Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Sermon: That Loser Mentality

How many times have we read, said, or heard a great saying that accurately summarizes the massive effect that the wide world of sports has on many people’s lives? Today I write with a heavy heart, still reeling from the pain of K.U.’s loss to the University of Northern Iowa, a game that was in fact, nothing less than a stunner. It is not a matter of opinion: Kansas Men’s Basketball is a great program. You may choose not to root for them. You may choose to select a different adjective in describing the team. You may even hate them, but it is literally impossible, barring your ability to largely disillusion yourself, to say with an honest tongue that the achievements of Kansas basketball have been anything shy of tremendous.

Heading into yesterday’s game was perhaps an insurmountable pressure for the nation’s number-one team. The game started off similar to the one the Jayhawks had just won, in that they trailed early to LeHigh, and again to U.N.I. Only their deficit to Northern Iowa was one in which they could not overcome. I don’t mean to chalk the loss up to pressure, and I stoutly refuse to lend an ear to any complaints regarding officiating. The simple truth is that this Jayhawks team was outplayed. Anyone who doesn’t want to give it up to that Cedar Falls club is in outright denial. It was a high-energy game, one in which the Panthers led for all but a handful of seconds. Kansas made a respectable run with less than three minutes to play, but it was, as the saying goes, too little too late. Northern Iowa was destined to advance, leaving the Jayhawks maimed and teary-eyed in their locker room.

My point in writing today, though, is not to carry us through the sufferings of Kansas players, coaches, and fans, but rather to talk about what the loss means to those who are not fans.

It is difficult, in words, to express exactly how frustrating it has been, even before the game was over, to witness the sheer joy and celebration that friends, fans of other Big XII programs shared when it became all but certain that the crimson and blue would be going home. I’ve used this term on numerous occasions in recent weeks, and I hate to overdo it, but I’ll take that risk and say that the rooting against Kansas, the admitted hatred of the school/hoops program, cannot be classified by any other words than these: loser mentality.
That’s correct and intended, and for purposes of clarity, I’ll say it again: loser mentality.

Before I elaborate, and before offense and insult sets in, there is one thing to understand, and that is this: I am an expert in loser mentality. No. I don’t have a license for it in my wallet, and there is no framed degree stating such on my office wall. My word will just have to be taken on this matter. I have been a loser, and in some regard, I still am. More on that in a minute, but first some background to illustrate that to which I refer.

Be it via conversation, text messages, Tweets, or Facebook status updates, here are a few of the gems – mostly from Missouri fans, but the K-Staters have chimed in as well -- I’ve heard in recent weeks:

“I could never, under any circumstance, bring myself to root for K.U.”

“Even if K.U. was playing the team that beat M.U. in the national championship in the previous season, I’d still pull for the team that beat M.U.”

“Learning to hate K.U. is my second sports memory ever. The first was celebrating the Royals World Series win; the second was my dad telling me, after reading the paper the day after the Jayhawks won the ’88 title game, 'No, son: It is not great that they won. We hate K.U.'”

As the final minutes ticked away in yesterday’s game, here were a few:

“Don’t blow this, Northern Iowa.”


“Can’t wait to buy my Northern Iowa shirt; it’ll go great with my Bucknell and Bradley tees.”

And of course there are the token folks that think they’ve invented something clever when they say “Gayhawk” or “Rock Choke.”

And it’d be silly of me to leave out the shiny new Facebook group entitled “Remember KU choked in the 2010 NCAA Tournament? That was AWESOME.” For the record, we’re not 24 hours removed from yesterday’s tipoff and that group almost has 13,000 members.

Anyway, back to how I’m a loser.

I’ve been watching professional football for 30 years now, and I’ve been watching it legitimately, consistently for 24. For most of that first decade, my Kansas City Chiefs were terrible. And trust me when I say that “terrible” is an understatement. It wasn’t until the beginning of the Carl Peterson/Marty Schottenheimer regime in 1989 that the Chiefs were even worth mentioning on a national level. And as many are aware, the Chiefs had a quote/unquote deal with NFL Films to not tape/broadcast any deep passes thrown at Arrowhead, so as not to reveal the tens of thousands of empty seats. But this general manager/coach duo turned things around for the franchise, restored things to the winning ways that had long evaded Chiefs teams since the early ‘70s.

In case you don’t want to do the math, that’s a long damn time to be a horrid sports club.

Somewhere in the middle of that stretch of putridity, a couple of Kansas City’s rivals were having success. The Denver Broncos went to a Super Bowl in the late ‘70s, the Oakland/L.A. Raiders won one or two, and hell, even the Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers had their moments. For a spell, the Raiders owned the Chiefs, and for most of the ‘80s, and chunks of the ‘90s, the Broncos did, too. Football fans all know that in the last 10 years, the Raiders have been a pretty terrible team. They did go to a Super Bowl in 2002, but they’ve been terrible ever since.

Denver, on the other hand has, as one of my colleagues puts it, has “sustained excellence” over time. Very seldom do they finish below .500, and they’ve been to six championships now and even won a pair.

I’ll pause for a minute to say this: There is a massive generational aspect to consider in sports fandom. That is, if your folks are fans of the Kansas State Wildcats, then you probably are, too. Unless you hate your parents, I guess. The point, though, is that people have children, and ties to teams tend to be passed on almost as if they were their own unique sector of the gene pool. I have an uncle who’s an M.U. fan. He hates K.U. None of his three kids went to M.U., and neither of them is really into sports at all, but I can guarantee you that if asked, they’d confess their hatred of the Jayhawks as well.

Where my loser status comes in is here: The Denver Broncos have been, are, and probably always will be my football nemesis. They were good in the ‘80s when my team was terrible. They were great in the ‘90s when my team was good, and they’ve always been a proverbial force to be reckoned with in the 2000s. En route to their first Super Bowl win, they came in to Kansas City as a wildcard and knocked off the Chiefs, who’d gone 13-3 with a first-round playoff bye. Since then, they are either in the playoffs almost every year or at least on the season-ending bubble of post-season contention. They’ve been to a conference championship game in the last five years, and their fan base, by way of some good San Diego teams and some awful Chiefs teams have begun to collectively overlook my Kansas City team.

Suffice it to say, I hate the Denver Broncos. While they’ve toyed with post-season hopes in each of the last three campaigns, my Chiefs have won a total of 10 games. Ten. Games. Here’s one spin on that: That’s a 21 percent winning percentage. The real spin, however, is this: That’s a 79 percent losing percentage. When your losing percentage is flirting with an 80 percent, you are nothing shy of a massive loser. I top that by tuning in to every Broncos game and rooting for whoever they’re playing. If the Chiefs lose, by sullenness is somewhat balanced by a Denver loss. If the Denver game isn’t on television, I’m pissed. And believe me when I say that there have been many Sundays where I question which team is getting more of my energy. That makes me a mega-loser.

But you know what? I’m okay with that. The National Football League is highly respected for having a balance among teams and across all 32 franchises. It’s the league in which anyone can make a quick turnaround. It has a salary cap. It offers the opportunity to be competitive, do your job well, and have success. If you don’t, you won’t.

This is not the case in Major League Baseball. The league has tried via luxury sharing, and some teams have had success even though their payrolls are remarkably small in comparison to some of the baseball giants. This is not the case in NCAA basketball, either. I’ve tried to illustrate this contrast with friends whom are fans of Kansas State and Missouri, and since I’ve been riding the cliché train this entire post, I’m sad to say that the comparison has done absolutely nothing but fall on deaf ears. In an area like Kansas City, most of us as sports fans band together in our passions for the Chiefs and the Royals. When it comes to college sports, however, we fragment faster than a firework in the July fourth sky.

In baseball, we have no allegiance to the Clevelands, the Chicagos, the Minnesotas, and the Detroits, although some of us might jump on the bandwagon come October. In football, we have no need to pull for the Denvers, the Oaklands, the San Diegos, and I doubt any of us change our tunes in January. In the college basketball regular season, we don’t like each other, and that’s how it should be. If K.U.’s playing M.U., you’d better believe I hate me some Tigers. Same goes for K-State. Do I wish global misery upon their programs? No. I want them all to be successful. I want the competition to be tight, and most of all, I want the Big XII to get its due respect.

In college football, the folks in Bristol laud the SEC, and the Big XII is an afterthought. In hoops season, the Big East gets a lot of attention, and the Big XII gets an occasional nod. But us Big XIIers need to band together once the conference tournaments are over. We need Selection Sunday to be a bridge point. If we face one another in March, it’s on like Donkey Kong. Until that moment, however, we should be pulling for one another. That doesn’t mean bellied up at the bar wearing your gold if you’re a K-Stater. It doesn’t mean actively cheering for K.U., M.U. fans. It just means not rooting against them, not erupting in glory when a foe falls and fails.

If you don’t get it now, you probably never will. I’ve been stoked for all seven of the Big XII teams since tournament play started five days ago. Some have fallen, and since I started typing this, the Tigers have been toppled by the West Virginia Mountaineers. You think I was pulling for W.V.? Absolutely not. I wanted M.U. to advance. I was stoked for them last year when they made it deeper into the tournament than they ever had. I have mad respect for Frank Martin and the Kansas State program. I was pulling for them against North Texas, and B.Y.U., and I hope they’re successful against their next foe, too.

And let’s not forget Texas A&M and Baylor, who are also still alive and very much in this thing.

In the end, the point is two-tiered: I’ve never been an M.U. fan, or a K-State fan, so I’ve not experienced the frustrations that the Kansas Jayhawks have existed as over the years, but I pull for my fellow Big XII teams when it comes to March Madness matchups that don’t pit the teams against one another. And I can say that, having experienced (and still experiencing) the loser mentality that I aim to counter. The other factor is the representation that our conference needs. I see folks posting polls and studies and stories all of the time about this region of the country. What percentage of rednecks lives here? Where do we stack up in the quote/unquote best/worst cities in which to live? Are we the fattest city? And there’s the argument on how Kansas City will always be a two-sport town, that we could never support an NBA or NHL franchise.

The take on all of those angles is negative. What we need is a positive spin and we can gain that in the tiny world of our college basketball brackets. We should stand together. Will I be genuinely happy if K-State or M.U. wins a national title? For the simple fact that that means Kansas won’t have won one, no, I won’t. But will I pull for the Tigers or the ‘Cats, or any other Big XII team when they face non-conference opponents? You won’t hear my hollers at the bar, or see my fist pumps on the couch, but I’m rooting for them. You bet I am. I’m always looking to shed a few layers of loser. So let’s go, Baylor. Let’s go, State. Get out there and win.


Anonymous said...

well said, my man. - Jeff