Sore Losers and Abysmal Winners

There has been no finer thing to happen to the New England Patriots in the last 15 years than losing Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants in 2008.

With the possible exception of losing Super Bowl XLVI, again to the Giants, four years later.

Those twin defeats, lest we forget, followed a veritable golden age of Patriots football—the brief but intensely gratifying era, beginning in 2001, that saw Bill Belichick’s boys secure three Super Bowl victories in a mere five seasons, sittin’ pretty atop the world of professional sports.

Suffice to say, so much success in so little time had rendered the entirety of Patriot Nation a little too self-satisfied.  They needed a handful of particularly stinging losses to bring them back down to Earth, up to and including the team’s rather embarrassing performance in this month’s AFC Championship match against the Baltimore Ravens.

The fact is, there is nothing more corrosive, boring or insufferable in all of American sports fandom than a team that does nothing but win.

In the NFL for the last decade, that team has indeed often been the Pats, and it was very much in the national public interest for them to fall on some (relatively) hard times.

I say this as a sort-of Patriots fan—that is, as a person who enjoys football, lives in New England and doesn’t particularly like any other team.

More to the point, however, I say this as an old-time supporter of another storied local sports franchise, the Boston Red Sox.

You see, although I was born in Boston, the formative sports-spectating experience of my life was spending my adolescence in New York during the late ’90s glory days of the Yankees, for whom a World Series championship was considered nothing less than a birthright.

Day in and day out, the Evil Empire would pull off one improbable victory after another, rendering their supporters drunk on success, and there I stood in the corner, a loyal fan of an opposition for whom disappointment and defeat—often at the hands of the Bronx Bombers themselves—was a fall ritual as inevitable as the changing of the leaves.

Accordingly, it is with considerable experience and authority that I can attest what horrible things tend to happen to a cluster of fans that comes to feel entitled:  The arrogance.  The rudeness.  The lack of introspection, self-awareness or any very advanced sense of humor.

None of these are personality traits that endear one to one’s community—or at least to those who are not fanatic fellow travelers.

As a Sox fan, I was naturally repulsed by the behavior of my Yankee peers throughout the regular season and the playoffs, almost relieved about my own team’s knack for losing, knowing that, for all its agonies, it would at least keep me humble.

In a way, I feared what might happen should the Red Sox suddenly end a century of tradition and actually win the damn championship.

When they finally did, in 2004, I certainly fell victim to waves of euphoria and a general feeling of invincibility.  In time, however—to my enormous relief—I came to agree with Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy’s half-tongue-in-cheek remark that he rather missed the old team—the one who could be counted upon to disappoint in the end.

Winning it all just felt odd, and I confess I abandoned much of my old passion for the club following a second championship in 2007.  A triumph once in a while is nice, but let’s not get carried away.

Much the same was the case for me with the Patriots:  They and their many victories were making me feel too much like a Yankees fan circa 1999.  I was dangerously close to becoming what I used to detest.

In one of the many choice dialogue exchanges in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie spews to Christof Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz, “You, sir, are a sore loser,” to which Schultz retorts, “And you are an abysmal winner.”

My experience with sports has taught me that the cliché is true:  “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”  It is infinitely better to lose with grace than to win without, because that other cliché—the one about how character counts above all else—is true as well.

Losing imparts wisdom, where winning tends only to impart hubris.  Victims of the latter—from the New England Patriots to the Republican Party—have learned this lesson the hard way.  Sooner or later, they might be very thankful that they did.

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