By Neil W. Blackmon
This piece is dedicated to my co-writers, Puck, who has sat through meaningless Bills games in the blistering cold, and Jon Levy, who faces a month and a half long fight of his own with his beloved West Ham; and to any American sports fan who has been on the wrong end of a season that will not end.
It’s a cold, somber late November Sunday in Gainesville, Florida and I emerge from my slumber to find Puck on the other couch in his living room, staring straight at the television, silent and sullen. It had been a long night—Florida had lost at home for the third time that season and was eliminated from the SEC Championship Game–so a bit of silence and a scarcity of movement made some sense, but it was the nature of his silence that was striking. There was so little movement, and his face was more vacant than it was pensive. Many Gator fans feel vacant, which is a word that suggests an overarching emptiness, following a crushing Gator defeat. Scratch that. That’s not unique to college football fans or Florida fans. Many fans period feel that emptiness. What made that Sunday morning memorable was that this look on my friend’s face was affecting. Vacant, empty and riddled with despair wasn’t the right way of framing his face and body movements (or lack thereof) on the opposite couch. No, this was something worse. This was resignation. This was Puck, Buffalo Bills fan, resigned and waiting for an outcome his face knew was already decided. The Bills would not win that Sunday, nor many of the Sundays that followed, and there was absolutely nothing he could do to change that fate.
Resignation is an emotion that has weaved its way into the fabric of American sport. It isn’t just reserved for people like Puck (although he received a particularly brutal dose of humility and defeat that late November weekend); it is felt by various fans of hopeless teams from South Beach to Seattle. Resignation is a devastating emotion, one that lacks an attendant, healing emotion, such as an incentive to discuss why there will be better days moving forward or why at least this particular day can give meaning to a season’s exercise of futility. The only thing that accompanies resignation beyond knowledge of what’s to come is blind hope—and even in less dark times that is rarely a reason for feeling better when you get up in the morning. No, being a Buffalo Bills fan last football season, or a Pittsburgh Pirates fan any season since Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds’ throw from left field by half a right cleat, or a Sacramento Kings fan since the officials kept whistling Vlade for player control fouls in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals almost a decade ago, is a particularly devastating venture. It’s a thankless, emotionally numbing, “I used to walk uphill to school both ways in the bitter, grey Rochester winter” task that produces no emotional reward. Even attending a game and wearing a bag over your head is less reward and more of the humane urge to color humor into the bleakest of situations. No, being a fan of these teams only breeds acceptance, and an acceptance of the most painful sort—acceptance as “resignation”–the kind that amputates the spirit.
For all the glory of American sport (and there is a great deal of that as well), there is the resignation of millions of fans across the country who don’t support a team in a position to find glory. This rarely spoken of excess that is much more than a kid brother to the American sporting quest for glory is a burden that is particularly difficult to bear, and it is one for which there is no antidote. As an American sports journalist, we try to fight our way around this excess by writing stories about the future—by embracing the “blind hope” which is the only residual optimism that remains when one is mired in losing. That’s fair enough—after all, it is all we have. An antidote or alternative to the dying Septembers of Major League Baseball seasons, to the late Novembers and cold Decembers of our National Football League, to the seemingly endless February and March of our National Basketball Association seasons demands we write these stories, and so we do. We write about the Pittsburgh Pirates and their young core, a sequencing story of “What If’s” that always blindly suggests the possibility of a turn around, of hope. We write about the NFL draft and the search for the franchise player who “changes the culture” and “reinvigorates a city.” We write about the NBA Draft Lottery, about “The Dougie” and the point guard who is a decade-long foundation for an experiment with winning. We write these stories because we have to; the “blind hope” they produce is all we have in the face of the resignation that envelops the here and now. That’s all the fan has as they watch a late September Pirates game, or a Bills game on a cold November Sunday in silence knowing that today won’t be different, and even if for three hours it is different, it won’t matter. Any late season victory by a woebegone team goes mostly unnoticed, except by those of us fortunate enough to write about sport for a living or as a passion and hobby. It’s gotten so bad that there are even stories about why it is bad to win late in the year in American sport (the NBA being the most prominent example of this, where futility is rewarded with additional ping pong balls.) Indeed, is there anything more tragic in American sport than a December NFL tilt between the 2-12 Bills and the 3-11 Browns, or a late March, weeknight NBA match-up between the Washington Wizards (Dougie and all) and the New Jersey Nets? If there is, send me an e-mail. Winning changes little—that’s the message—and in fact, too much of it when it’s already bad and you might start affecting the only thing you can embrace—blind hope.
Such is life at the half-empty stadiums and arenas that dot the landscape of competitive sediment in American sport. And yet, for no particularly good reason other than “they’ve always done it this way”, these teams are all fortunate enough to remain in the league. Fortunate might not be the right word for it, but in one way it is the perfect word—at the end of each season, the fact that the Detroit Lions finished last or the Baltimore Orioles finished next-to-last but get to do it again next year is a “fortunate” thing in that it reminds the rest of us that in fact, those franchises still exist. And that, my friends, along with “blind hope”, is all the Bills fans of the world like Puck get for their tears and support. And this, my friends, is another reason a guy from Atlanta who has seen his share of half-empty Georgia Domes and crooked number Falcons also-rans, who has spent time in a half-empty basketball arena under a hotel watching a team that’s too good to win the lottery but too bad to win much else, came to love soccer, where American sporting fan resignation is replaced by relegation.
Relegation is the savior of the resigned football fan. It’s a reason to not sit on the couch sullen, grief-stricken and worst, resigned. The emotive pull of hope, aligned in America with the seasons, from the national pastime where every spring training “hope springs eternal” to the NFL where every September things fall a bit differently this time around, tends to be just that—a brief, emotive tug silenced in the dog days of baseball’s post All-Star break August or the grind-it-out winter of a NBA season gone awry. The emotional construct of American sport is a predictable, linear narrative, and one that terminally ends with strong-willed, character-driven men sitting on their couches in silence. Not so in England and throughout Europe. One opens a newspaper abroad (if one opens newspapers at all anymore) and sees a two-boxed set of standings—the top of a table—Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and the like— and the bottom of a table—label “RELEGATION.” Relegation is its own emotional construct, a residual, consuming gremlin that emerges from the shadows of late summer, transfer window hope. It is, above all, a reason to sit in attention and not in sharp silence.
Relegation creates all manner of emotions: envy, fear, humiliation, horror, insecurity, shame, resentment. Sure, the resignation of folks like Puck on a couch on a late November NFL Sunday can facilitate a few of these sentiments too—but what’s the endgame? There isn’t one, except deep in sporting magazines and on websites, where the few next-of-kin brethren who join you in futile support can read any number of tales regaling the blind hope that exists for next year. Relegation offers more: a complete, unnerving, emotional rollercoaster season-within-a-season melodrama where the fight to avoid the dreaded “drop” becomes a fight for your very class identity as a fan. In short, it provides, against their will, the have-nots with exactly the type of feeling and drama that makes sports (in the end contrived events with great human value) worth our time.
Want proof? Examine the history. Relegation provides drama that often usurps the glory-seekers at the top of the standings. This season, for example, Manchester United’s drive for the Premiership championship is turning into a bit of a yawn. Without question, their quest for the treble is fascinating, but in a vacuum the league is mostly decided, as Arsene Wenger’s comments about there being “no shame in finishing second” this week revealed. That’s not the story at the bottom, where no fewer than eight teams must be feeling the pressure of the drop—and even a pair of teams above those eight knows the margin for error between safety and being back in the mire is extraordinarily small. Relegation is not just another reason to keep watching—it is perhaps the largest one.
Like the playoffs in most American sports, or the late season collegiate football “elimination” game in late November, relegation fights create heroes. That’s a distinctly un-American thing, and one instance of the beauty of the beautiful game. You’d never see an American sportswriter suggest that a John Wall double-double to beat Atlanta late in the NBA season was a heroic performance—that would just be silly. After all, all that brilliance really meant was that the Wizards won their 22nd game and, as indicated above, might be at risk of losing a ping pong ball or two. In relegation, the opposite is true. Don’t believe me—try out an American example. Brian McBride cemented his status as Fulham great by nearly single-handedly helping Fulham avoid the drop in 2008. The result, most notably clinched when McBride scored late against Birmingham City in May of that year, was a pub named after the American at Craven Cottage, where Fulham play their home matches.
Heroism, contrary to Pax Americana lore, isn’t limited to Americans in relegation battles. Indeed, Portugal’s Pedro Mendes became a cult hero in Portsmouth by scoring crackling goal after crackling goal in a lengthy 2006 relegation battle. His stunning brace against Manchester City in March of that year at Fratton Park ended a lengthy Portsmouth losing streak and instilled hope in sullen fans and teammates alike—the goals that followed capped an emotional ride that ended as Hollywood would want things to end—with Pompei staying up. Those tales of heroism are cut off in the empty arenas and competitive dregs of American sport. In America, no one cares that Brian Matusz struck out 13 in late September against the White Sox to help the Orioles win 1-0, or that Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns to help the Bills win number three in December. In England, those performances can get pubs named after you, or inspire ticker tape parades. And perhaps that’s the best illustration of the distinction between relegation and resignation.
Above all, relegation battles give fans of the downtrodden a chance to wake up in the morning and feel the same adrenaline rush a championship drive generates. Sure, the endgame is different—but in the end, at least there is an endgame beyond “blind hope.” Relying too long on “blind hope” can be suffocating. Indeed, in his wonderful book Bloody Confused: An American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer”, Chuck Culpepper suggests (while labeling my resignation/relegation distinction differently) that perhaps relegation, not universal health care, is why English men live longer than American men. He writes:
“Relegation, a balm for tedium, surely prolongs life. Whoever invented relegation deserves to rank a smidgen of the way to Dr. Jonas Salk in the pantheon of humanity. While Dr. Salk, by discovering a polio vaccine, found a way to enhance life for those who might have gone paralyzed otherwise, the inventors of relegation found a way to resuscitate cities, towns, and villages that would have lain dormant, as do many in, well, the United States.”
It also might end the paralysis of many a fan on the couch, staring into oblivion in abject silence, resigned and waiting for the worst. And for those reasons, it should be praised. There is no American alternative, no generic that comes close to this English prescription. In an e-mail discussion about this article, The Yanks Are Coming’s Andrew Villegas made the point quite aptly that we’ve nothing even close, writing:
“If mouth-foaming American football fans who number in the hundreds of millions can’t muster the willpower to stand up against the oligopoly that is the NFL and create teams on their own? What do we have? Closest we have is NCAA football where “promotion” and “relegation” are practiced through the number in student body population, plush endowments and media coverage Division I-A, AA, Div. II all that ridiculousness where the players are paid with the possibility of a fat contract at the end. If the lower leagues are feeders for the prem, in America, the NCAA is its free-market, unregulated stepsibling. Yikes.”
I’ll back off the ledge just a bit. There is nothing like it—and while MLS has thought about introducing such a system, that day is extremely far off—and should be, by the way—there’s no competitively comparable second league, it would be extraordinarily expensive logistically, given the size of the United States, the costs of travel, the disparity in stadium choice and the like. In the NBA or NFL, it simply doesn’t make sense, and there’s certainly nowhere to send the Kings or the Detroit Lions. Major League Baseball has a minor league, but having been around and structured about the same way for over one-hundred years, there’s little argument for change. As such, the facts are that there is little that can be done in most American sports, and soccer in America isn’t ready for that system yet, and may never be. The troubling impact of that is the resignation felt by so many American sporting fans doomed to year after year of numb, futile late season fandom. They are still fans, of course. Americans are revered and reviled all at once for their inane optimism. Hope does spring eternal, whether in baseball’s Arizona or Florida each spring or at July’s two-a-days when labor peace allows. They will always be fans, even though most their seasons are footnotes. This piece is, was, less about that. It’s simply a reason to appreciate, to even admire, relegation, where that level of loyalty is rewarded by more than a sportswriter’s hopeful promise that things can, and maybe will, get better. Appreciate soccer, and enjoy this year’s relegation fight. You’ll likely be rewarded far more than Puck was that November Sunday. Then again, at least as a soccer fan, he could change the channel. After all, Manchester City were on.
Neil W. Blackmon is Editor-In-Chief and Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter, at @nwb_usmnt.