I’d like to believe that sports are purely entertainment. That we all watch purely to see athletes run, jump and throw faster, harder and stronger than the average fan could dream of doing. Obviously, this isn’t reality. If you heard about the rally last weekend in Ann Arbor calling to fire University Athletic Director Dave Brandon, sports are anything but just entertainment. The thousands of hours I’ve invested in watching and discussing sports would attest to that as well.

Derek Wolfe

There’s no denying that sports have the unique ability to rally communities and, in many cases, represent the character of a city. This leads to millions of people regularly relying on well-paid athletes or a bunch of 18- to 22-year-old kids to define their moods. And despite having never met these athletes, we genuinely care about how they perform. Win and it’s ecstasy. Lose and depression sets in.

That passion made this past weekend especially tough for fans of Michigan football, the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions. They all lost. But it wasn’t just that they lost; it was that they all lost having failed to meet high expectations.

Michigan lost again despite having all the talent in the world. It was supposed to be a great season.

The Lions lost because their kicker missed three field goals. It was supposed to be a big win.

The Tigers lost because their best players didn’t come through when it counted most. There was supposed to be a World Series celebration.

At one point, all of these teams had something to play for — and the Lions still do — but because of not meeting these high expectations, Michigan football and the Tigers’ seasons can only be looked at as failures. Goals were not met, plain and simple.

Now of course, the teams’ performances don’t have any tangible effect on my life. Win or lose, I still have an 8 a.m. class on Tuesdays. Yet like most fans, I was and still am upset. However, it was in the midst of this downright disappointment that I realized why sports matter and where this emotional dependence originates.

It’s because we all see or want to see a little bit of ourselves in our favorite athletes — well, not the physical skills, but the storylines.

It’s seeing a player come back from injury, make a major impact on the team and then making a connection such as, “This is kind of like when I failed my first chemistry test, then somehow pulled off an A in the class.”

It’s the Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s and early 1990s where the “Bad Boys” symbolized the tough, underdog nature by which the people of Detroit identified themselves.

That brings me back to my point on expectations. Seeing our favorite teams lose and fail to meet expectations triggers a soft spot, because we’re all dealing with trying to meet expectations in our own ways.

Sure, ours aren’t coming from millions of fans. They’re coming from friends, family and ourselves. But that doesn’t make them any less significant. I despise not meeting my goals. I don’t want to let anyone down.

And I now realize that I project those feelings onto my favorite teams. After all, they’re supposed to be representing me. Therefore, I expect the players to react the way I would if I failed: I expect them to care as much as I do.

“You feel like you let the fans down. You feel like you let the organization down. But there is nothing we can do about it now,” Brad Ausmus, the manager of Tigers, said after Sunday’s season-ending loss to the Orioles.

Great. That sounds about right.

On the other hand, junior wide receiver Devin Funchess, after losing to Rutgers said, “Wins and losses, that’s just a statistic.”

Seriously? Indifference? That’s not me. Well, I guess you can’t expect everyone to think like you.

Regardless, I’m probably going to keep looking to athletes for direction. Not because it’s the best idea, but because it’s natural.

Sports find a way to simplify the intricacies and complexities of life and make nearly every scenario — the last-second shot, winning after being really down in the first half, etc. — somehow applicable to a real life scenario.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say these athletes embody the human condition: the good, the bad and the ugly.

And that’s something an Introductory Psychology class can’t teach.

Derek Wolfe can be reached at dewolfe@umich.edu.

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