Untitled: Can you still find joy in a great season or player’s career that ends without a championship?

One of my favorite things about having this dumb site is when people see what we do, mainly be an outlet to let out our frustrations or thoughts on whatever is on our minds, and ask if they can write something up for it. Today, we have guest HOT TAKER @ThisKindaBrad! Give him a follow on Twitter if you haven’t already. Take it away Brad!

My favorite football player ever is John Elway.

I was 6, the Broncos had cool orange uniforms, and Elway was the best player in the league; who wouldn’t want to be him? During my formative sports-fan years, the Broncos, led by Elway, made three Super Bowls… and lost them all by a combined 96 points. One of those defeats made me cry, all three caused me emotional pain.

After losing those Super Bowls, Elway was awarded a career tagline that has since been reissued to countless high-profile, superstar athletes, to the point of complete and total market saturation: The Guy Who Can’t Win The Big One.

As their careers evolved, Elway and his draft classmate, Dan Marino, were increasingly compared, pejoratively, to Joe Montana, who won 4 titles playing on loaded teams for a once-in-a-generation coach, Bill Walsh.* The Montana-Elway-Marino debate was one of the beta tests for what would become the meat and potatoes of every Hot Take Teevee Sports Debate Show that pollutes the dialogue of 2018 mainstream sports culture. The irrefutable point always stands tall at the end: Montana = good b/c Ringzzz while Elway and Marino = bad b/c chokers. To this day, Ringzzz is the queen of spades of this and every sports argument.

*The last of the four Montana-led 49ers titles came under George Seifert, who, while a fine coach, was basically just a stand-in for Walsh. So, I guess, congrats on winning one with a different coach, amigo.

Then something awesome happened: John Elway quarterbacked the Broncos back-to-back Super Bowls and promptly retired. It was such a perfect, gladiator-walking-away-a-hero narrative, so simplistic and requiring no further inspection or analysis, that all it did for the Elway-Montana-Marino debate was reinforce the relatively shallow and unimaginative conventional wisdom that one can only achieve a certain strata of athletic immortality by winning championships.

You cannot have a discussion about individual greatness in a team sport without, at a minimum, acknowledging which player has more gaudy, ugly and impractical rings on their fingers. (Seriously, who the fuck wears those things?) It has ruined 80% of sports bar conversations, and 100% of daytime TV on ESPN and its competitors.

There are many criteria to compare individual players beyond team success, but there is a reason that Ringzzz is still a wrecking ball in sports debates: titles are, for the most part, the only payoff that fans latch onto as justification for the irrational emotional investment that being a sports fan demands. This has been the average fan’s mindset since the dawn of televised sports in the 50s, but since the late 90s when Elway and Michael Jordan walked away on top, and sportswriting began to trend toward personal memoir and away from impartial scribe, the importance of ultimate victory has become so pronounced that it casts a shadow over every single aspect of both sports coverage and fandom.

For fans, it doesn’t have to be this way. Championships are the zeroes on the roulette wheel, and when you invest too much in winning that wager, your entire experience at the casino will usually suck. Playoffs in team sports are small sample sets and inherently lucky; to willingly stack the emotional odds against yourself like that approaches insanity. There are so many moments along the way that can be every bit as joyous as seeing your team lift a trophy, but if you’re hyper-focused on the trophy, you’ll never enjoy them the same way.

Unless you’re a Browns fan.

Broncos-over-Packers in SBXXXII was one of the great nights of my life, but the further I get from it, the more it is indistinguishable from, for example, the Rangers winning Game 5 against the Capitals in the conference semis in 2015 (or in 2012… those games were remarkably similar).

The difference between the 1997 Broncos and 2015 Rangers is one team won the title and the other was a more enjoyable fan experience. I don’t care that those Rangers, who finished with the best record in the league, lost a heartbreaker in Game 7 of the conference finals … the day-in, day-out journey with that squad brought me more joy than any season of sports ever.

Every season—unless you’re a Browns fan—there is an attainable goal that you can set for your team as a fan that can bring joy. There is not much difference in rooting for one win against your rival, or rooting for an individual player to get an award, as rooting for a championship, and thus, the payoff doesn’t have to be any different. What’s even better is there will always be unexpected pleasures along the way that knock you on your ass in the best way.

Losing, especially when it’s a close playoff game, will never not hurt… but it shouldn’t dilute the endorphin rush of each moment that got your team there. Vikings fans got to experience one of the single greatest finishes to a sporting event ever… I hope, after a few weeks of grieving, that game is their memory of this season and not the no-show ass-spelunking in Philly in the NFCCG.

It took a Syracuse loss to Butler in 2010 to get me on this emotional track with sports. I loved that team with a personally-unprecedented passion—one only later topped by the 2015 Rangers—and took that loss especially hard… hard enough that I broke a couch and an end table. Somewhere between my 3rd and 4th apology to my wonderful (and ever-so-forgiving) wife, I started to find that the pain of that Syracuse loss could never match the joy in watching the poetry-in-motion of that team’s offense 35 times over 4 months. I look back on that season with tremendous fondness, not bitterness.

I do my best to allow for the journey to be more meaningful than the outcome. TRUST THE PROCESS! It’s definitely not a mindset you can maintain all the time, especially in the heat of battle, when fits of rage still persist. (I have, since that 2010 epiphany, smashed at least half a dozen remotes, most recently during Game 5 of Rangers-Ottawa last spring… seriously, my wife tolerates an astonishing amount of my sports-fan bullshit. You da real MVP). However, with a little time, the losses don’t stay with me the same way anymore.

Don’t insist upon titles from your teams and it’s easier not to insist upon them from star players when evaluating them objectively.

IDGAF about Tom Brady winning a 6th Super Bowl because there’s so much more to football than winning championships. (Okay, that’s a lie, fuck Tom Brady.) 21st century sports coverage has drifted so far into the Ringzzz column (there is a very obvious parallel with late-period capitalism here, but that is sooooo not the Take for me to write) that it has left the nuance of these conversations in the dust.

There’s so much more to think about, and so much more to love about sports than championships. As much as is possible, don’t surrender hopes (and inevitably, consequently, opinions) to the part of the game that is most dependent on luck. Focus on the journey and derive enjoyment from that. Stop and smell the roses.

Unless you’re a Browns fan.

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