I swear that I'm basically a cordial, polite, gracious person who never says an unkind word about anyone. But I do have one nasty personality trait: Deep down, I'm rooting against your favorite team. And I don't always have a good reason for wanting them to lose—I just do. Don't take it personally. I just want to watch your heart break into a million little pieces.
Like this truly obnoxious Pittsburgh Steelers fan who lived in my dorm at USC. Every touchdown, every defensive stop, was met with a booming, antagonistic bellow. Making matters worse, when he didn't watch football, he was somebody who thought he was a misunderstood genius. (In reality, he was mostly just a hapless bozo.) After a while, I discovered that I wanted the Steelers to lose because I didn't want him thinking his perception of himself was correct. If the Steelers lost, then maybe he'd be forced to wise up.
I realize that's completely stupid logic—but it makes sense if you're into sports, a realm in which we subscribe meaning to events we have no control over. If the Steelers lose, then it proves that the universe agrees with me, and you're a moron. I haven't seen that guy for almost 20 years, and yet I still laugh whenever Ben Roethlisberger throws an interception because it reminds me how incensed he would get.
Sports normally have an amazing power to bring people together—uniting us around our TVs during the Super Bowl or Olympics. But they're also an excellent excuse for us to divide into camps and hate other people. Even better, that animosity is encouraged. In our normal lives, we would never detest our fellow man the way we can during a sporting event. Rooting against teams (and, more specifically, rooting against their fans) is one of the last great dark pleasures in America. As a planet, we're (hopefully) on our way to erasing social discontent, but it's still socially acceptable to loathe rival fan bases for the pettiest of reasons.
So when I tell you I'm watching the Super Bowl on Sunday mostly to root against the Seattle Seahawks, it's not just because I'm a terrible person. It's because I can admit that I'm a terrible person.
I first discovered the joy of rooting against teams almost 30 years ago. After the 1987 season, the St. Louis Cardinals football team moved to Arizona, leaving me without an NFL club to call my own. Rather than adopting a new one, which seemed strange, I realized that it was almost as much fun to watch other people get sad when their team lost. Rooting for a favorite team requires tons of emotional exertion—you put your whole soul on the line for the teams you love. (My main sports team is the St. Louis baseball Cardinals, and their wins and losses affect me in embarrassingly profound ways. When they've won the World Series, it's almost like validation for my life. When they lose the World Series—like they did last year to the Red Sox—nothing feels right anymore.) But once the football Cardinals left, I realized I was relieved of that burden—at least on Sundays. I was free to hate.
Ever since, my adult life has been filled with hate-rooting.
Seriously. Name the Super Bowl and I can tell you which team I rooted against and why:
Super Bowl XXXV. I rooted against the Baltimore Ravens. I thought it was sleazy how owner Art Modell uprooted one of the great NFL franchises, the Cleveland Browns, and then dropped them into a new city. (Kind of like the Bidwell family did with my St. Louis football Cardinals.) Why should he be rewarded for that? To me, he deserved to be punished for such carpetbagging.
Super Bowl XXXVII. I rooted against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I can't stand Jon Gruden and his stupid smart-ass face, and I hated that the Bucs fired Tony Dungy. Also, Brad Johnson was a terrible quarterback. What right did either he or Gruden have winning a Super Bowl?
Super Bowl XLI. I rooted against the Chicago Bears. First and foremost, I'm a St. Louis guy, so I have to root against every Chicago team. (Sort of like Joe Buck.) Listen, Chicagoans have a great city, but they've been coasting on that "Da Bears" crap for a couple generations now.
Super Bowls XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLII and XLVI. In all honesty, I root against the New England Patriots at all times—Super Bowl or no Super Bowl. (And not just because the Red Sox have beaten my Cardinals—twice, damn it—in recent World Series.) In short, there's no fan base in the country more insufferable than theirs. Boston-area sports fans have a permanent inferiority complex to New York, and so, when the Patriots and Red Sox got good, their fans went from being lovable underdogs to spoiled, entitled, paranoid whiners in mere seconds. Boston-area fans are like the GOP back in the 2000s: They win everything, and yet, they still play the victim card over and over. A guy I used to work with—sweet in every other regard—just wouldn't stop with his conspiracy theories when the New York Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. According to him, it was rigged: "They" didn't want the Patriots to go undefeated. That's the greatest Super Bowl ever played because of its amazing finish—and also because the Patriots' air of invincibility, of manifest destiny, was loudly punctured. And we all got to watch it happen together. That guy's face on Monday was the most beautiful moment of my life since I got married.
I know how ridiculous that statement—and everything else above—sounds. But it also gets at something deeper about life. Rooting against a team allows all of us to let out some pent-up hostility. In fact, it might be an effective safety valve. (Except when it's not: Lately, the rivalry between fans of the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers has gotten particularly violent, leaving fans in comas or dead—a monstrous perversion of what, in the end, shouldn't ever get so serious. It's just a game, you cretins.)
This is why people reflexively hate the New York Yankees. To some, the team represents every rich, entitled person they know in real life. (Not me: I root for the Yankees because their rivals are the Red Sox, who are from Boston and therefore have the lamest, most insecure fans.) Or why people scream "Beat L.A.!" during a Lakers game. They equate the city with our society's loathsome fascination with celebrity culture and shallowness. (I live in Los Angeles and like the Lakers, but it's always funny to watch people here root against them—it's as if they're formally rejecting the clichéd aspects of a town they otherwise love.) And I know that people detest my beloved St. Louis Cardinals because of the team's well-cultivated air of moral superiority and playing-the-game-the-right-way sanctimony. There's even a Twitter feed devoted to re-tweeting the most disgustingly racist, small-minded and moronic Cardinal fans, like when our star Carlos Beltran signed with the Yankees during the offseason and prompted tweets like "I hope Beltran chokes on his money in New York."
Is every single fan and every single player on these teams a terrible human being? Of course not. (And do you think I've ever shared my bitter opinions with these teams' fans? God no. We're trying to live in a civilized society here. And, besides, some of these people are my friends.) But in sports, it's fun to paint our opponents in such broad strokes precisely because it's stupid to do so in our actual lives. That's why Deadspin's Drew Magary's "Why Your Team Sucks" columns are the best NFL preview every year. Going team-by-team, Magary smartly analyzes a team's strengths and weaknesses; however, he spends most of his time eviscerating the worst aspects of its fans or home city, which is really more valuable. For instance, here's his take on the Seahawks from back in August: