Why You Need to Stop With the “Underdog” Complex

For a country full of Goliaths, we’re awfully obsessed with being David.

Last week, having learned from the debacle that was 2010’s The Decision, LeBron James delivered the news of his return to the Cleveland Cavalliers in a much more humble forum — as humble as a Sports Illustrated essay can be. It was highly praised for its “maturity,” and the very first line offers a clue as to why:

“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio.”

Yes, before he became King James, LeBron was a regular kid, just like you or me. Just like us, he was dunking basketballs at age 14 and he drew so much attention that his high school basketball team had to relocate to a larger venue.

LeBron James wants us to know that he is an odds-defying underdog. It’s a ridiculous thing to suggest, of course, but he almost has to begin his essay that way. That’s because there is no notion more important in the fabric of the American existence than the underdog narrative.

Nothing and no one truly great has ever been an underdog, kind of by definition. That includes LeBron James, Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and even the United friggin’ States of America. “Underdog” is a wonderfully nebulous word that is all about expectations, not outcomes. It’s a term that describes the expected loser, which is not always the person or team that is actually most likely to lose. But for whatever reason, we must believe that our heroes – and us, by extension – are scrappy underdogs who consistently defy the odds, despite that being the opposite of how “the odds” work. We can’t get enough of underdogs. Consider our love of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — a supposed bastion of the purity of competition that is pretty obviously rigged to create a beloved Cinderella story every March.

Or take the U.S. men’s soccer team — a rare example of underdogged-ness that actually earns the term. When the team shocked the world by making it out of the group stage, the writing that resulted was borderline-pornographic in its praise, exalting the team for their “grit,” “tenacity,” “refusal to quit” and ability to “defy the odds.” Grit and tenacity are key phrases on the underdog bingo card; “defy the odds” may as well be the free space.

Only in America could God Himself be morphed into an underdog.

Of course, there’s a good measure of irony to all of this — the same underdog mentality that made the country so successful has created a situation in which, unless you’re playing soccer against a bunch of Germans, there aren’t many opportunities to feel like the underdog. This presents a problem for us. Like LeBron James, we aren’t comfortable with the idea of the deck being stacked in our favor. Every great story needs an antagonist, and our own stories are no different. We need to create a Goliath.

Fortunately for underdogs, the Internet has made it a lot easier.

The internet does two things for those looking to color themselves in underdog warpaint. For one, it serves as a safe public forum in which to air out one’s grievances without having to mount an actual soapbox in the town square. Two, it’s the easiest way to find like-minded cohorts. If you’re getting the notion that you’re being somehow oppressed by . . . something, you can bet there’s a community of folks online who will agree with you. The problem is that as you spend time in those forums, what was once an inkling can quickly turn into full-blown paranoia.

Online, our desperation to feel as underdogs, to find a villain to rally against, manifests itself in (sometimes) surprising ways. Ardent supporters of the Washington Redskins team name, for instance, feel “bullied” and “oppressed” by the “PC police” whenever anyone so much as nods in the direction of suggesting that the name is harmfully rooted in racism. Remember when the NBA took Donald Sterling to the cleaners after tapes revealed his comically malevolent racism? Well, hey, whatever happened to freedom of speech, right? White conservative Christians, perhaps the most advantaged group in the nation, can be particularly good at this: Is someone pointing out that discriminating against gay customers is, well, discrimination? RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION! It’s “checking your privilege” in the worst way possible — manufacturing a scenario in which you have none.

Or take the recent Hobby Lobby SCOTUS case. Some outlets framed the case thusly: On one side you had the humble Hobby Lobby, just a little shop with $2.8 billion in revenue run by good Christian folks. On the other you had the Supreme Court, the cloaked, amorphous arm of the too-big U.S. government. That’s obviously an oversimplification, but it’s one propagated by powerful media elites, and it sets it up as the perfect underdog scenario: Good vs. evil, the little guy against a much larger foe, and of course the notion of defending (religious) freedom against (government) oppression. When the SCOTUS ruled — again, “against all odds” — in Hobby Lobby’s favor, it was an unlikely victory for freedom, righteousness, and virtue.

Only in America could God Himself be morphed into an underdog.

As an atheist, I’m naturally attuned to these particular issues, as they flip the “OUTRAGE” switch buried not-so-deep within all of us. Still, I’d be remiss (and incorrect) to say this is only a religious phenomenon. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are just as guilty of this as anyone. Heck, even here at OnFaith, atheist spokesman Herb Silverman regularly writes in to describe why religion itself is the root of all evil. There’s an underdog story if there ever was one — nonbelievers versus an omnipotent God. It’s possible, I suppose, that the desire to be an underdog is not an American idea but a human one, and it just so happens that we’re among the few nations too well-off to realize it in an organic way.

The danger of working ourselves into a frothing rage over manufactured oppression is that it can obscure the real issues. The Boston Globe’s John L. Allen Jr. (very astutely) notes that while the Hobby Lobby ruling may be taken as a win for religious freedom, in other parts of the world religious people are the victims of, y’know, actual persecution. When you consider that in North Korea, “50,000 to 70,000 are believed to be languishing in detention camps,” the government asking that you offer your 21,000 employees perfectly legal and widely accepted birth control as part of their healthcare benefits, even against your conscience, seems like very small potatoes indeed.

We all view ourselves as the protagonists of our own stories. We want to be the underdog who beats the odds. We love David, but the truth is we’re a nation of Goliaths.

Follow Ian on twitter at @TheIanLang

Ian Lang
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  • Sam

    Love it. You are on point. Being a white, heterosexual, American male I still struggle with being honest enough with myself about my very privileged place in the world. I see people of the same privilege, or similar, who seem to have no perspective on how charmed their lives are. Yes there is struggle just as there is in everyone’s life but the desire to be the victim and the underdog is strong. It is reinforced throughout our culture from religion to movies to politics (because art imitates life imitates art imitates life etc.) and thus we each seem to internalize it to a greater or lesser degree.

    And then we build entire narratives around it. We origami reality until it reflects our imagined concoction and then we parade it about as though it were obvious.

    It takes work, patience, compassion, honesty, and far too often an epiphany or moment of clarity to see how things really are, or at least another way of how things could be. The movie “White Man’s Burden” with Travolta and Belafonte was one moment of this for me as was Utah Phillips discussing Anarchy.