Tuesday, August 11, 2009
On the Comfort of Low Expectations
I've mentioned this before, and it will come up quite often again as the months progress, but there is only one entity of which I still consider myself a true and unabashed and vigorously biased fan, and that is my alma mater, Penn State. This is no doubt based in some kind of Freudian yearning for a return to my childhood, but hey, that's how it is to be a modern dude, and that's how it shall always be, and that's why I find myself, precisely two days into the start of football practice, already worried about the way things are going. This is because the preseason critical consensus for my alma mater is alarmingly positive (see above left), and overwhelming positivity tends to scare the hell out of me.
I feel this way, in part, because I have a genetic tendency toward pessimism. My father taught me early on that a sunny disposition gets you nowhere in life. But there is more to it than that; this is about the fundamental nature of what it means to be a sports fan. There are two types of us, really: There are those people who return every year with the same relentlessly optimistic outlook, who dismiss bad news and ugly results as an aberration, who refuse to whine or complain or concern themselves with the sudden and inevitable complications of losing, who attribute any unflattering reports about their particular team to either A.) Media bias in general, or B.) ESPN in particular. These people revel in high expectations. These are people I generally do not trust. The large majority of them are not serious about the entities they portend to support. They are the spiritual equivalent of Stepford wives. They are the reasons The Secret became a bestseller.
For the rest of us, our fandom is couched in wariness and distrust. We would rather our teams not be discussed at all (at least until that moment when they are actively not included in a discussion in which we feel they should be included, which arouses a peculiar maelstrom of jealousy and confusion). We would rather not read things like this--"Can you say 12-0?"--because what immediately comes to mind are unfulfilled expectations, years of ignominy and defeat and hopelessness, the inevitable memories of 1999 (see above), of 1997 (the other year that Sports Illustrated, given its penchant for making championship picks by assigning intoxicated three-year-olds to throw darts, chose Penn State as the preseason No. 1), of 1988 (the first losing season for Joe Paterno since advent of the New Deal), of all the great disasters that have befallen us in years past. When they say--as they have, early and often--that our team has "the easiest schedule in the country," this does not ease our minds, either, because what immediately comes to mind is the fact that our particular team is capable of losing to anyone, at anytime. (Remember this? Yeah, me neither.)
So here's what I sometimes wish, when I am feeling especially dour and skeptical and concerned about overhype, as I am heading into this season: That my alma mater could enter every year with absolutely no expectations. That there was somehow an embargo on preseason polls, that preseason "watch lists" would be considered a violation of federal law, that the very notion of prognostication did not apply to my alma mater; that the games themselves could somehow be vacuum-packed and left untampered until the first Saturday in September. At these moments, I wish that fandom remained spectral and irrational, and consisted of nothing but nostalgia and a vague cloud of hope. That way, we could always expect the worst. And if something good happened, we could just say we knew it all along.