The word underdog comes from dog fighting, a prevalent gambling outlet in the 1800s. It stems from the dog on the bottom being the dog that was about to lose, while the dog on top was in a position to win. Why is our society so obsessed with the resistance of sure defeat, and why do sports make us bet against a sure thing?
Throughout sports history, the majority will often root for the underdog. We portray the favourite as an oppressor, a force that does not operate by the same rules as the rest of the world. This is only too true in the case of the New York Yankees. The Yankees were deemed the “Evil Empire” throughout the early 2000s, because of the ways they went beyond what other Major League Baseball (MLB) teams could do, such as using lavish contracts to tempt away local stars. What is confusing about the widespread loathing of the Yankees, however, is the way that this loathing was not directed at the players. Yankee players like Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada were adored. Instead, it was the owners of the team, Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenner family, who were seen as the external oppressor. The sports world’s dislike for the Yankees was obvious when the Arizona Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series in the bottom of the ninth inning with a hit from Mariano Rivera, immortalizing this moment as a blow to the overarching “evil” nature of the Yankees. In this Yankees example, was it the ownership that created the ‘oppressor’ dynamic, resulting in fans rooting for the underdog, or did the onus still fall on the players? Why did a neutral fan base root against star player Derek Jeter? They did, and it is in part due to the narrative that the sports media fosters around underdogs.
Media is really what drives the underdog narrative. They stand to gain the most from creating a story in a playoff series where there is none, as they can churn out articles, increase viewers/listeners and appeal to audiences outside of the two regions whose teams are being represented. This year’s Super Bowl is a prime example of the sports media needing a narrative and pushing the idea of an underdog where it really does not exist. Throughout the playoffs, the Philadelphia Eagles were cast as an underdog, despite being the number one seed in the National Football Conference (NFC). When their starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, was injured, their backup was Nick Foles, who led the League in touchdowns only three years ago. The Eagles also had recently traded for a great running back, Jay Ajayi. Finally, and in spite of all the talk about their ineptitude, the Eagles won the Super Bowl. Yes, they faced adversity, but were the Eagles actually at such a disadvantage in the game against the Patriots? As demonstrated by their 8-point defeat of the Patriots, the Eagles’ label as underdogs was not entirely deserved.
The Patriots’ Tom Brady was picked 199th overall in the 2000 National Football League (NFL) draft. He was taken to be a backup for Drew Bledsoe, a high quality starting quarterback for the Patriots. Only once Bledsoe was injured did Brady take over, leading the team to a Super Bowl victory over the St. Louis Rams. In 2001, Tom Brady was the ultimate underdog. Now, he is the personification of a drab, dominant sports force. He has the exact same style of play as he did in 2001, and is still an absurdly boring athlete. Brady is universally both loathed and respected: for headlining a boring franchise’s boring quest for more championships, and for eliminating the hopes of upstart franchises along the way. It’s not that Brady is a gloating winner, it is moreso that he represents stagnancy in sports. His coach, Bill Belichick, is a domineering football maven that has ties to Donald Trump and conservative advocacy groups. Quite literally in the case of the Patriots, the favourite represents the oppressor and their conservative, stagnant ideals.
The Yankees, the Patriots, and the Lakers are the American dynasties of our era, and all employ similar tactics to win. They amass the free agents, get the best out of underperformers, and win, over and over again. In many fields, such success would warrant respect, but the sports world takes a different approach. Sports means a great deal to many people, and I believe that at its heart it signifies the unpredictability of life. No matter where the ball rolls, something can happen; someone can turn a defeat into an impossible victory and rescue the average person from mundanity. People wish for an aberration. We want teams that were bad last year to win this year.
The everyday sports fan has nothing in common with anyone in a professional sports league. They work five days a week, doing effectively the same thing every day and they are not an athletic demigod. To us, sports symbolize that there can be a deviation from the norm. The underdog is, paradoxically, a less risky choice to root for than the favourite. If the underdog wins, the fan is extremely pleased as the odds have been defied. If the underdog loses, there is no great shock, and the fan’s knowledge of the game remains unchallenged.
Why do people believe in underdogs? Everyone on the grand stage of sports was a star at some point in their life, and the lowest of the low in a Big Four league are still dominant in any other league. For the media, creating an underdog allows a proliferation of content and something for their anchors to discuss. For the teams, it allows them a measure of fandom their ownership and players may not warrant. For the fan, it is a manifestation of their dreams, of their desire to resist an oppressor, and provides a method for coping with loss. Looking at statistics, there usually isn’t much separating our beloved underdog from the hated favourite. Professional sports are balanced, more than we care to think or the leagues want to admit. Unlike in dogfighting, these teams are usually on a level playing field, and when there is a dog truly on top of another, it probably deserved that spot.