I’m sitting here nursing a bowl of boiled ramen noodles mixed with leftover Chinese delivery — all veggies, no meat or rice, a perfect metaphor for my current state of mind as I digest the misery of watching Wisconsin cough up a nine-point lead to Duke to lose the national championship. All I can think about is wandering down to the convenience store on the corner for some consoling confections, as I nurse a tallboy of Pabst and rue yet another missed national championship opportunity for one of my favorite squads.
The pain of a fanatic is a palpable pain, one that resonates through vicarious channels to hit at a visceral level. Dejection is a universal constant, the agony of defeat far more prevalent for the majority of the world’s spectators than the thrill of ultimate victory.
In a tournament where 68 teams enter the pool and only one emerges triumphant, the odds are stacked against the majority. More people are going to walk away miserable than will celebrate at the end; those are the fundamental stakes. It is the same in every soccer league around the globe, where one team will prevail over a dozen or more challengers, and in the major North American sports leagues, where fields are winnowed from 30 or 32 down to a winner-takes-all dimension.
I’m not as neurotic as I was when I was younger. An emergent fan is the most volatile, pinning vicarious hopes and dreams on every result in a way that more jaded veteran supporters are loathe to do. I remember my adolescence, when the rise and fall of a franchise was the barometer of my emotional state. I locked myself in a bathroom as a 13-year-old in early November 1997, dunking my head in a sink filled with cold water after Wyoming coughed away the chance at a perfect season on a Thursday night at San Diego State. I stayed home from school after the Super Bowl Sunday when Green Bay lost the Lombardi Trophy to Denver on a late Terrell Davis touchdown, too dejected to face my teammates in what was largely Broncos country.
But I’ve also always insulated myself against too much pain. As a Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America, I’ve diversified my portfolio of rooting interests from a young age. Of course, the fact that I’ve largely chosen to pull for lovable losers has mitigated the potential ecstasy of so many opportunities at cheering on a championship effort. For every Champions League victory by a European favorite there has been the pain of relegation and the other quirks of international sport.
I’ve still enjoyed more than my fair share of victories in my 32 years of existence, and this most recent loss — on the heels of Oregon’s defeat in the inaugural College Football Playoff to Ohio State — will fade among the pool of near-misses and could-have-beens that haunt every sports fan that remains true to a rooting interest. I’ve seen Inter Milan, a team I’ve claimed as my own for two decades, snag a UEFA Champions League title over Bayern Munich. I’ve seen Super Bowl XXXI, and numerous Pac-12 titles for the Oregon Ducks, and a run to the Memorial Cup by the Portland Winterhawks.
That does not, however, mask the pain of all those oh-so-close chances that came up empty. The Winterhawks lost the Memorial Cup final, Green Bay couldn’t repeat as champions in 1998, and Jose Mourinho bolted Milan as soon as he’d led the nerazzurri to the European crown. Wyoming ended up 10-2 in 1996, without even a bowl game to reward their season of excellence, and 2015 is less than a third complete and already I’ve watched Oregon lose the football title and Wisconsin drop the ball in the April conclusion of March Madness.
So it goes for the sports fan. The pain is why we keep coming back, in a way, a masochistic self-flagellation that we cannot drop. Just as we experience the vicarious highs of victory, so too do we long for the Manichean struggle that more often than not yields the surrogate sting of defeat.