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The agony of defeat: Lessons from football fandom

▶ Watch Video: Sports’ lessons about the agony of defeat

On this 56th Super Bowl Sunday, whether the Bengals or the Rams win, “Sunday Morning” senior contributor Ted Koppel finds real meaning in the final score:


“The Buffalo Bills take the lead with 1:54 to go in the fourth quarter!”

You’ll find Jake Varcoe and his “Bills Bunker” on YouTube.  Varcoe is a sports reporter with a passionate bias. What he provides, that’s sometimes missing among professional sports commentators, is a front-row perspective on the thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat.

Three weeks ago, in a magnificent playoff game between the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs, with Buffalo up by three, Varcoe had every reason to believe that his beloved Bills were one game away from the Super Bowl.

“What a game this has been! Three lead changes in the last two minutes of the game!”

But ….

“The Chiefs still have an opportunity. They’re at field goal range with that one.”

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ’til its over.” And it wasn’t. The game went to overtime.

In overtime, if your team gets the ball first and scores – not just any score, it has to be a touchdown – you win. So, getting the ball first can be a big deal. That is decided by the flip of a coin.

“(Sighs) And the Bills lose the coin toss. If you can get that coin flip, you’re going to win.”

It isn’t quite that simple, but Varcoe is right: The odds favor the team that gets the ball first. The Chiefs got the ball. The Chiefs won.

“I’m not a fan of the overtime rules in the NFL, but I’m not going to complain about them,” Varcoe told his “Bills Bunker” audience. “Congratulations to the Kansas City Chiefs on a hard-fought victory.”

Nice. Gracious. The quarterbacks showed class, too.  Those young men demonstrated something that the country has all but forgotten: how to win with dignity and lose with grace.

Jason Gay, a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal, said, “In the days afterwards, there was this really compelling gesture from Chiefs fans. They made $13 donations to the charity set up by Josh Allen, the quarterback for the Bills.”

Chiefs fans made thousands of $13 donations (13 being the number of seconds it took the Chiefs to tie the game and send it to overtime).

“This resulted in an amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Gay. “And it was really kind of a touching thing, when you consider how acrimonious that ending could have been.”

Koppel asked, “Jason, I don’t think it will come as any shock to you, if I tell that what I’m driving at is the question of whether our sports fans are capable of doing something that our political fans are incapable of doing?”

“I think sports, mercifully, is one of the last places where we still have commonly-accepted facts,” Gay replied. “When the scoreboard says 30-27, we don’t go around and say, ‘It was 42-38!’ And I think that is a significant difference between our athletic platforms and some of the other platforms in our lives.”

Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor and secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, is a professor at Stanford – and an life-long, passionate football fan. She said, “There is something about sports that I think kids learn pretty early on, which is maybe this time I won’t win and you’ll win. But maybe the next time if I work harder, I’ll win. We all have to play by the rules and have the game be meaningful.”

For years, in fact, Dr. Rice let it be known that she really yearns to be commissioner of the National Football League. Not anymore.

“As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I’ve started to think that maybe it’s not that great a job after all,” she said. “I’ll just stay a fan.”

Probably a wise decision. Between charges of racial discrimination and sexual harassment in the league, it’s become a very tough job indeed. 

And sometimes, of course, those enforcing the rules get it wrong. And that lands in the commissioner’s lap, too – as was the case three years ago, in another playoff game, between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams:

Gay explains: “We have a 20-20 game. Drew Brees lobs a pass to the sideline, and a Rams cornerback just completely takes out the Saints receiver.” But there was no flag on the play. The official missed the call. The crowd went crazy.

During the NFC Championship Game on January 20, 2019, refs appeared to miss a pass interference call when the L.A. Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman knocked down the New Orleans Saints’ Tommylee Lewis. The Rams went on to beat the Saints 26-23, and headed to the Super Bowl. 

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Gay said, “So, this really egregious penalty, a penalty that you could rightfully argue kept the Saints from scoring and going on to the Super Bowl, just was allowed to happen.”

Saints fans made their opinions known: “This is a travesty!” “Worst call ever!” “Cheatin’ f****s!”

One particularly rabid Saints fan, James Carville (who sometimes also dabbles in Democratic Party politics), told Koppel, “First of all, it was evident to anybody in the stands that our receiver was interfered with. … I was just aghast. I said, ‘They’re going to have to do something.'”

Koppel said, “Now, the commissioner did apologize to the coach, didn’t he?”

“That’s great!” Carville laughed. “If I run over your grandkid and I say, ‘Gee, I feel terrible about it!’ What else could he do? Of course, he had to apologize. 

“Did anybody think of bringing a lawsuit?”

“A lotta people,” Carville replied. “Some were filed.”

Indeed, one fan told a reporter, “If we can find an attorney in the city of New Orleans worth his salt or her salt willing to take on the NFL, I’ll put my house on the line.”

Carville said, “I thought about being a plaintiff on one of ’em. But I have a lotta lawyer friends [who said], ‘I’ll be glad to file a suit. But you know, you’re not gonna win.'”

But ultimately, what happened? “Nothing,” Gay said. “We’re still in a situation where NFL games are very often left to subjective decisions by individuals on the field.”

And the fans had to sort of eat it.

Ultimately, though, in sports and in politics, there’s a final authority, and an understanding, whether it’s handed down by someone in a striped shirt or a black robe. Fair or unfair, for the good of the sport (and sometimes for the good of the nation), you live with it, as Al Gore did in the wake of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision that delivered the Presidency of the United States to George W. Bush:

“Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it,” Gore said on December 13, 2000. “For the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”

Rice said, “That is how democracy has to work. It is really important that rule, that understanding, that I may not like the outcome, but I am going to respect the outcome. That’s extremely important. Now, I will say there’s something that’s also forgotten a bit about 2000. There were people on the other side, some of them in Congress, who said, ‘He’s not really my president.’ So, maybe that erosion started before we actually realized that it had started. We really have to get back the sense that our elections are the test of democracy, and that when they’re over, we move on.”

So, are we comparing a bad call in a football game to the Supreme Court decision that cost Al Gore the presidency? Not even close. Although at some point, in football and in real life, in order for the system to function, you simply have to accept when there are no further appeals. 

Carville said, “In spite of every fact, every court decision, 60 court decisions, six gajillion recounts – I’m talking about 2020, yeah – I don’t know how many different recounts that all find the same thing, that there’s no evidence or fact at all that anything other than minor discrepancies that happen in any election had an effect. And you have 35% of the country that just believes otherwise? They’re not going to change. They’re just not.”

We’ve seen where a refusal to accept that notion can lead …

In a few hours, though, about a hundred million Americans will gather before their televisions to bear witness to one of the few remaining national events where accepting the final score as fact remains a widely-accepted practice.

     
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Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: Ed Givnish. 



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