A better way than enjoying failure

by Barnabas Piper

Posted on Friday, December 19, 2014, at 5:10 pm

One of the weirdest and most unpleasant aspects of sports is a fan’s intense desire for opponents to fail. I have certainly been party to this sentiment, rooting for Brett Favre, Chris Webber, Paul Konerko, the Chicago Bears, and other rivals to fall flat. It’s become accepted part of fandom. After all, there must be a winner and a loser, right? But that doesn’t make rooting for failure much more palatable or profitable.

Last weekend two of the NFL’s most polarizing and controversial players, Johnny Manziel and Jay Cutler, took the field at quarterback for their respective teams and failed miserably: Manziel completed only 10 passes (plus two to the other team) for 80 yards in the Cleveland Browns’ 30-0 drubbing at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, while Cutler tossed three interceptions (he leads the league in that category) in the Bears’ 31-15 loss to the New Orleans Saints Monday night and has since been benched. The two QBs have well-earned reputations for bad attitudes, petulance, and rubbing fans and opponents the wrong way. Even so, the overflow of glee and mockery at their failure in the mainstream media and on social media was striking (though not all that surprising). Such players are exactly the type fans love to see fail.

As a Minnesota Vikings fan, it comes easy for me to take pleasure in the struggles of Cutler and the Bears. (I am actually in the minority who likes Manziel.) But I must constantly remind myself that rooting for my team does not give me license to take pleasure in the failings of another. My gut reaction to Cutler’s awful game was smug happiness. But if that is the emotion I, or any other fan, choose to rest in we are lowering ourselves humanly speaking and harming the games we love.

Rooting for a team to win is not the same as rooting for another team to fail. One will lose, yes, but both can be excellent. And isn’t that when sports are at their pinnacle, when both opponents are at their best? When we devolve into enjoying others’ misery we have taken sports as a license to be malicious, even if it is accidental or intended to be light-hearted. Instead of wanting the best we appreciate the worst and we enjoy others’ pain or embarrassment. There’s nothing noble or good in that.

Another way does exist. Root for success, even for opponents. If your team has greater success, plays better, is better prepared, it will win, but both teams can show their mettle in the process and neither must be shamed. This is the essence of good sportsmanship—appreciating the opponent no matter what and honoring their successes because we realize we will be on the flip side one day too.

No fulfillment is found in elation at another’s fall, and we want no one to be elated at ours. That’s the Golden Rule applied to sports, whether or not we hardcore fans like it. Rib your opponents. Spar and jest and jab and trash talk good-naturedly. But when the competition ends, win or lose, honor success and excellence. You’ll find more fun in the game and more peace afterward. 

Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.

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