January 2, 2014
My phone rang at 11:30 p.m. I was watching a rerun of The Sopranos with my wife, getting to a good part, and I got up with that mixed feeling of dread and annoyance that accompanies an after-hours phone call. My phone hardly ever rings, and nothing good happens after midnight. The caller I.D. showed my mother’s name. I thought, someone’s dead. I’d missed the call, so I dialed her back.
“What about that ball game?” she yelled.
“How about ‘Bama?”
“They lost?” Since I’d given up my dish a year ago, I had been following the score of the Sugar Bowl—number Three Alabama versus number Eleven Oklahoma—on the internet during the evening. Every fifteen minutes or so I’d go into the bedroom with the computer and refresh the play-by-play. I had known Oklahoma was up by two touchdowns with around eight minutes in the fourth quarter, but I wasn’t so invested in the game that I wanted to watch the play by play synopsis.
“Yes they lost. Oklahoma put it on ‘em.” The joy in my mother’s voice was palpable. I could picture her face beaming as bright as she might if she were holding one of her great-grand daughters. “I knew that would make you happy,” she said, and for reasons that are probably difficult to understand, I was happy. We briefly discussed the score and our mutual satisfaction: Alabama had been the presumed national champion all year. In fact, they were defending back-to-back national champions, and had won three of the past four national championships. They entered the season ranked number one and never slipped in the rankings, at least until Thanksgiving weekend, and the Auburn game. Auburn, with no time left on the clock, returned a missed field goal over a hundred yards for a touchdown to stun ‘Bama and knock them out of the Bowl Coalition Series championship game. I was at my mother’s house that weekend, and thanks to her DVR, I replayed that final second of the game ten or fifteen times. My favorite reruns came after the network spliced in Auburn’s radio announcer calling the play. If the guy had died at that moment, he couldn’t have gotten any closer to heaven. My mother and I didn’t even have to mention the people we both knew were devastated at that moment. We knew plenty of ‘Bama fans; we were related to some of them. After a brief discussion of the game, we exchanged our “love yous” and I returned to the living room to watch Tony Soprano kill Ralph Ciferatto—his “threat-of-the-season” and a truly despicable mobster who stood out among a whole series full of despicable mobsters—with his bare hands. I had known the killing was coming, so it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as thinking about Alabama ending the season with two “heartbreaking” losses and the trail of misery that loss had unleashed across not only Alabama, but among Crimson Tide fans worldwide.
Call me a “hater,” but bear with me. I have my reasons.
I have spent the past week building a privacy fence in my mother’s back yard, in Tupelo, Mississippi. On Sunday, it’s time for my daughters and I to return home, but first we go to church. Afterwards, Mom takes us out to a Chinese buffet, and I see friends, a man and wife, from her church. The man and woman are retired now, but when I was in high school they befriended me, and the man and I spent a lot of time hunting and fishing and sorting out the problems of my young adulthood. He was perhaps my earliest mentor, and while we would agree on little now, I think about our relationship with fondness. Now that they are retired, the couple spend most of their time fishing together on a powerful bass boat tricked out in Alabama crimson and silver metallic flake paint and going to Alabama football games. I wouldn’t have pictured them as the tailgating type, but apparently, Alabama football has transformative powers. Since we have little to really talk about now, football always seems a safe topic, so, as I passed their table with my full plate, I stopped and asked, “How does Alabama look this year?”
The man put down his fork and rested both forearms on the edge of the table and said, dead serious, “We’ve got a one and a half game season.”
I don’t think my friend would have thought of it as arrogance, but his response pissed me off. From his stand point, I understood what he meant. Alabama had a soft schedule, with only three teams that ended up ranked in the top twenty-five at the end of the season. The season he referred to meant Texas A & M, the only loss from the season before, and the half game was probably LSU, a perennially difficult team to beat. Auburn and Virginia Tech weren’t on the map, although no team with an interstate rivalry should ever discount that rival, even if they are winless and only fielding 20 players. Alabama had a couple of patsies (UT Chattanooga and Georgia State?). Even the SEC schedule was full of rebuilding or middle of the road teams (Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Arkansas).
I said something about hoping my alma mater, Mississippi State, would continue to build something positive down in Starkville, since they’ve been trending upward. My friend dismissed my hopes, basically, and went on a spiel about how Alabama’s expectations of success led to success, and how lesser programs would never really succeed because they didn’t expect to succeed.
As with many other conversations in my life, I filed that one away for future reference, along with the advice of Bama fan UAdan, posted on SECtalk.com: “Fear no one, but respect all.”
Schadenfreude is a word borrowed from the German that means to take pleasure in the misfortune of others. Its literal translation is “harm-joy,” as when we derive joy from seeing another person fail or suffer. While I acknowledge that this may not be my most noble characteristic, I know that I’m not alone in feeling this very tangible emotion. Who hasn’t felt the flush of adrenaline when the humble and virtuous underdog topples the vain and arrogant favorite? Does anyone really care about Draco Malfoy’s feelings when he loses the Quidditch match, even though his father bought his way onto the Slytherin team by buying them all new broomsticks? Don’t we love seeing the rich, handsome or beautiful, obnoxious teenage antagonists in a typical Disney story fail? How true are Jonathan Swift’s sentiments, as expressed in “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D.”:
“In all distresses of our friends
We first consult our private ends,
While Nature, kindly bent to ease us,
Points out some circumstance to please us” (7-10).
These sentiments were inspired by Francois de la Rochefoucald’s maxim: “In the misfortune of our best friends we always find something that does not displease us.” To argue his point, Swift offers several examples: He asks, if we were standing at a crowded show, how many of us would sacrifice our ability to see and give our spot to a friend instead? Or, how many of us would honestly take pleasure in a good friend winning a competition at our own expense? When a friend is suffering the pain of illness, how much easier is it to bear his pain knowing that it’s not our own pain. (Similarly, in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” Ilych’s friends, upon hearing of his death, all thought “at least it wasn’t me.”) And finally, from a writer’s perspective, he asks, “What poet would not grieve to see / His brethren write as well as he?” and answers “But rather than they should excel, / He’d wish his rivals all in hell” (31-34).
Extreme? Perhaps. Yes, damning Alabama fans and successful writers to hell qualifies as extreme. Absolutely. I won’t do it. Does that prevent me from taking joy in seeing Alabama brought down a peg? No. And do I feel a pang of envy when my friends publish a book? Yes, but it also makes me write harder.
Would I like to associate myself with a winning franchise for a change? Hey, the Denver Broncos are 13 and 3 going into the NFL playoffs. Each Bronco victory this year made me happy and set the tone for the next day, if not the next week. Each loss tore away a bit of my soul (though I’m sure Oakland Raiders’ fans experienced Schadenfreude at my expense, building up their own souls). I’ve suffered with the Broncos through the mediocrity that followed the Elway Super Bowl years. I’m due. On the other hand, I’m an alumnus and fan of Mississippi State University, a school that plays a murderer’s row of legitimate top ten to twenty-five teams like Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Texas A & M, as well as above average teams like Ole Miss and Arkansas, every season. Add to that regular rotating teams from the SEC East, teams like Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Missouri. As one character in the film 12 Angry Men said to a fellow juror who pulled for a losing baseball team rather than the Yankees. “Baltimore? That’s like being hit in the head with a crowbar once a day.” Replace Baltimore with Mississippi State and “once a day” with once a week, and you’ll get a sense for how I feel.