being true and possible. But the truth is that cheering for the underdog means that you are cheering against the odds. Most of the time it’s not going to happen. It would be emotionally easier to cheer with with the odds, but I suppose that doesn’t involve emotions and cheering, that involves calculating.
In sports there is a clear winner and loser. Sports is black and white. Life is gray. In life, is winning found not in being the champion, but in the very act of challenging the odds? Sports has clear competitors. In life, we’re often up against ideas and ambiguity. Ambiguity can’t win anything. At the end of a life challenge there is not a winner declared. Maybe it is because the winning has been completed by the end. Maybe the winning is in the challenging.
We root for the underdog because we feel we are the underdog.
When we, the underdog, challenge the odds we win, whether we conquer, or not.
And let’s be honest, if we conquer and remain there, we are no longer the underdog.
No one cheers for the overdog.
Be the underdog.
Keep challenging the odds.
Not conquering does not mean not winning.