This semester, I’m teaching World History I (from Genesis 1:1 to 1500 CE or AD 🙂 ), something I haven’t taught since grad school at Carnegie Mellon. Except that the Carnegie Mellon version was from Plato to NATO, or from “men becoming farmers because they discovered beer” to Western Europe becoming masters of the university — what I derisively called “World Stereotypes.” The judgement of the powers that are at University of Maryland University College for this standard course was such that we didn’t order Peter Stearns’ textbook (the standardbearer for this subject for nearly three decades). Instead, we have a nice textbook titled Traditions & Encounters.
It really is a nice textbook. It’s also a bit too politically correct. “Traditions” sounds pretty benign, except that many traditions end up so because they’re rammed down people’s throats by those in power. Particularly religious or economic or ethnic ones. And “encounters”? I guess that’s a good word to describe things like the consolidation of China into an empire under Qin Shi Huang Di by 221 BCE, or Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (modern-day France) by 50 BCE. Or not. I’m usually a fan of being politically correct, when the task is to speak plainly or eloquently without insulting other people or spinning the truth about others’ lives and experiences. Traditions & Encounters is too PC, even for a progressive like me.
Speaking of traditions and encounters, the Steelers — my second-favorite football team and my wife’s first, of course — are Super Bowl champions again! I should be happy, but I’m not. Maybe it’s because of the way the Steelers won. Not likely. This time last year, I was celebrating the Giants sticking it to the Patriots on a last-minute touchdown after the throw of all throws and the catch of all catches. Or maybe it was because I’ve seen Ben take the Steelers down field for a game-winning score twenty times in his young career already. No, don’t think so. Or I felt bad for the Cardinals because if it weren’t for all of their penalties and the Harrison 100-yard run-back of a Warner interception for a touchdown, the Cardinals would’ve won, and I would’ve felt some pain in Steeler Nation today.
It’s none of those. By rooting for the Steelers and watching them win at the last minute, I found myself rooting for a frontrunner, a team that most people expected to win. As much as I love the Steelers, I do feel bad for the Cardinals, a team that hasn’t won anything since my mother was a year old and Truman was president. I feel bad for Warner and Fitzgerald and Boldin and James and others, if only because an underdog coming so close to winning to only lose is heartbreaking. Sure, they’ll make their millions, but making money is hardly the same as leaving a mark on your career or profession. That’s a real sense of accomplishment, of immortality, even of happiness.
By rooting for the Steelers, I broke one of my all-time cardinal traditions (no pun intended there). I always, always, always cheer for the underdog, openly or in my heart, even if it sometimes means that the team I grew up with or have adopted loses. Just like I don’t like any team to lose the Super Bowl 55-10, I don’t like seeing an underdog give their all only to fall short at the end. Maybe that’s because I see myself in underdog teams or in the midst of underdog circumstances. I don’t enjoy it as much when a great team wins a championship. It’s like cheering on Bill Gates to break the $100-billion net-worth mark — $83 billion is still more than millions of us will make in a lifetime.
The Steelers did nothing wrong. They deserved to win, and the way they did it is something to celebrate. I’m glad that they have their sixth trophy and ring for the other thumb. Still, there’s this part of me that is a little sad today, knowing that few outside of Arizona care about this group of underdogs. Sadder even to know that most people don’t care about any underdogs, regardless of what they face and who they are. It’s a shame, really, to think that any of us with any underdog leanings at all slug it out in this world every day, all while being told that whatever we’re attempting to achieve is nearly impossible or might well not be worth the effort. We far too easily cheer for the folks on top, as if life is a script that we should all follow, that the tradition of the frontrunner winning is something to cherish.
It is easier, I think, to do so, to go with the flow of traditional fanship. To expect that things will only work out for folks in the most advantaged positions in life. That money or beauty or power is more worth admiring than someone with none of those advantages, metaphorically, as in sports, or in our real lives. So while I remain a Steeler fan, I still love the underdog. Here’s my a shoutout to the Cardinals, a symbol of my lingering hope that underdogs everywhere can break tradition and encounter success in their lives and efforts.