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When ‘rooting for’ means ‘rooting against’


"Nnnnn-ooooon-nan. Nnnnn-ooooon-nan. Miss it! Mmmmm-miss it!"

— Tony D’Annunzio breaking golf’s putting code of silence while opponent Danny Noonan lines up the winning putt in the caddy tournament, in 1980’s Caddyshack

On the sports battlefield, when competition between two rivals can boil at such a high level that sportsmanship goes out the window, fans often resort to questionable tactics in backing their favorite athletes/team/country. It used to be that you cheered for your team and simply ignored the opposition; that was the proper way to be an athletic supporter. Heckling was sometimes permitted, but only within reasonable social boundaries, and foul language and personal attacks were never endorsed as correct fan behavior.

Now it’s no longer enough to root for somebody; instead, it’s fashionable to root against the opposition in tandem with boosting the home team. And whether that’s right or wrong, it has become woven into the fabric of not only American society but the world as well, as evidenced during the Summer Olympics now winding down in Athens.

All social graces seem to have been sacrificed to the baseball gods when it comes to the Yankees–Red Sox rivalry around here, and only recently has Boston’s ownership followed the New Yorkers’ lead by outlawing the likes of YANKEES SUCK T-shirts and hats. There is fan behavior and then there is Boston-NY fan behavior, and rarely do the two resemble each other.

At Thursday night’s Red Sox–Tigers game at Fenway, I saw a young woman wearing a shirt that read I ONLY ROOT FOR TWO TEAMS: THE RED SOX, AND WHOEVER’S PLAYING THE YANKEES. In recent years, Yankees fans have had little interest in charting the Red Sox’ progress in the standings, but Sox fans have always found themselves checking their team’s score first, then automatically looking to see how the Bronx Bombers fared. And in a rivalry as storied and ferocious as the one between these teams, rooting passionately against the Yankees comes with the territory when you’re a Red Sox backer — hence the theme of the aforementioned young woman’s shirt.

Is it human nature to wish ill on the opponent if it helps your favorite team? And since when did it become acceptable to openly display feelings heretofore kept to yourself?

Some sports are cut-and-dried: a race, for instance, has a winner and several runners-up, and if you’re a fan of a certain competitor you merely shout enthusiastically in the hopes that he or she emerges victorious. You don’t necessarily hope the Jamaican athlete pulls a hamstring or trips over a hurdle — you just hope your guy triumphs.

But other sports are a bit more complicated; for example, take these Summer Games. Say you’re watching the gymnastics competition, and a member of the US team does well on the uneven bars. When the next competitor prepares his routine, do you find yourself hoping for an entertaining performance on the apparatus, or are you neutral about it? Or is it indeed something more sinister: do you find yourself hoping the gymnast will find a way to screw up on the bars — perhaps even tumble to the floor — so the US athlete will have a better chance of reaching the podium?

Most likely this also happens in the other premier "judged" sport of the Olympics — albeit the Winter Games — when the figure skaters take to the ice. Who among us doesn’t hope the Russian gal or the Chinese ice-dancing pair choke a bit on their triple salchow, or land on their sweet patoots when a toe loop was intended? Is this poor sportsmanship, or merely backing your favorite? In some ways it’s similar to those fans of auto racing who sometimes enjoy the competition that much more if one of the participants crashes (as long as it’s not their driver ...).

It’s happening not only at the Olympics, though; you see it pop up from time to time in nearly every individual sport. I remember being horrified about a decade ago while watching Davis Cup tennis action (when the US was still a perennial finalist) and seeing American fans cheer when the foreign opponent’s first serve went into the net. Similarly, I’ve seen the specter of boorish local fans cheering at the Ryder Cup golf competition when a European team member misses a crucial putt (at least they’re not yelling "Noonan!" — well, as far as I can tell). And we won’t even go into the behavior of US fans (and team players, for that matter) during the hotly contested 1999 Ryder Cup competition at The Country Club in nearby Brookline. Golf, of all sports, still goes further than any other sport in maintaining its meticulous standards of etiquette — written and unwritten — and that’s why it’s unseemly to see the rules being bent more and more during tournaments on our shores. Putts are missed; cheers erupt.

Even staid Wimbledon has seen its knowledgeable tennis fans reduced to vocally rooting against a particular participant, especially if favorite son Tim Henman is on the court serving for Britain’s honor and glory.

Seeing your team or athlete win dictates that there must be a loser, and pursing the downfall of that foe and reveling in his being vanquished is the epitome of the German term schadenfreude — the process by which a person finds joy in the failure of another. "Schaden" pretty much means "Too bad!" while "freude" means happiness, thus, "That’s really too bad ... but yippee!" (Kind of what Yankees fans felt for knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in the bottom of the 11th in the Bronx last October 16.)

Fantasy-sports players know of what I speak, since their weekly head-to-head match-ups depend not only on the performance of their own players but obviously the failures of their opponent’s squads as well. Any fantasy jockey worth his salt has one eye on his stable of athletes and the other on the opposing roster, and checking box scores at the end of the evening can result in as much cursing at a foe’s outstanding performance as gloating for the home team.

Everywhere you look, there are as many people rooting against one side as rooting for the other. Basketball: it’s now become old hat to see fans behind the backboard waving their arms frantically as an opposing player attempts a free throw. Mmmm-isss it! Baseball: What else? As much as Red Sox fans seemingly believe that cheering "Yankees suck" will somehow distract the Pinstripers in action on the field, Yankees fans enjoy even more the chance to rub it in for long-suffering Sox fans (a redundancy if there ever was one) by chanting "1918!" Have that ringing in Sox players’ ears long enough and it will ensure another year of misery and sorrow in New England. Football: like hoops, the waving arms behind the goalposts is meant to hex the efforts of the field-goal kickers, and time-outs are often called by coaches hoping to unravel the concentration of those same booters.

It’s not necessarily about our winning; if we can contribute to their losing, the outcome is the same and the celebration begins.

I know even I’m guilty of it at times. Whenever I am flipping channels and come across some version of televised high-stakes poker, I usually stop for a moment to watch. Since I’m not all that familiar with the celebrities in the "sport," I often find myself in the corner of anybody-but-him. Who him? Usually some cocky nimrod wearing sunglasses and headphones at the Texas Hold ’Em table, and the shades alone always are enough to turn me against him. So even though I have nothing invested in this particular poker brouhaha, I have taken sides. I am not so much interested in seeing Chris Moneymaker collect all the chips as seeing that Ray-Ban-wearing stooge listening to Eminem go down. Rooting for by rooting against.

The NFL starts in a couple of weeks, and Patriots fans will focus on their team while climbing on the bandwagon of their divisionmates’ opponents. A good week for the Pats is a Sunday when they triumph and the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins falter. In October, Celtics fans will cheer on the Green along with anybody playing against the Knicks, Nets, Heat, and Sixers. Bruins fans will always root as hard for their boys in the spoked-B’s as they will for the Canadiens’ opposition that night.

And as the Boston Red Sox make their climb back into the AL East race, their fans’ enthusiasm will be tempered only by the results of the Empire Staters to the south. Sox win, Yanks lose — that’s a good night for backers of the Olde Towne Team.

It used to be simple as that. Yet with the wild-card possibility thrown into the equation, Boston fans will find themselves praying for a Sox victory and a Yankee loss, but also keeping their eyes on — and their rooting interests solidly against — the A’s, Rangers, and Angels.

Seems like a lot of work. It sure was easier when being a fan meant only a fanaticism for the good guys. The bad guys didn’t matter so much.

Now it’s us against them. And them. And them.

"Sporting Eye" runs Mondays and Fridays at BostonPhoenix.com. Christopher Young can be reached at cyoung@phx.com.


Issue Date: August 27, 2004
"Sporting Eye" archives: 2004 | 2003 |2002
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