The NFL playoffs promise captivating viewing for fortunate fans of the competing teams, but what about fans of teams that failed to make the cut?
You can opt not to watch. Hah, not likely.
You can decide to watch but do so with bemused detachment.
Or you can frantically scrounge for something, anything, that might spark a previously undiscovered passion for one team over another.
For if there is any psychological common denominator among sports fans, it is the recognition that it’s far more satisfying to latch onto tenuous, sketchy, even patently contrived reasons for rooting than to not care at all.
Which team should you support?
How then to decide which team to support when you don’t actually care? For fans of the Vikings, Cowboys, Giants, and the other also-rans, that is the question.
A taste for blue over maroon, or a more-stylish helmet logo? For the aesthetic-minded spectator (we know you’re out there somewhere) such design characteristics can provide the necessary edge, but these distinctions may prove too superficial for comfort.
Last weekend, you could have prayed for the demise of the quarterback known for cruelty to helpless dogs. Or you could have cheered for the QB making a second-chance comeback after serving a prison sentence. (Guess the former prayed harder.)
This weekend, you can root for the defeat of the grim coach with the sour demeanor of a corporate hit man brought in by the suits to implement layoffs.
Or you can applaud the grim coach with the sour demeanor who gives the axe to a superstar unwilling to get with the program.
Oppose the franchise owned by a major donor to the Democratic party, or keep fingers crossed for the owner who helped get President Obama elected.
The non-aligned fan has a nearly limitless supply of flimsy hooks on which to hang his fervor. But for me, and many fans I know, it often boils down to sympathy for the underdog.
Root for the underdog city
“Underdog,” of course, is a term that can be variously defined, but in my experience there is one particular type of underdog whose merits eclipse all others: the team representing the area that is most economically distressed, most in need of hope.
Last year was a no-brainer, especially in the Super Bowl. You had a contest between the Indianapolis Colts, anchored by a quarterback whose endorsement income alone could probably float the school budget of many struggling municipalities, and the New Orleans Saints, carrying the banner of the nation’s most blighted, downtrodden, and disadvantaged urban area.
Gordon Gekko himself would have pulled for the underdog in that game.
This wish to see victory go to the team from the city mired in the worst economic predicament (high unemployment, shrinking tax base, etc.) has led me to an otherwise insupportable fondness for teams from Pittsburgh, Detroit, and St. Louis. Green Bay, both for its remoteness from major media markets and its unique community corporation ownership structure, has a perennial lock on underdog eligibility.
2011, however, presents a distinct problem for the non-affiliated fan. Quite simply, most cities and regions qualify as economic underdogs. As the effects of the recession linger, as jobs flee offshore, as downsizing becomes permanent, as housing prices dwindle, as fiscal budgets deteriorate and social needs intensify and the stock market disconnects from real productivity, picking one distressed city over another ain’t so easy.
Parity, that long-standing goal of NFL owners who understand the entertainment value of giving every team, and their loyal fans, a fighting chance, has now been achieved in the most unfortunate of ways.
This year, it’s a toss-up. Every city in the playoffs could use a boost.
And that’s certainly no cause for cheering.
Bob Katz is a writer on sports and culture, and the author, most recently, of “Third and Long: A Novel for Hard Times.”