Each sports fan’s favorite teams are chock full of their heroes. We all know and love the legends that gave us championships and records and unforgettable moments, the guys that will never pay for a drink in whatever city they played in.
Just as we have our heroes, we also have our villains. Every sport has them: evil empires and alleged cheaters, corner-cutters and dirty players. They think they’re above the game, they buy championships instead of earning them, they don’t play by the rules. These are the teams that are universally hated by everyone except for their own fans.
There have been different incarnations of these villainous teams for decades, but the most recent examples are the New York Yankees and the New England Patriots.
The most immediate answer to the question of why is obvious: they win. The Yankees have won 27 World Series Championships in 40 appearances, both of which are the most all time by any franchise. Their 40 appearances is twice the number of the second place team, The New York/San Francisco Giants, and their 27 titles bests the second placed St. Louis Cardinals by 16.
The Patriots have now been to six Super Bowls, winning four of them, all in the last 14 years, more than any other franchise since the turn of the century. Both franchises have had Hall of Fame players led by Hall of Fame coaches, and have been truly dominant in their respective sports. Nobody likes to lose to the same team over and over again. Nobody likes to consistently see the same opposing faces smirking, laughing, and celebrating at post game trophy ceremonies instead of their own beloved players and coaches. We hate them because they win so much.
But we’ve seen that winning alone does not warrant hatred. The San Antonio Spurs have been one of the NBA’s best franchises over the last 15 years. They’ve won five championships since 1999, tying the Lakers for most by any franchise over that period. They’ve had Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame coach. They’ve been truly dominant; they meet all the requirements to be universally loathed by all not residing in San Antonio.
Yet, somehow, the Spurs are one of basketball’s most beloved franchises. Tim Duncan, affectionately dubbed The Big Fundamental, is one of the NBA’s most admired players. His longtime partnership with teammates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and coach Gregg Popovich is considered one of the truest examples of the purity of sports. They embody everything that we want athletes, teams and coaches to be, and we adore them for it.
But they win. We have to repeatedly watched them hoist trophies after defeating our hometown teams, and see them shine while our teams fade into the background. If all it takes to have a team be hated is for them to win, then the Spurs should be at the top of the list. So, if winning alone isn’t enough, what else is there?
There must be one more factor, one more difference that separates the winners we hate from the winners we love. That factor is due to the specific nature of every diehard sports fan: we hate to lose and, even more than that, we hate to admit that we lost fair and square. We crave an explanation for why we lost; there must be some reason beyond our team just not measuring up. Something must have happened. In the cases where we can find the explanation we’re looking for, we run with it as far as we can.
Thus, we hate the teams that we can hate. The Yankees have always had the most money in baseball, consistently ready and willing to pay whatever luxury tax they need in order to buy the best possible players. They have made their way to the top by outspending every other team in baseball year in and year out, and in doing so have given infinite fodder to every Yankee-hating baseball fan.
Everybody knows the dismissive rhetoric: they buy championships; their winning isn’t about baseball, its about dollars. Baseball fans have realized that they’re allowed to hate the Yankees and that there is universally accepted justification for undermining their accomplishments. The hatred has only compounded over the years.
The Patriots have offered up similar justification for people to hate them. The Spygate scandal and others that have followed gave football fans a much desired opportunity to direct their frustration at losing in a direction different than at their own teams.
Again, the dialogues are familiar: they cheat, they didn’t earn their wins, Belichick is up to his old tricks again. NFL fans all over the country jump on the opportunity to direct the frustration of losing into undying hatred of the winningest franchise of the last 15 years.
Then, when a dominant team truly does it all the right way, and we can’t find anything to be mad about, we love them for it. We praise them as a shining example of what sports should be, and use that example to only further disparage the low-stooping villains that we despise. We love the Spurs, not only for what they represent, but for how they highlight what we hate.
Sports will always have heroes and villains. Being a fan is too wrenching an experience for you to not travel to the furthest ends of the emotional spectrum. The dynamics of who becomes a hero and who becomes a villain could be case-by-case and it could be truly merit-based.
It may, however, be something easier to wrap our minds around. Perhaps we’re just sore losers.