For many football fans across the country, this past weekend was marked by bitterness. How could it not be? Think of Houston fans, who saw their team sleepwalk through a playoff game, barely animate. Think of Cincinnati fans, long-suffering, who saw a guaranteed victory over Pittsburgh slip away thanks to a series of inexcusably poor decisions. Think of Minnesota fans — for whom memories of Gary Anderson’s missed field goal in ’98 and Brett Favre’s interception in ’09 still sit fresh — those poor souls who sat through extreme cold only to see a chip-shot kick sail wide left in the closing seconds. On a smaller scale, think of Clemson fans, whose underdog squad came within a few big plays of toppling college football’s juggernaut on Monday night. That’s four tough losses — each season-ending, each heartbreaking in its own way. Whatever happens years from now, no matter what wins await on the horizon, those losses will stick with those fans forever, unable to be forgotten.
From a neutral perspective, from the vantage point out of desiring nothing but a few entertaining games, this past weekend was thrilling. It was also, in a strange way, somewhat cathartic. There’s something powerful, something moving and resonant, in seeing fan bases go through their darkest hours. The feeling is not schadenfreude, that ugly emotion that spurns sympathy in favor of cheap, exploitative laughs. It’s something more compassionate, more inclusive, a recognition in others of a familiar ache.
All fans have experienced the heartbreak of a soul-crushing loss. A blown lead, a boneheaded miscue late in a game, a devastating injury to a star player, an inexplicable play call that goes disastrously wrong: to be a fan of sports is to endure these things, to know them intimately. No fan base is immune. Even the spoiled and the privileged, the fans who root for perennial powerhouses, know what it’s like to experience the deep, unfair hurt that accompanies a big loss. The feelings of anger and frustration don’t fully dissipate, not ever. The feelings may dull over time, sure, but fandom offers no true escape. The grief will always be present, gnawing, lurking in the background years later. Healing is possible. Forgetting is not. Such is the nature of being a die-hard fan.
The experience of misery is intrinsic to fandom, more prevalent and immediate than joy. Only one team can win a title in a given season; only one fan base is granted the luxury of ending the year in celebration, basking in undiluted happiness. For all other fan bases, even those anchored to realistic expectations, each season is somewhat of a letdown, a failure to achieve the highest goal. This is why a championship season is such a wonderful thing: it seems like some sort of cosmic reward, a payoff for all the years of suffering. A championship doesn’t erase the past, but it does demarcate the line between the pain of before and the joy of now. But, again, this is an experience only the luckiest of fans are granted. All others must continue to slog through sadness, hoping for a change in fortune but expecting none. For all the highs sports can induce, fandom is mostly defined by shattered dreams, by disappointing loses piling up, unable to be discarded.
Why does this matter? Because given the universal nature of pain when it comes to fandom, it can be cathartic to see other fans go through an experience you’re familiar with. To witness that offers an opportunity to build a spiritual connection. When you recognize in others a pain that’s familiar, when you can commiserate, your pain, which often seems so internal, so personal, becomes externalized. The pain intrinsic to fandom is reframed not as a phenomenon restricted to a single team — your team — but instead as something out in the ether, indiscriminate and ever-present. It’s a reminder that sports misery is a universal experience, a misfortune all fans know. It’s easy to forget that fact when your emotionally invested in your team and only your team. Sadness often feels isolating, narrow, so it’s valuable to take a step back and realize that nobody is alone in this, that all fan bases must endure the lows of hopelessness, must know heartbreak in its many and cruel manifestations. Recognizing the pain of others makes coping with personal pain easier because acts of emotional recognition, of sympathy and empathy and all those good things, are acts of kindness — the sort of acts that make the world seem like a less lonely place. Others’ pain is cathartic because it offers an opportunity to be caring, to do good, to focus on the internal machinery that produces love and compassion. Expanding empathy’s boundaries, widening its circle, feels good, feels right, undeniably so.
There’s a line of thinking, one more dominant in this country than is healthy, that instructs people — the sad, the broken, the hurt — to weigh their sorrows against others’. This idea is often used as a cudgel: How dare you be despondent when someone over there has it worse! It’s a heartless, unhelpful way of thinking; it encourages division over unity, isolation over inclusion. It minimizes and distorts and fails to achieve any semblance of being proactive. With that in mind, it’s important to remember that acknowledging the suffering of other fans is not about telling yourself to “get over” your team’s toughest loss, the one you still carry with you to this day. It’s not about making comparisons in an effort to determine who deserves sympathy, who doesn’t. No, it’s about healing the self through compassion toward others, about letting wounds both fresh and old mend though acts of understanding. It’s about coming together, finding common ground, because it’s easier to be strong, to recover and heal, when you’re reminded that your pain is not unique, that it is instead something quite normal and conquerable.
When you play sports as a child, you’re taught how to lose. Your taught to keep your chin up, your head held high. Dignity is encouraged, self-flagellation isn’t. It’s easy to imagine that sports stop carrying lessons once you reach a certain age, once you’re removed from actual on-field participation. But that’s not the case. Sports will always offer opportunities for emotional growth. You just have to look at them the right way.