Column (Jamie Kapalko): Sympathy lies with underdog, we all pull for that upset

Jamie Kapalko

The lion hunts the zebra on the “Discovery Channel”. The No. 15 seed matches up against the No. 2 seed in the first round of March Madness. David stands chest-to-knee with Goliath. The Yankees play, well, anyone. Who are you cheering for? Barring the lions’ rights advocates or, more commonly, the Yankees fans, observers with no vested interest in either side usually choose the underdog. It doesn’t matter who they are; what matters is simply that, according to all that we know, they should not win. Why do we find them so compelling? Even if we aren’t loyal fans, we live and die with them for those few hours. If they lose, we’re disappointed. If they win, we feel validated. And if they keep winning, they aren’t underdogs anymore, and we begin to hate them.

During the ’80s, one NFL team was diagnosed by a local sportswriter with “Bozo Syndrome” for playing “like clowns in the clutch.” Symptoms included strong starts, disastrous finishes and blown potential for the team and anxiety, fits of rage and bouts of heavy drinking for its fans.

They stumbled into one Super Bowl during the decade and were crushed like a rat in a Michelin three-star restaurant kitchen.

They spent eight years absent from the playoff radar, practically not existing, except for a sexual harassment scandal involving several players and a female reporter in the team’s worst season ever (a 1-15 finish).

During the mid-1990s they began to get their act together, making the playoffs several times and losing respectably in one Super Bowl.

2001 began as a rough one, with the death of a coach during preseason, a serious injury to the quarterback and a drug suspension for a key player. Then something improbable happened. The backup quarterback performed, the team found its way and they landed in the Super Bowl as 14-point underdogs. And then – “Reverse Bozo Syndrome,” perhaps? – the New England Patriots shrugged off the oddsmakers and took hold of the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time.

In 2001, a teenager announced loudly his entrance onto the tennis scene by dethroning the Wimbledon master; the seven-time champion had won 31 matches in a row in that tournament until that point. Within three years, the new kid had taken ahold of the top spot in the rankings. Roger Federer has not relinquished it since.

He is not the best on every court; in 2005, another teenager won the French Open and skyrocketed to No. 2 in the rankings. Rafael Nadal has since proven himself to dominate the clay, defeating Federer in the same tournament in 2006 – the Swiss’ first loss in a Grand Slam final.

Since then, the two have played the leads on the tennis stage, with everyone else simply in supporting roles – until this week. Serbian Novak Djokovic beat Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open, extinguishing his record streak of 10 consecutive Grand Slam final appearances. Djokovic, ranked No. 3 in the world, won the tournament. For the first time in three years, a Grand Slam champion is not Federer or Nadal. Like the 2001 Wimbledon or 2005 French Open, this Australian Open could be the trumpet heralding the arrival of new royalty, the first trickle of water marking the thaw of the Ice Age – a sign that change has begun.

This is how a champion rises. Every No. 1, every powerhouse, comes from somewhere. At some point it must be the underdog, it must prove itself and then it may reign.

Then when the reign begins, after we have watched this champion pull itself up to the top and cheered it all the way, it becomes “The Favorite,” and we wish it to be toppled. It’s schadenfreude, the pleasure we take from their conquering; the rise is thrilling, but the fall is so beautiful.

A 2007 study titled “The Appeal of the Underdog” from social psychologists at the University of South Florida examined the phenomenon. It pinpoints a sense of fairness and justice as the driving factor behind underdog support. First, unequal competition makes people uneasy. Think about backyard baseball games – kids take turns choosing players so the teams are as even as possible. When one side is strongly favored, people perceive the other side as disadvantaged. People cite the high Yankee payroll as a reason to cheer for any of their opponents. They argue that public high schools should not have to compete against private schools that can pull superstar athletes from anywhere they want. People want sports, at all levels, to be fair.

According to the study, people also tend to “make favorable character judgments about disadvantaged groups … as a way of rectifying … inequalities.” The favorite may be better equiped heading into the matchup, but the underdog can balance the scale by playing harder. “This team has heart,” we say. “They put in an incredible effort.” These remarks say nothing about the skill level of a certain team or athlete, but we use them to justify an upset. We don’t just want the underdog to win; we want them to deserve to win.

There’s something else at play here. To the casual observer, if the favorite wins, it’s like nothing happened at all. It’s the same as if the game hadn’t even been played in the first place. But the games are played, and they are played because sometimes the underdog does win. When they win, things change. Change is exciting. It’s unpredictable. It brings fresh faces and surprise and suspense. It’s why we watch. We watch for the rise, and we love the fall – and they play for that moment in between, when they balance precariously on top.


Jamie Kapalko is a junior English major from Belmar, N.J. She can be reached at [email protected]