Sports Futility or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Watching My Teams Choke
The media loves to talk about income inequality in all its facets — the wage gap, the 1% or the .1%, the word gap by age five, etc. Seldom do we talk about the comparably important championship gap in sports — how a few cities and their teams are hogging up the glory in America’s top leagues at the expense of everyone else.
Consider the utter misery of Atlanta. Is it better to almost get there but fall short, or to be so far away that the thought of getting there is fainter than a pipe dream? Atlanta, and broadly speaking, teams from Georgia have extensive backgrounds in both dimensions of agony. In less than a year, the Atlanta Falcons and their more popular college football counterpart, the Georgia Bulldogs, blew leads in their national championship games to hated dynastic teams that gobbled up their hundredth titles each, the New England Patriots and Alabama Crimson Tide.
This was the closest both teams came to a title in generations. They are both intimately familiar with their respective leagues’ doghouses, having years of mediocrity, underperformance, and choking under their belts. Georgia did manage to nab a conference title in 2017, the first in nearly a generation, and the utter satisfaction of punching all of your major rivals in one year is almost the equal of the fabled natty in the blood feud-driven world of college football, but blowing a halftime lead to Alabama and coming so close — a missed field goal, a miraculous field goal, a huge defensive sack on the quarterback — stings badly.
The Falcons’ utter meltdown was a fitting coda to 2016, even if it came late in February 2017. A year full of unlikely occurrences, from Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination (to say nothing of November) to the Chicago Cubs breaking the curse of a century, it met its final form in an entire offense and defense shutting down on the field and letting the Patriots run roughshod over them for the second half. Thus passed Atlanta’s last and best shots at capturing sports glory.
You can’t mention Georgia sports and not mention the fact that the Atlanta Braves managed to win their division fourteen years in a row — a feat no other baseball team has accomplished — yet only managed to win the World Series once in that timespan. This is Atlanta’s only professional sports title, and most recent major title even including the major college sports — Georgia Tech boasts a shared national title in 1990, ten years after Georgia’s most recent.
Atlanta, of course, is far from alone in sports misery. The Buffalo Bills are a byword for close-but-no-cigar after their 0–4 Super Bowl record. Cleveland was considered equally cursed for some time, until Lebron and the Cavaliers shattered the glass ceiling and won the NBA finals in 2016. Until the Capitals won the Stanley Cup this year, Washington, DC was considered a contender for the capital of sports misery. But Atlanta is uniquely cursed among big cities with three (and for a time, four) major professional teams.
Consider the following: -Atlanta is the ninth-most populous metro area in the United States. Its last sports title came 23 years ago. -Every other city in the top ten has won a more recent title — in fact, every other city in the top ten has won at least one title in the last decade alone. -The only other cities in the top 20 with more temporally distant pro titles are Minneapolis and San Diego. San Diego can at least bask in a little reflected glory in USC’s football titles in 2003 and 2004, only 120 miles to the north. Minneapolis…okay, the Twins’ most recent title was 1991 (at the expense of the, ahem, Braves). The Twin Cities might have an equally strong claim to sports misery fame as Atlanta, but with only about half the population.
I, for one, know Georgia sports too well to ever get comfortable. When the Falcons had their 28–3 lead at halftime, I remember reclining in my chair, sipping a whiskey, thinking…“this, too, shall pass.” Some Bostonians or Alabamans may think of sports fandom as a triumphal activity, one to be celebrated. For me and millions of other Braves, Dawgs, Falcons, Hawks, and even Yellow Jackets fans, it’s just masochism.