What’s that line… everyone loves an underdog? I think it goes something like that. And for the most part, I would tend to agree with this sentiment. Regional rivalries notwithstanding, most of the teams my friends and I hate fall into that category because they’re so historically good. Notre Dame is a marvelous institution of higher learning with a rich tradition of football excellence (albeit vastly overhyped for the last 10-15 years). So why do I hate the fighting Irish so damn much? I cannot stand them. I’m not from the Midwest and I did not go to a rival college (at least not from a sports perspective). I have nothing against Catholics nor the Irish as a people. Yet I struggle to mask my deep and utter loathing of the Irish when they play. I feel the same way about the New York Yankees. These teams that have enjoyed a disproportional amount of success prove irksome beyond compare.
I think a large part of the unmitigated loathing directed at these teams comes as an inverse to the underdog theory. These programs are the quintessential top dogs—they have a peerless history of excellence, greater resources, wider exposure, more leverage with recruits/free agents, better name recognition… the list goes on. It’s so boring when these teams are good because it’s almost expected of them to do so. In that same vein, few things are as much fun as actively rooting against these teams, especially as the stakes rise.
Underdogs are more relatable to the casual fan. We feel that victory would mean much more to them than to a program used to winning all the time. We inherently believe underdogs got their title opportunity through sheer force of will and a tireless work ethic, because if they had an abundance of raw talent on which to rely, they would probably be playing for the Irish or the Yankees in the first place. True fans pull for underdogs because it’s just more fun to root for the little guy. So why was I rooting for Lebron James and the Heat juggernaut to beat the small market, masterfully coached, high character Spurs in the NBA finals? Why do I root for Tiger Woods in every major golf tournament? His obnoxious attitude notwithstanding, why do I always cheer for Floyd “Money” Mayweather in his title fights? Why did I always pull for MJ and the Bulls in the 90s? Why do I love Michael Phelps?
Two words—transcendent greatness.
Every generation enjoys a cadre of athletes that can stake a claim for “greatest ever.” Not every sport has an athlete knocking on this door at any one time, but we can find examples of athletes provoking this conversation every 10-20 years. And for whatever reason, I seem to find myself cheering on these athletes and their teams despite my aforementioned disinclinations toward top dogs.
By most accounts, Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. Some make the argument (and it’s a convincing one) that it should be Bill Russell on account of his 11 NBA championships, but even Bill Simmons, the most notorious Boston homer, ranked MJ #1 in his Book of Basketball. I felt for the Utah Jazz—small market team, one of the most prolific duos in the history of basketball (Stockton & Malone), great coaching… all the characteristics of the underdog who, by all accounts, should earn the cheers of casual fans. But who did I always root for in the 90s? The Bulls, of course. Watching MJ in the playoffs live was one of those things I’ll remember for my entire life. It’s one of those things I’ll be able to tell my children about one day: “So and so is great, but I got to watch the greatest do it live—nothing will top late 90s Michael Jordan. The flu game? The shot over Bryon Russell? It doesn’t get any better than that….”
I feel the same way about Tiger. Despite the fact that he’s already won 14 majors and over 75 professional tournaments, I still cheer for him during every major. There are tons of underdog golfers that should inspire my support, but I root for Tiger without equivocation. Although his career trajectory might have leveled out a bit recently, he’s already in the conversation of best 5 golfers ever. Most would put him in the top two, and for good reason. Lebron is in the same boat—definitely top 15 players of all time. The only question is how many championships and how many MVPs he ends up with, and whether or not that will make him the greatest of all time.
All of these athletes share that one trait—transcendent greatness. They aren’t just competing against their opponents; they’re playing against every great player ever to have played their game. These athletes are not judged on how they compare to their peers, but rather on how they measure up to the legacy of every great athlete within their respective sport. And when your target is that small and your stakes are that high, even the top dog earns the cheers of the casual fan. It goes against everything engrained in our DNA, but witnessing true greatness has a way of tilting one’s perspective.
If underdogs make us believe that common athletes can accomplish great things despite a lack of preternatural talent, transcendent greats show us what humans can accomplish at the farthest limits of physical possibility. Usain Bolt continues to defy the laws of physics in shattering the 100m record repeatedly. Michael Phelps might be 25% dolphin. Lebron James is writing the book on doing more for his team than any player before him. The mental fortitude and focus Tiger exudes while in the zone demonstrate the outermost boundaries of preparation and discipline humanly attainable. These are special athletes that grant us a glimpse of what is possible in an absolute sense.
When we as fans get the rare opportunity to watch a transcendent talent like Tiger or Lebron, we cannot help but root for these athletes to achieve all that their potential and preparation allows them. We want to see how high they can fly, how far they can go, how much they can achieve, because it might be 20-30 years before we see someone with the right combination of desire, dedication, will-power, physical tools, and innate talent to do what they’re doing. It might never be recreated. We want to remember where we were when these athletes achieved the unachievable. We want to remember what it was like to witness greatness. We want to remember what it looked like to watch these superstars imprint their legacies upon their respective sports in real-time. To truly know and witness live when an athlete is accomplishing something that might never happen again is a special experience. Transcendent greats provide that opportunity for all true fans of these sports. It’s such a rare occurrence. It requires such a delicate blend of traits, opportunities, and luck that the odds are always against athletes truly reaching the pinnacle of their sports and their abilities. So when you recognize that it’s happening before your eyes, you can’t help but root for the favorite.
As it happens, they’re called “the favorite” for a reason…