Loser Talk: The denial, delusion, and desperation of being a sports fan

Preface

I very recently began maintaining the twitter account @Loser_Talk with the goal of highlighting some comical and extreme examples of certain universal phenomena in the reactions of sports fans to negative stimuli. As a companion to this twitter feed, I felt it would be informative to discuss the origin of the terminology, as well as a brief enumeration of genres and examples. Put more succinctly, I would like to answer the questions “What is ‘loser talk’, and where did the idea come from?”

I would of course be remiss if I claimed that the terminology was truly unique or original; it is after all a pairing of two exceedingly common English words that combine completely naturally in the context of sports. It would be like a football team trying to lay legal claim to “twelfth man” or something (oh wait, that happened…), and furthermore there is even an urban dictionary entry dedicated to the phrase (unbeknownst to me prior to composing this post). However, the first provided definition, essentially amounting to pessimism and lack of confidence, runs somewhat contrary to what I’m going for here, and the latter two, while in the right spirit, are either too specific, underdeveloped, or both.

Before delving in to the details, I would like to include something of a disclaimer:

The @Loser_Talk twitter feed, and any accompanying discussions of loser talk here or elsewhere, are not meant to be genuinely critical or even remotely mean-spirited, quite the opposite actually. As I hope the reader will recognize, what makes loser talk so elemental is that, as sports fans, we are ALL guilty of it with astonishing frequency, and by delighting in the funniest and most extreme examples, we are not targeting specific offending parties and rejoicing in their idiocy and misfortune, but we are rather rejoicing in the utter absurdity and triviality of sports fandom in general and the neuroses and psychoses we share as a collective. Put briefly, we’re all crazy, and when we laugh at each other, we laugh at ourselves.

All that said, here’s how it started…

Origin Story

It was the evening of February 23, 2013, and the defending NBA champion Miami Heat, on their way to a repeat title, invaded the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia with an Eastern Conference-leading 38-14 record. They rode a dominant nine-game winning streak that would eventually balloon to 27 games, the second longest in league history.

In stark, depressing contrast, the hometown 76ers sat at 22-30, in the midst of an eventual seven-game losing streak that would cement them in second quartile NBA purgatory. After lofty hopes following the previous year’s playoff appearance, they would eventually finish in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, perhaps the least desirable outcome for a rebuilding franchise, the bitter taste of which sparked a multi-year tanking project beyond proportions ever previously attempted.

I was in my first of two years as a visiting professor in the mathematics department at Bucknell University, located in the tiny town of Lewisburg in central Pennsylvania, a hair under three hours northwest of Philly. Joseph Thaddeus Moss III, a close friend of over a decade, an acquaintance of nearly two, and a fellow sufferer of a debilitating NBA obsession, had circled this particular date on the calendar as the perfect bait for his first visit to my new quaint northeastern accommodations. I made the trek down the banks of the Susquehanna River, picked Joe up at the airport, and after a perfunctory driving tour of the city we made our way to the Central Casting image of the en vogue “sports complex”, with the Wells Fargo Center, Lincoln Financial Field, and Citizens Bank Park all towering within a choked up seven iron of each other. We headed in to the arena over an hour early, the building already abuzz as this was a rare sellout and the nightcap of an NHL/NBA doubleheader, and we took our seats in the upper level around the free throw line.

The Sixers competed admirably on their home floor in the first quarter, thanks in large part to twelve points in the first seven minutes from Nick Young, and the scoreboard flashed even at 24 with 26 seconds remaining in the period. The champs, however, succeeded in extracting the oxygen from the building before the first buzzer sounded, as LeBron James made the front end of a pair of free throws, and Shane Battier rebounded his miss on the back end. After resetting the offense, James dribbled out the remaining clock and barreled to the rim for two as time effectively expired. Miami’s lead was a slim 27-24 after one, but James and company had set a tone in the closing seconds that would reverberate.

Despite appearing in full control of the action throughout the second quarter, the Heat continued to fall short of blowing the game open. With Miami nursing a 53-47 lead with less than a minute remaining in the half, Jrue Holiday rebounded a Ray Allen miss, brought the ball down the floor to set up the Sixers offense, attempted a dribble drive to his right, and drew a quick whistle. The offender was Dwyane Wade, guilty of a hand check, finishing off an exceptionally efficient half on his way to a blistering final stat line. By intermission, Wade had 17 points on just one misfire from the field, and he would finish with 33 points on 14 of 18 (Side note: Joe vehemently predicted based on pregame warmups that Wade would go for 30+, despite having only done so five times in the first 52 games). He methodically dissected and consumed the young home team with a barrage of jumpers, floaters, and attacks of the basket, until their bones had been picked as clean as rotisserie chicken carcases tossed aside and dismantled by an eager house cat (that’s not weird, everyone does that… right?). He was aggressive on offense and controlled on defense, with his only prior infraction a charge drawn by Jeremy Pargo early in the quarter (“probably while dunking on him,” as later noted by Daniel Garver). The call at hand was just his second personal, which at the game’s midpoint is far from even the most liberal definition of foul trouble. It was at this moment that our muse announced himself, in the form of a hopeful local fan trying to rouse his cohorts just an arm’s length away from us in the next row down. He offered the following verbal emission, which reeked so thoroughly of denial, delusion, and desperation as to form an almost blissfully sweet tortured sports fan perfume:

“Yeah, that’s right, get Wade into cheap foul trouble! That could really come into play in the second half!”

Our initial reaction was complete paralysis, followed by a slow, synchronized turn toward each other with matching wide-eyed, mouth agape expressions. After a solid five Mississippi, I broke the silence with one deliberately enunciated exclamation:

“Whoa.”

After the wave of incredulity washed over us, we collected ourselves and elaborated. “That is pure desperation,” I commented, “there has been a LOT of losing in this town since Iverson left.” Then, thanks to Joe’s channeling of the great Steven Brody Stevens (in case he hasn’t told you personally, he was in Hangover, Hangover 2, Due Date, cut out of Funny People, YES! YOOOU GOT IT!…), we got to the heart of the matter:

Joe: This entire building is LOSERVILLE.

Alex: And THAT is LOSER TALK.

It wasn’t just what he said, it was the way he said it. He really believed it, figuratively separating his shoulder as he reached so disturbingly far and clung so depressingly tight to the tiniest Fox News-spun hope in the face of inevitable short-term and long-term failure.

Ultimately, the Heat pulled away to win 114-90 behind Wade’s aforementioned brilliance and a thoroughly action-dictating triple-double from James, but more to the point, a concept was born.

What is Loser Talk?

As a mathematician, I place great value in well-formed questions and rigorous definitions, and while the concept of loser talk is relatively dynamic and nebulous compared to anything in the ZFC framework (I’m actually a bit of a non-believer in the axiom of choice myself), I feel compelled, despite temptation, to avoid resorting to the immortal philosophy coined by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in reference to hardcore pornography.

Broadly speaking, loser talk is any response to a lack of success, on a short or long-term scale, of one’s preferred team or athlete (including, when applicable, oneself or own team) that runs either contrary or unrelated to the acceptance and digestion of this shortcoming and the team or athlete’s responsibility for it. These counterproductive or irrelevant efforts include, but are not limited to:

  • excuses or rationalizations for failure
  • unreasonable reaching for or outright fabrication of “silver linings”, often including speculation that current failure could serve future benefit
  • The unreasonable clinging to or outright fabrication of “slivers of hope” in the face of what would be deemed inevitable failure by an objective observer
  • Disproportionately fervent response to a small degree of success due to its contrast with preceding failure
  • retroactive invention of alternative goals as a means of consolation for failing to meet previously defined goals
  • schadenfreude, more specifically the taking of pleasure in or desire for past or future misfortune of other teams or athletes, rivals or otherwise

By twisting and dilating this vague, meandering attempt at a definition, one could fit almost any remotely subjective sports-related thought under the loser talk banner, outside of resigned self-deprecation or the celebration of an undeniably massive achievement. This lack of boundary may appear to constitute a fatal shortcoming of the whole endeavor. However, even as someone whose primary creative outlet requires airtight definition, it doesn’t especially bother me.

For one, the thesis here is NOT that loser talk should be eliminated, or even avoided, so knowing exactly what it is and what it isn’t becomes a lot less vital. To elaborate on the previous paragraph, it appears the only way to be a sports fan and completely avoid the Keon Clark-esque reach of loser talk is to quietly, internally hope for your team’s success, only release humble, gracious exultation if they achieve their ultimate goal, or bypass the stages of grief to objective, well-reasoned acceptance if they do not. Quite frankly, that sounds excruciating.

Furthermore, the goal is to highlight the CENTER of the loser talk umbrella, not the outskirts; if you wanted to study the deepest parts of the ocean floor, you wouldn’t really care where the beaches were, or even how much of the globe was covered by water. And above all, the goal is to be funny, though not deliberately in anything I compose myself, as I am rather lacking in that regard, but fortunately there is often nothing funnier than the absurdity of things said in earnest.

Examples and Analysis

Let’s just dive right in with a few favorites. Since explanation is the enemy of comedy, I will do my best (retroactive parenthetical: not that well) to resist my instinct to overanalyze, leave the reader to unearth the multiple layers of absurdity and contradiction, and let the content speak for itself.

The Mecca of tanking

On January 6, the New York Knicks had an NBA-worst record 5-32 and were on a 12-game losing streak (they’ve added two more losses at the time of writing). They are somehow even worse than the 76ers, a team genuinely comprised of non-NBA players. The futility sparked this tweet and blog post from team reporter Adam Zagoria, the main idea of which can be paraphrased as:

The last time the Knicks lost this many games in a row, they eventually got the no. 1 draft pick and selected Patrick Ewing. This year, the consensus top pick is Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, who is ALSO A CENTER! THIS IS EXCITING!

At its core, this is nothing new. Taking solace in the fact that your team’s poor performance will lead to a high draft selection, or even that your team is doing so purposefully, is as old as the draft concept itself, particularly in the NBA and NFL, and the phenomenon is perched firmly on the loser talk Mount Rushmore. However, without spilling a few barrels of digital ink analyzing the numerous miniscule probabilities, irrelevancies, and gaping logical holes, I hope you’ll agree that this particular example has a little extra zest and raises the proverbial bar. I know it’s only January, but this tweet is the early leader in the clubhouse for 2015 Loser Talk of the Year, and Zagoria for Loser Talker of the Year (his twitter feed is sprinkled with similar gems). Although, as noted by Alessandro Allegranzi, targeting reporters or social media liaisons associated with a team in any official capacity has a bit of a “fish in a barrel” note to it, as spinning any and all team events toward the positive is literally part of their job.

Loser talk: the Braves warm blanket for late October chills

On October 17, 2014, weeks removed from the Atlanta Braves regular season elimination from playoff contention, MLB.com reporter Mike Bowman published this article, with the headline:

Braves boast connections to both World Series teams: Beloved Hudson pitching for SF; KC GM Moore came from Atlanta’s organization

How far we have fallen, Braves fans. Perhaps I wouldn’t have reacted so viscerally to this if the word “have” was used in place of “boast”. BOAST?! What are you talking about?!?! First of all, in the age of free agency and constant front office and managerial turnover, couldn’t you probably find a nontrivial connection between ANY two teams in major league baseball? Further, the article’s apparent suggestion that the supposed greatness of the Braves organization, who have not smelled the World Series in over 15 years, is somehow tangentially responsible for two teams having actual, tangible, current success, and that this should somehow be a source of PRIDE…

Ok, this is the kind of overanalysis I was talking about. Perhaps I’m too close to this one…

Portrait of a rivalry: loser talk from all directions

Nothing brings out the loser talk like a good rivalry, so for exposition purposes, let’s focus on one: Georgia-Georgia Tech football, also known as “Clean, Old-fashioned Hate”. If the last example was too personal, then maybe this one is an unwise choice, but ideally my intimate quarter-century first-hand knowledge will aid in the examination of the many shapes, sizes, flavors, and textures of loser talk that a single rivalry can produce. To that end, let’s start with a contribution from yours truly:

“If Georgia Tech played a football game against the Al-Qaeda All-Stars, I would root with all my heart for the Al-Qaeda All-Stars. I would root for Osama Bin Laden to throw six touchdown passes.”

I said this a number of times, probably between ages 16 and 21, mostly for comedic or shock value, but the core sentiment was genuine. Starting around age 4, I HATED Tech, Florida, and Tennessee (probably in that order), and I wished any and all misfortune upon them, including injuries, regardless of UGA’s involvement. This all somehow seemed reasonable as a child idolizing invulnerable, superheroic “adults”, but now, as a grown person observing players that I recognize as essentially children, anything resembling vitriol or ill will just seems heartless and perverse.

Of course, the other side is frequently guilty as well. Georgia Tech’s fight song contains the line “To Hell with Georgia”, echoed stadium-wide regardless of opponent, and as the annual matchup approaches, one encounters the rallying cry “To Hell with Georgia” or its abbreviation “THWG” somewhere between three and thirty-seven times as often as anything resembling “Go Jackets!”

Allow me to recount one particular related story from 2007. The Bulldogs defeated the Yellow Jackets 31-17 at Bobby Dodd stadium in Atlanta, and in the closing minutes of the game, Georgia fans were scoreboard watching; if Kentucky defeated Tennessee that day, then Georgia would play LSU for the SEC championship. Kentucky fell just short, losing 52-50 in a wild quadruple overtime classic, but what we Georgia fans hadn’t even considered was that the Tech fans were scoreboard watching as well, hyperaware of their rival’s window for success. Upon the completion of Tennessee’s victory, the Tech PA announcer informed the crowd of the final score, and the stadium erupted. I have seen Tech beat Georgia once in Atlanta, in 2000, and this Jackets fans’ reaction to a game played 380 miles away in a conference not their own was at least twice as loud. It sounded like they had just won a national championship. The biggest game of your season is happening right in front of you! AND YOU’RE LOSING! The sheer volume that echoed through that cool Atlanta night is forever etched in loser talk lore.

Of course, these examples are tame and lighthearted compared to the full destructive power of the hatred inspired by sports rivalries, including horrific violence (see section 8) and bizarre, hurtful vandalism. I have repeatedly indicated that my goal is not to criticize or attempt to discourage the various genres of loser talk, but the schadenfreude component, particularly in its extremest manifestations, may qualify as an exception. In nearly every other aspect of society, we recognize that our penchant for extracting warmth and joy from the suffering of others is amongst our most loathsome of human impulses, one that we should suppress whenever possible, yet in the context of sports rivalries it remains socially acceptable and even encouraged. It would be really nice if we could just act like human beings and avoid using sports as a thinly-veiled outlet for all of our basal, reptilian brain desires to be absolutely despicable to one another.

Not to be too self-aggrandizing or judgmental, but after years of effort and evolution in this regard, I can say with a measure of confidence and pride that I have virtually eliminated schadenfreude from my sports fan repertoire (If you find this sentence ironic because of the nature of this entire endeavor, then you’ve badly missed the point, so badly that you probably don’t actually know what “ironic” means, rendering this entire parenthetical useless).

I rooted for Georgia Tech in this year’s Orange Bowl, and NOT because their win would “make Georgia’s loss look better” (hall of fame loser talk), but because I like the way they play football (I tend to lean old-school), I have many friends and family members who are Georgia Tech fans and alumni, and I otherwise had no skin in the game.

But enough preaching and self-congratulation, I promised an array of loser talk examples, and one rich source is the rivalry’s most recent incarnation, a 30-24 Yellow Jacket overtime victory in which both teams suffered costly turnovers and mental errors. Here is what a loser talk-free (and hence boring) Georgia fan reaction to the game would sound like:

We had a lot of success moving the ball early, and it looked like we had an opportunity to build a big lead, but we turned the ball over in big spots, Tech shut down our running game over the last 2.5 quarters, we made some bad decisions late in the game, coach and player alike, and most notably, we had no answer for Tech’s super-effective, well-executed triple option. Ultimately, we didn’t do enough to win, and they did. We lost a game to a better team.

It sounds like a bad post-game press conference, I know, but it’s all true, and it’s free of the early stages of grief and our powerful, child-like reaction instincts. Fortunately for our collective entertainment, actual Georgia fan reactions sounded more like this:

Tech shouldn’t have even been IN that game! We GAVE it to them with TWO fumbles on the one!!

 

Well, hey, I guess we can throw them a bone once a decade or so. So you’ve won two out of the last fourteen, nice job…

 

SQUIB KICK?!?!? Are you kidding me?!?!? That was the ONLY WAY they had a chance to tie the game!!

That last one may or may not be an essentially direct quote from me in the bleachers at the end of regulation. While the first and third reaction focus on the specifics of this particular contest (and each conveniently ignore that Georgia only had an opportunity to take the lead late due to an inexplicable fourth quarter fumble by Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, but I digress…), the second speaks to a more general and widespread rivalry phenomenon, nestled in the “moving the flagstick” category of loser talk characterized by retroactive goal amendment.

In particular, this approach seems to indicate that in a rivalry, a fan of the team that has had more historical success, or even just more recent success, can, when beneficial, reposition the focus from the competition at hand to some kind of nebulous, “big picture” competition. We’ve won twelve of fourteen? That’s interesting, because I thought we were taking about a football game between two football teams, not a best-of-23 series over multiple decades in a sport where players stay on the team for at most four years. If, as the more recently successful team, you can make this shift at will, then you essentially render yourself invulnerable in the rivalry, and that’s bullshit. Vulnerability is what sports and rivalries are about.

Another version of this goal-shifting consolation phenomenon is a frustrating mentality shared by many Tech fans, typified by a genuinely hurtful chant that I heard just about every two years following Bulldog victories at Bobby Dodd:

That’s alright, that’s ok, you will work for us some day.

As a lifelong Georgia fan, and eventual Bachelors and Ph.D. recipient, I always had a bit of a sore spot for the perceived academic and intellectual superiority expressed to me by Tech supporters. Today, as an adult who has spent a great deal of time at each school, I can comfortably and objectively analyze that while each school has its strengths and weaknesses, Tech is certainly more prestigious and highly-ranked based on traditional metrics and publications. However, both schools are elite public universities, and the “nerd versus dumb redneck” narrative is horribly outdated on both sides. Not only that, but the schools’ respective specialties are largely disjoint, and definitely would not result in especially frequent instances of UGA grads working directly subordinate to Tech grads. Even if this WERE the case, however, we all know that the NCAA student-athlete model is a farce, and that the academic reputations of the universities have little to no bearing on those of the football players, so the sentiment is pretty thoroughly ridiculous.

Ok, that got a little a personal, perhaps, and it’s important to note that even if the chant weren’t a case of fatally flawed logic, it would still constitute a massive moving of the flagstick, repositioning the goal in question from a single football game to some measure of larger life success for the purpose of consolation after a loss, making it textbook loser talk.

Here’s one more thing:

The last three meetings of the 1990s each featured controversial officiating decisions that the losing teams use for consolation and argument to this day: a 1997 pass interference penalty against Tech that nullified an effectively game-ending interception and was followed by UGA’s go-ahead touchdown, a 1998 two-point conversion rushing attempt by UGA quarterback Quincy Carter that was called no good, and a 1999 goal-line play in which UGA running back Jasper Sanks was ruled to have fumbled.

I included this to highlight an as yet undiscussed topic, namely that any blaming of officiating for losses, regardless of egregiousness (the officials who called the Sanks fumble were suspended), is amongst the oldest and purest forms of loser talk.

I’ve said way too much, as is often my way, but I hope you get the idea. Follow @Loser_Talk on twitter for daily instances of loser talk from the sports world and occasionally beyond, and please tweet at me any good examples you read or overhear. Enjoy!

 

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