Tuesday, April 2, 2013


by Bill Holmes

Why is it that we pull for the underdog? It mostly happens in sports, often in social or legal matters and sometimes in politics. This tendency to root for the underdog seems to be almost universal. It is not limited to any particular age group, ethnicity, gender, geographical area, religion or nationality. It seems to me that people all over the world tend to side with the underdog.

In Judeo-Christian cultures the underdog is portrayed often and he, there aren't many she's, is always the good guy. Moses against the Pharaoh and David vs Goliath are Old Testament underdog stories. Jesus against the Jewish elders and the Romans is another example. I would assume that Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other religions have similar triumphant underdogs. Nationalities have their secular heroes. The Scots have William Wallace. The English have Robin Hood. The Irish have St. Patrick. I'm sure the Seminoles, Sioux and Apaches have their icons. Every nation and people seem to have these stories about underdogs triumphing over all odds. Some of the underdogs were real people and many were mythical. Some of their accomplishments were real, although often embellished, some were fabrications, although probably based on some fact.

Maybe that's why we are on the side of the underdog. It's because we hear and read these stories from our youngest days. If Mom tells you a story when you're a toddler it is in your brain forever. They are ingrained in our fabric. We are often reminded of these underdogs by teachers or holidays or sermons or an anniversary observance.

Another reason is that most of us are not in a position of power. We are at the mercy of the big corporation or government. That makes most of us the underdog in many situations. Our complicated, often impersonal, society can be frustrating. The automated customer non-service phone tree that doesn't solve your problem and never lets you speak to a human can make you crazy. The clerk at the city hall who either can't make a decision because of stupid rules or doesn't give a damn maybe because of civil service job protection will leave you frustrated. Then there is the boss who makes salary and promotion decisions based on ass kissing, how cute she is or incriminating pictures, never on ability to do the job.

It's not a giant leap to see bits of a David and Goliath story in a current situation or event. It becomes even easier when the media constantly reminds us of a potential underdog situation and hypes it. The media love to play up the downtrodden, hopeless and oppressed. When one of these stories comes around you can flip the channels and see reports from every local station. If it's a national underdog you'll see it on every news program morning, noon, evening and night. If there's a sports angle it will be on ESPN and sports radio all day every day. In sports the triumphant underdog is usually called Cinderella. This is especially true in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Every year there is a designated Cinderella team. This year FGCU was that team.

The reason I'm writing this now is that I was recently reminded of the phenomenon. I went to the NCAA Basketball Tournament South Regionals. In the first round of the regional games, the University of Florida Gators, my team, played the Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) Eagles. The Gators were seeded #2 in the region, the Eagles were seeded #15. That alone might create an underdog situation but there were many other factors. FGCU was making it's first NCAA tournament appearance. Florida has been to 16 tournaments. They have won two national championships and this was their third trip in a row to the regional rounds (Sweet 16). Florida has one of the premier athletic departments in the country. They have won several national championships in a number of sports. Want more disparity? Florida was founded in the 1850's and has about 50,000 students and a huge alumni. FGCU was founded in the 1990's and has 12,000 students and barely any alumni. You can imagine the difference in team budgets.

FGCU vs Florida was a classic Cinderella situation. The FGCU story was on every news and sports program every day for a week leading up to the game. They were the little school that could. They were the unknown school up against the national powerhouse. Florida has several former players in the NBA, a building full of trophies, a high profile coach, world class facilities, a big budget and an alumni that holds powerful positions throughout the state and nation. FGCU has no former players in the NBA, no national trophies, an unknown coach, a gym, a small budget and a few recent alumni. Is that a fair fight? As it turns out it may be. FGCU beat #2 seed Georgetown and #7 San Diego St. to get to the game against Florida. They were the first #15 seed to make it to the round of 16.

The venue for the game, Cowboys Stadium, was full of Kansas and Michigan fans. They played the first game of the evening. There were fewer Florida and FGCU fans there, but a good contingent from each school. After Michigan beat Kansas, many of those folks left but there were still all the people from the Sunshine State and at least half of the Yankees. All the Kansas and Michigan fans who stayed for the second game immediately became FGCU fans. When the Eagles started fast the stadium was obviously on their side. Why would a bunch of folks from Michigan and Kansas root for FGCU? It's because they were the underdogs and had been hyped all week long. Once Florida took the lead the fair weather FGCU fans left.

I understand the appeal of the underdog or Cinderella. David triumphs over Goliath and we all feel better. In the case of greedy corporations or unresponsive governments, that's a good thing. In the case of sports it's not that cut and dry. It is easy to root against a $20 million a year professional athlete who is a jerk and maybe doesn't produce. Yes, the big schools have some advantages. I propose though that the athletes on those favored college teams work just as hard as those on the Cinderella teams. They care just as much about winning, get paid the same (tuition) and have the same compelling stories. In fact the tuition scholarship at a small private school is usually worth much more than at a big state university. Somehow a rich and privileged kid playing on a Cinderella team is more deserving than the poor and deprived kid who plays at a big university. I hate that the media labels college teams as Davids and Goliaths or Cinderellas and Evil Stepmothers. It turns out not to be fair to either one.

Continue to root for the underdog, it's the American way. Just be sure that the underdog is really a good  David and the odds favorite is really an evil Goliath.


1 comment:

  1. Your writing is really good Bill. Interesting story.