This March Madness was one to remember. There was an epic Final Four game, incredible comebacks, and, like every year, a fair share of underdogs. Schools like Oral Roberts, Oregon State, and UCLA won the hearts and minds of America with their respective tournament runs. Their opportunism is the epitome of why the NCAA Men’s Division I basketball tournament is one of the most-followed events in America year after year.
However, March Madness has become a lost refuge for the mystification of the underdog as a whole. While, in the past, these dark horses were idolized as a stand-in for the American spirit, they seem to have been forgotten in the past decade, replaced by the now-embraced practice of “bandwagoning.”
Through this essay, we’ll take a look at the NBA, Hollywood, and American politics over the past decade to try to understand better both how and why the underdog has devolved from cultural ideal to marginalized obscurity.
The American Revolution, The Miracle on Ice, and Jimmy Fallon
The underdog has been such an identifiable part of American history because it played such an integral role during the nation’s inception. When the colonial army and associated militias defeated the British army to win the Revolutionary War, it can be considered to be the first upset in American history. A ragtag team with limited resources and organization found a way to defeat what was perhaps the most powerful army in the world at the time to establish the United States of America.
The idea of the underdog, as we know it today, is rooted in sports. Some of the most memorable moments in American sports history were underdog stories, like the Jimmy V NC State March Madness run, the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic Men’s Hockey team win over the Soviet Union, and the 2007 New York Giants defeating the 18-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Meanwhile, successful teams like the Mike Krzyzewski Duke Blue Devils Men’s Basketball team and the New York Yankees have been historically hated because of their perennial superiority.
One can’t talk about underdogs in sports without mentioning underdogs in sports movies. While some of these films are fictional (“Rocky”), many are based on real life events. “Miracle,” for example, is based on the Miracle on Ice, or “Rudy.” Underdog sports movies have even dipped into other genres. “Fever Pitch,” starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, is a romantic comedy backdropped by the 2004 Boston Red Sox season, capped off by their miraculous 0-3 comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series.
In order to find an example of a culturally relevant underdog sports movie, we’ll have to turn back the clock 10 years to get to “Moneyball.” The Brad Pitt vehicle, directed by Bennett Miller and adapted by Aaron Sorkin, follows Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane as he brings analytics into an old-school industry. “Moneyball” was another triumph for the underdog in popular culture. What people didn’t know, however, was that this was its last triumph.
The NBA Superteam
A year before the release of “Moneyball,” in 2010, then-NBA free agent LeBron James held “The Decision,” a television special in which he would announce which team he would sign with. It was there that the world learned that LeBron was taking his talents to South Beach, and he wasn’t alone. All-Star Chris Bosh would also join future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. “The Big Three” became the first NBA Superteam.
This approach was so foreign that LeBron instantly turned from beloved prodigy to the biggest heel in sports. In 2010, America was steeped in an ideology that believed you had to earn your way to a championship. After grinding with his Cleveland Cavaliers for half a decade, people felt LeBron was taking the easy way out. Ironically, the Heat lost in the 2011 NBA Finals to the underdog Dallas Mavericks, led by German big man Dirk Nowitski. Needless to say, many were pleased about the outcome.
Moreover, this loss was little more than a growing pain for The Big Three. The Heat won the next two NBA Finals and the next three Eastern Conference Finals. The Superteam experiment was a success, and players were taking note.
One of those players was Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant. Durant had a similar NBA upbringing. Drafted into a small market, it was difficult for his talent to be rewarded on a team scale. His Thunder was the team who gave LeBron his first ring after a 1-4 NBA Finals defeat in 2012. Fed up by the performative stalemate of his Thunder, Durant joined Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, who had won a record-breaking 73 games in the past regular season.
This decision also rubbed people the wrong way. Unlike with the Big 3 in Miami, Durant wasn’t putting a team together. Instead, he was joining a team that was already put together. This brings us to the term “bandwagoning”: becoming a fan of a team because of their performance despite not previously supporting the team.
This practice brought scorn to the American sports community, who believed that fans should have as much faith and loyalty to their team as their players do. While bandwagoning was frowned upon but existent in the community, never has the term been applied to athletes. One of the best NBA players of a generation was going to join perhaps the best NBA team of all time in the Golden State Warriors.
It didn’t take long for the fans to bandwagon as well. While the Miami Heat were depicted as supervillains, the Warriors were eventually treated as NBA royalty, respected as one of the best collections of talent in the league’s history. Stephen Curry had the highest-selling jersey from 2016 to 2018, the longest streak since Kobe Bryant achieved that feat in the early 2000s. The 3-point heavy approach of Golden State revolutionized the sport and influenced a generation of young basketball players.
By the time Anthony Davis was traded to the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers in 2019, people hardly batted the eye. The Superteam had been assimilated into American culture. Now, with the Superteam Brooklyn Nets with Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant (now on his second Superteam), the approach is teetering on self-parody. The inequality in the NBA talent pool has reached an impasse, and time will tell how this predicament will be approached—if it’s approached at all.
The Tentpole Superhero Movie
In May of 2012, a month before LeBron James won his first NBA championship, a new Superteam emerged: The Avengers. Following Disney’s acquisition of Marvel in 2009, the 2012 film “The Avengers” was an ensemble of characters and actors who had starred in their own successful movies in the past four years.
Like the Big 3, this move was unprecedented. Back when actors, not franchises, determined the box office, the standard was to have from one to three big actors. “The Avengers” was an ensemble of leads, and its sequels only built on that. This was a turning point for Hollywood, and the blockbuster evolved from just another genre to the pinnacle of commercial entertainment.
Warner Brothers picked up on this shift. Following the release of 2016’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the studio announced they were going to focus more on tentpole releases rather than mid-budget adult dramas—despite the less-than-expected box office returns that were likely hindered due to the movie’s poor critical performance.
Independent Films and Film Twitter
This move was a huge blow to the underdogs of cinema: independent films. As major studios started to distance themselves from standard dramas, they also started to distance themselves from the indie films that resembled said dramas.
Whereas studios like Miramax (“Pulp Fiction,” “Good Will Hunting,” “No Country for Old Men”) and Fox Searchlight (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno,” “( Days of Summer”) held their own alongside the big studios in the 90s and 2000s, independent cinema as a whole was pushed to the fringes in the 2010s. A studio that jumped on this trend was A24 (“Moonlight,” “The Florida Project,” “Lady Bird”), appearing to almost handpick films that would be most likely to be the talk of Film Twitter.
It was markets like Film Twitter or awards season, however, that independent cinema was cornered into, and even mid-budget adult dramas seemed to be join in. Whereas films like “The Trial of the Chicago 7” or “Promising Young Woman” would steer the cultural conversation 20 years ago, today they’re put in the same category with the esoteric films like “Nomadland” or “The Father” that are also recognized by institutions such as the Academy Awards.
Movies that are considered commercial in our post-Avengers world predominantly consist of large budget spectacles. Substituting substance for spectacle didn’t just stop at the box office though. It expanded to bounds we couldn’t have imagined, including the White House.
The Working Class Embrace of Donald Trump
Months after the release of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in one of the most controversial elections in American history. One of the narratives that made this election so significant is the “blue wall” states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania flipping to vote Republican. These states stand out from the likes of Massachusetts and Washington State in that they are populated by a high percentage of working class Americans—Michigan and Wisconsin being part of the so-called “rust belt.”
Liberals were baffled by the reality that the working class Americans sidestepped the Democratic party in favor of a business mogul like Donald Trump. The reality was that these Americans felt disillusioned by the political system. They preferred an outsider that rejected that system as opposed to insiders like Clinton who were part of a system that had handed them empty promises in the past.
In some ways, Trump can be considered an underdog. The absence of political experience gave him the “outsider” label. Trump was technically considered the underdog on election night, trailing by the polls to Clinton by a sufficient margin. Of course, there was another outsider in that election cycle: Vermont Junior Senator Bernie Sanders. He was an Independent, vouched for the same common American causes that Trump had, and had the political background to back them up.
Compared to Sanders, Trump was the antithesis of an underdog. Born into a wealthy family, Trump seemed to fail upward to success. Many liberals were unsurprised to learn that Trump’s centerpiece of legislation The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 prioritized the wealthy over the middle and lower classes.
In 2020, Sanders ran again. Toward the beginning of the primary cycle, he was leading in the polls and winning states. Opinion writers like David Brooks were even predicting that he would win the nomination. Then, a wave of candidates dropped out, and Joe Biden won his way to candidacy easier than Clinton had in 2016. It turns out that Democrats were not rallying around the underdog. The moderates were simply splitting the votes.
The legacy of Sanders is yet to be seen. He’s still in the senate fighting for what he’s been fighting for for his entire political career. With no plans to run for president in 2024, though, the reality appears to be that Sanders will never be president.
There are people who are following his steps. The senator has mobilized a generation of activists, and he has outspoken disciples already in congress like New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. For now though, Sanders’s legacy seems to be more prevalent in memes about cozy inauguration attire than in legislation or policy. In fact, Sanders’s modest outfit provides a timely juxtaposition to Trump’s celebrity lifestyle, and this concept of celebrity may be the thing that ties this whole thing together.
The Explosion of Celebrity Culture in Sports, Indie Rock, and Politics
In just a decade, the diminishment of the underdog was accelerated to extensive lengths. It corrupted a major American sports league, waterlogged the Hollywood studio system, and inverted the party system. Through these changes exists a trend: the heightened interest of the celebrity.
If we look back at the most disliked teams in sports like the New York Yankees and the Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball teams, they are not seen as a collection of superstars as much as they are institutions that produce and organize a pool of talent. The most well-known teams were not associated with individual players as much as they are today. Just like favorites were not about the individual, underdogs were not necessarily collectivist either. Movies about individuals, whether it be in individual sports (“Rocky”) or in a team setting (“Rudy”) were as prevalent in the underdog subgenre as ensembles, if not more.
While it’s tempting to associate the American value of individualism with the celebrity athlete, team sports were always about the collective. It’s only been recently that the following of individuals players has eclipsed the following of teams. While the trial of O.J. Simpson started the trend of the celebrity athlete, this trend was not fully realized until social media exploded in the 2010s.
With the rise of fantasy sports, more and more sports fans were rooting for a collection of individual players instead of teams. SportsCenter strayed from balanced coverage of the four major sports and seems to be interested in little more than news concerning Tom Brady and LeBron James.
One sport that has seemed to take a hit from the popularization of the individual athlete is baseball. At once the most popular sport in America, only 9% of citizens called it their favorite sport in 2017, ranking behind football and basketball.
The number was at 14% in 2013, still not as much as it may have been in the mid-20th century but proportionally larger than 9%. A cause for this dip could be attributed to how much of a team sport baseball is. While the best player on a basketball team can score a third of the team’s total baskets, the best hitter on a baseball team can only bat every ninth time.
Additionally, while baseball does hold at least some weight in the cultural cache, it falters in its superstardom. Its most electric athletes like Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole are insignificant compared to Tom Brady and LeBron James. The MLB has even tried to compensate that with forced comparisons to athletes like LeBron.
Granted, it is tough to gauge how much celebrity culture has risen in a country founded on individualism. That’s why the best way to look for a change is to find establishments within American culture that are historically collectivist. One of those establishments is indie rock. Its sister genre alternative rock in the 90s established the status quo of performing in a band as a reaction to the historical prevalence of the singer-songwriter in American classic rock. Indie rock and alternative rock prioritized the music over personality.
Recently, we’ve seen that personality rise in this indie rock. Indie singer-songwriters are constantly grabbing the headlines that alternative bands in the 90s shied away from. Father John Misty provoked an entire industry over the “Pure Comedy” press cycle in 2017. Phoebe Bridgers seemed to be in a new story every week in 2020. If the celebrity can become the norm in indie rock, it can become the norm anywhere.
The Future of the Underdog
Aside from March Madness, perhaps the biggest role the underdog plays in contemporary American sports is through sports betting. The sports betting industry — rapidly being legalized in new states every year — is booming, and it just so happens to favor the underdog by design. If a bettor bets on an underdog, that person may win more than if they bet on the favorite.
While this may promote the underdogs in theory, it appears that people are more content with taking their chances with favorites than taking risks with underdogs. In Poirier vs. McGregor 2 in January, the underdog Poirier knocked out UFC legend Conor McGregor in front of 1.6 million viewers. Despite being a -310 favorite, McGregor still received 69% of bets. Not even money can get today’s sports fans to root for the underdog.
The outlook of the underdog looks grim, not just in sports but in the world. Among the many impacts of COVID-19 worldwide, small businesses faced hardship and closures.
Many mom-and-pop stores have had to close down because of social distancing orders, and those locations are likely going to be swept up by chains. The mainstream media is owned by five corporations. Remember Fox Searchlight? They were bought out by Disney in November of 2019 and renamed to the sterile “Searchlight.”
However, the hope for the underdog has not all gone away. In March of 2020, “The Way Back” was released. The Gavin O’Connor film follows a functioning alcoholic (Ben Affleck) who coaches a struggling Catholic high school basketball team to return to the glory it reached when Affleck’s character Jack Cunningham played there as a student-athlete.
The film’s $14.7 million box office return did not reflect its quality. Being in a subgenre that has seen better days, “The Way Back” was marginalized by the general public, lumped in with the aforementioned adult dramas and art house films that have been pushed to the fringes.
However, it could be the start of something. “The Way Back” is a comeback story, not just for the protagonist but also for Affleck, the underdog sports movie, and, maybe, the underdog. It could be wishful thinking, but a way back for the underdog never was going to be easy. It’s going to take perseverance, faith, and luck. Fortunately, those are things underdogs know all too well.