If you've been unlucky enough to be attached to a team that is annually inept, you've gotten a sense of it. If you've been conditioned to enter each season expecting the worst and hoping for...anything but the worst, you're knee-deep in it. If, when the worst comes to fruition, you experience a feeling of resigned inevitability –- the type that comes from being de-sensitized by years of "the worst" happening –- you spend your life as a sports fan dancing with it. "It" is The Culture of Losing. It is the reason your team commits a false start on a key 3rd & 1. The reason they hit into a double play with men on 1st and 3rd and one out in a crucial situation. And it's maddening.
If you see yourself in the aforementioned characteristic of a certain type of fan, no doubt you've heard that phrase used to describe your team's history. "Culture" is a vague term, but the phrase sounds accurate, as close as anyone can come to placing a tangible element on what causes certain teams to perform at such low levels across many different eras. People struggle to find a reasonable explanation for why their predominant experience as a sports fan involves loss, and using the phrase "culture of losing" becomes a passive-aggressive way of deflecting accountability. It attributes a team's failures to some intangible (therefore unstoppable) force.
In my attempt to de-code the myth of the "culture of losing," I was hoping to find who originally coined it. The media has latched onto it; sports journalists have it etched with ink into their book of reliable stand-bys to fill column space with. Unfortunately, I had no luck finding its inventor. But I was able to gain some perspective by breaking down the four tenets of what define culture in an attempt to determine whether or not its possible that a "culture of losing" is a legitimate explanation for a franchise's continuous failure.
Values are the basic qualities that society believes to be good and desirable. In sports, it goes beyond basic human values. Yes, the ability of players to be upstanding citizens can have a definite impact on that team's success. Many are down on the Bengals this year, thinking the glut of legal troubles they've gotten into will distract the team and jeopardize their shot at another division title. Certainly, the Bengals have suffered, a couple of seasons aside, from one of the worst histories of any sports franchise. This terrible offseason has ruined high hopes after what appeared to be a dramatic change in fortune under Marvin Lewis. But many teams, like the Philadelphia Flyers from the '70s and Dallas Cowboys of the '90s, have won championships, in these two instances multiple championships, despite struggling to behave outside of game action. Sports themselves have a distinct set of values. It starts at the top –- from the example set by owners and general managers. The most important value in sports, and the one that could be most detrimental to a franchise if defied, is a dedication to winning. A half-assed approach to competitiveness is not only, obviously, a roadblock to success, but also a slap in the face of those who make a financial and emotional investment in a team.
The Chicago Blackhawks have 16 losing seasons in the last 30 under Bill Wirtz, ESPNs vote as the worst owner in sports. "Dollar Bill," as he's known, was blamed for jettisoning legend Bobby Hull from the team and not allowing Blackhawks home games to be shown on TV. The Blackhawks also have the longest Stanley Cup drought in the NHL, 36 years. The team has, for years, been vilified for refusing to spend the money necessary to compete in the NHL. Homegrown talents have been let go once they were successful enough to command top dollar. This is the most obvious instance of an owner displaying poor values -- when they're not willing to invest in a winning team. Winning doesn't always require high-payrolls, but sometimes it does, and if an owner isn't prepared to make that fiscal commitment he/she shouldn't be owning a team. There's a site dedicated to Blackhawks' fans' hatred of Wirtz, aptly titled Wirtz Sucks.
The Blackhawks main contemporary in the NHL as it pertains to putting finances ahead of competition is the Boston Bruins. They, for example, might have been the first team in history to trade an MVP midseason when they dealt Joe Thornton to the Sharks in November, receiving a quarter on the dollar in return. The L.A. Clippers are another guilty franchise.
When a team is unsuccessful for a period of time, it becomes the norm. Losing breeds losing. It gets to the point when a team is so unsuccessful for so long that expectations each season are lowered. Poor performances become the norm to the point where a football team that is continuously 5-10 actually begins to think of a 7-9 or 8-8 season as a success. Subconsciously, this leads the team to play well enough just to meet those lowered expectations and not exceed them. The longer this cycles goes, the stronger and stronger the addiction to mediocrity becomes.
When the norm of a team's existence is as an annual also-ran and an afterthought even in its own home, it's easy for them to slink into the shadows and get away with poor performances. In the aforementioned cases of completely unlovable losers, both the Bruins and Blackhawks have managed to perform like youth teams completely inconspicuously in their own cities. Boston is owned by the Red Sox and Patriots, and even the Celtics get their share of attention. Most Bostoners are under the impression that the team folded after the departures of Ray Borque and Cam Neely. Chicago always has one baseball team to love and one to mourn, and Jordan made the Bulls a top priority in the city as well. All of the city's negative energy is devoted to whichever baseball team has fallen out of favor at the moment. No one seems to care enough that their hockey teams never compete. But the question is, do these franchises assume the role of red-headed step-child through year after year of disappointment, or is the disappointment a result of a lack of public outrage?
Institutions are a little harder to find in sports. We can only comment on what we're allowed to observe –- in sports nowadays, franchises keep their true inner-workings secret from the public eye. We can't get a glimpse into a team's locker room habits or see the traditions that effect team chemistry. But the most obvious institutions are the ones intended to prepare teams for competition –- training camps, preseasons, practices. How a team goes about these customs goes a long way toward deciding their fate. But because these practices change with new coaching regimes, the effects are far more short-term than psychological influences that reside over a team's entire history. This offseason, the Saints and Lions are experiencing the difference a new coach can make. Both teams are in the first offseason after the firings of passive coaches who treated their teams to less strenuous prep sessions, and the results showed on the field. Good conditioning and mental preparation come from these sessions, and when a team hasn't been tested enough before the games, the performance shows. Now, both franchises are under the control of disciplinarians who understand that great teams don't just step on the field and perform, that the path to success starts immediately after the prior season has ended. Again, one coaching regime usually constitutes a small part of a team's history, so a singular coach can't be to blame for a team suffering from a culture of losing. But repeatedly poor decisions in the coach-hiring process facilitate a repeatedly poor outcome.
A team's history consists of a group of artifacts, specific notable memories that act as dots across the scope of time. When you connect the dots, which consist mostly (or entirely) of lowlights, it's easy to see those embarrassing moments as the totality of a team's history. The team BECOMES those moments, becomes identified by their momentous gaffes, and in an act of self-fulfilling prophecy seems to repeat history. Take, for example, "The Fumble." Cleveland Browns running back Earnest Byner fumbled the ball on a would-be game-tying touchdown run at the Broncos' 3-yard line with 1:12 left in the 1988 AFC Championship game. The Broncos recovered the ball, gave the Browns an intentional safety, and won the game 38-33. They've only made the playoffs twice in the 15 years they've played since then.
There's also Scott Norton's missed Super Bowl field goal, the most memorable play in Buffalo Bills history –- a play that has since overshadowed the fact that the Bills made an impressive four Super Bowls in a row. Of course, they lost all four, but it was an accomplishment nonetheless. When people think of the Bills, it's those four losses (famously earning them the acronym "Boy I Love Losing Superbowls") and Norton's kick that come to mind. And more famously, Buckner's error in the 1986 Red Sox/Mets World Series came to represent the entire 86-year championship drought in Boston. It has since been vindicated with the Sox 2004 championship, but remains a painful reminder of Red Sox history.
Or what about the River City Relay of 2003? With the Saints playing the Jaguars in Week 16 in a game with possible playoff ramifications and down 20-13 with seven seconds to play, it would take 75 yards for a touchdown to send the game to overtime. After a series of completely improbable laterals that began with a shotgun pass from Aaron Brooks, the Saints scored and came within an extra point from tying the game with no time left on the clock. Of course, John Carney missed the kick and the Saints lost 20-19. The thing about this play is that as excited as I was watching the Saints drive towards the end zone, defying all expectations, I tempered my excitement until the extra point. In most situations, the PAT is a gimme but for some reason I had a bad feeling about what was going to happen. After all, it's the Saints, I thought. There's a reason their fans are famous for wearing bags over their heads. When Carney pushed the kick wide-right, I was disappointed, depressed, and dismantled. But not surprised.
All rationalizations aside, it still seems awfully dubious that a team can perform at a consistently low level that spans players, coaches, general managers, and in some cases owners. Some teams are cursed with poor ownership that funnels cancerous energy through the franchise. Wirtz of the Blackhawks, Mike Brown of the Bengals, and Tom Benson of the Saints have all had incredibly negative impacts on the course of their franchises during their tenure. But what if that isn't a viable excuse? Can it be possible that players, even ones coming from past successes, read from the script of the team's history and adapt that entropic persona? It is possible for teams to find second life –- the Red Sox, White Sox, and Patriots are all recent examples that prove it can be done. Why do most historically bad teams, and more importantly their fans, see success as a utopian society that exists more than slightly out of their reach? The fact is that winning at sports isn't rocket science. Study the dynasties, adjust for changes in the current era, and mimic.
But it's the use of that very phrase, "culture of losing," that perpetuates itself. By mention alone, it hands control of a team to a myth, leaving players completely incapable of taking control into their own hands. The mental part of professional sports starts with the belief that anything can be done with the right approach, and constant reminders of how a team has failed in the past leech that optimism. As long as fans and their teams are okay accepting the role of loser based on a history they've had no part of, they'll continue to be incapable of changing, having already lost the game before even stepping foot on the field.