By Contributor Daryl Geffken
America loves an underdog win. Last night the New York Giants completed their fantastic run through the playoffs to once again hand a “superior” team, in the New England Patriots, a come-from-behind loss. To many people, the Patriots represent the superlative in professional football. A machine built to win. Dare I say it? A dynasty. An empire. We Americans love to see empires fall. And we love to see underdog heroes lead the way. If you don’t believe me, read this saccharine story by ESPN’s Ian O’Connor that emphasizes the hero’s tale of Eli Manning’s dramatic drive.
We thrill in this type of story-line, yet often fail to realize that it is myth.
We wrongly highlight individual effort, not honoring the multiplicity of factors that contribute to this type of success. Never mind that (according to Manning himself), the entirety of the Giants team was responsible for the unprecedented 7-game winning streak as well as last night’s victory. Think of the incredible defensive play by Tucks and Pierre-Paul. That throw was mediocre, until it was caught (by a receiver known for his dropped-balls, by the way). Interviewers sought to give him the credit for the offensive game plan, even while Manning deferred to his coach’s scheme.
But when all is said and done, through media sound bites and analyses Manning becomes the reason the Giants won.
Manning is no underdog. No one gets access to this stage without an amazing amount of talent, support and drive. Even the halftime entertainment represents the best of the best (I concede that last year’s Black Eyed Peas performance can derail my argument, here). Manning is a product of many forces that allowed him this opportunity: family dynamics (his dad and brother both are noteworthy NFL quarterbacks) and the megalithic industry known as the NCAA. Clearly, Manning has had to work to attain the status of elite quarterback in the NFL, and this should not be diminished. What I know of him makes me like him as a player and as a man. He is no underdog, however. And I get the sense he would agree with me.
King David was perhaps the quintessential underdog. As the man who killed the warrior-giant with the single shot of a sling he is the very source-tale of a “David meets Goliath” matchup. This is a man who through skill and integrity rose from the outsider status of shepherd to become king. Yet David is also the powerful and lusty king that has an adulterous affair with another man’s wife and then attempts to cover it up to the point of murder. Nathan, the prophet, the only man in the kingdom to call him out does so with great skill, telling the honorable a story of a wealthy man who steals a poor family’s only sheep to serve a visitor, rather than use one of his own. Incensed, David condemns the man as selfish and worthy of severe punishment. Nathan lays his indictment heavily on David, “You are the man.” At this point, David realizes his guilt and works to set things right.
What if we realized who the real underdogs of the world were? Would we still root for them? What if we discovered that much of America is the empire we all love to hate? What if underdogs were those that we exclude from a system of value because they can’t buy in? What if underdogs were those who were legitimately angry that Americans, who represent the wealthiest fifth of the world’s people, consume an astonishing 86 percent of all goods and services, while the poorest fifth consume only one percent? Are they wrong to despise us because we are complicit in preventing them from caring for their families and communities? It seems to me that we hold more in common with the imperial David than the underdog David. It seems to me that we steal from those who cannot stop it in order to serve our out of control desires.
An ad campaign that justifies spending 3.5 million dollars for a 30-second ad spot during the super bowl seems a heinous misuse of resources. The rise of sex-trafficking that occurs during the super bowl reveals a dark side of gluttony and excess at the cost of human value, as does the indication that incidents of spousal abuse rise 10 percent in households where the favorite team loses shows a disgustingly disproportionate set of priorities that links personal value to a team brand rather than a life-partner.
“Loyalty that hides problematic conduct is a false loyalty, for it elevates reputation over reality, and esteems image over character. Though we may believe we are acting to protect the institution, in reality we do the institution and individuals far greater damage …,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, in an e-mail sent to students and employees reminding them of their obligation to report cases of suspected abuse and other questionable conduct.
Perhaps a few more of us can realize that our loyalty to the excess of the sports industry perpetuates some of these horrific issues. Perhaps lobbying against the consumerist agenda that undergirds the industry could bring back some of the humanity lost. Perhaps we could root for the real underdogs. I’m just not sure where I can find the team jersey.