Democracy Dies in Darkness

Sports | Perspective

Rooting for a sports team doesn’t build character. It reveals it.

March 7, 2018 at 7:01 PM

Capitals fans wait outside of the Caps locker room entrance before last season’s Game 7 in Pittsburgh. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Those who follow sports intently in Washington are being tested now, on all fronts and in all sports. Including me. Maybe it’s the malicious way that winter lingers, keeping its clutches on our mood, ignoring the inevitability of spring, but in recent days, sports pessimism almost got me. Almost. I suspect others know the dilemma, too.

John Wall has been out for more than a month after knee surgery. Will he be back in time for the NBA playoffs? And even if he is, how quickly can he and his Wizards teammates, with whom he squabbled before his injury, get in sync? Is a team that has been in its most enjoyable period in almost 40 years about to head backward?

Braden Holtby, the Capitals’ last line of defense, both in goal and as a source of emotional stability, has slumped for weeks. But now his play has collapsed so badly that his coach has pulled him in the middle of three of his past six games to salvage his confidence. How low might the Caps sink in the Stanley Cup playoff seedings before he snaps out of it? How long can they survive in the playoffs anyway? Though the Caps are just outside first place in their division, are they just prepping their fans for a new twist on their 30-year saga of spring miseries?

In spring training, the Nationals’ new manager, Dave Martinez, brought camels, ridden by coaches, into camp as a motivational device to help his team get over its psychological block about getting over the “hump” in the playoffs. Will facing their past problems help? Or just remind the Nats that Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Wieters and Ryan Madson are all in their walk years?

All of this, taken in a lump, with Redskins free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins now officially able to leave town , too, seemed like quite a dreary prospect. Then I realized that it was not merely the teams but me — the lifelong Washingtonian — who was about to be inspected for soundness.

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Perhaps there is no better litmus test for revealing our true dispositions — optimist, pessimist or that rarest breed, realist — than how we react to sports.

In every contest, one team loses; the other wins. In that sense, sport is almost a laboratory experiment. Every fan is presented with a glass-half-full world. Or a half-empty world, as we choose to see it. We reveal ourselves in how we react.

Few fans escape this 50-50 world. The Braves have played in the major leagues, in various cities, for more than 140 consecutive seasons. Their winning percentage rounds off to exactly .500.

Because the losses of a team do not damage us personally (unless we let them) and the millions in salaries do not land in our pockets, our emotional lives as fans allow us insights into our own attitudes. We always want our teams to have “good attitudes” — and we know exactly what that means. We want them to be resilient fighters, to cling to the best in their performance, because it may help them in the future, while digesting and learning from their worst, so they can move on from it.

Sometimes, however, it is just as hard for fans to maintain that “good attitude” — not blindly rooting but seeing things clearly and setting expectations that are in line with reality — as it is for their teams.

Long ago, as a parent with a son who was a fan early on, I began to realize that sports offered an opportunity — with genuine emotions but for miniaturized personal stakes — for us to try to have strong but still sensible responses to a wide range of experiences that seemed close to our hearts at that moment but really took place at arm’s distance.

He generally did well. I still cussed but, under his mature influence, less.

The case for optimism is always hard to make. Yet it is as essential as it is obvious. Do parents advise their own children, “Be pessimistic. That way, you won’t be disappointed.” Or do we say, “Aim high. Why not? You may make it!” Then, starting from the premise of optimism, we work our way toward realism.

What we tell those we love, we often neglect to remember for ourselves.

Pessimism is like gravity, acting invisibly and unnoticed on our dispositions when we are unaware. The phenomenon has been noted for centuries.

“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage,” John Stuart Mill wrote in the 19th century.

As has been noted ad nauseam, since the Redskins won the Super Bowl in January 1992, no Washington professional team in a major sport has won a title. And only one has even reached the final four in its sport: the 1997-98 Capitals, who reached the finals.

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Yet for 30 years, the Capitals have been one of the most consistent winning teams in their sport and a powerhouse for a decade since the arrival of Alex Ovechkin, who leads the NHL in goals this season. The Wizards, after a lost generation of bad management, have been an exciting, though sometimes frustrating, team in recent years. The past six years, the Nats have won 555 regular season games, the second most in the majors, but just seven in October.

Fairly soon, these teams will reveal their latest chapters to us. My disposition probably will incline me to think that best-case outcomes are just as reasonable to expect as dreary ones. Then, after we see what happens, we will reweigh it all.

But with what scales will we do that measuring? For many years, we have lived in a culture that has become increasingly infested with vicious trolling — in sports, in politics, on every cultural issue. And that trolling tone is not restricted to the Internet and has had its impact on every form of communication.

It is the tone of the cynic or the pessimist who sees the worst interpretation for everything. If you or your team isn’t the ultimate winner, or at least in the final four — if you fail by whatever standard the mean-spirited and angry have set — then you are condemned as a loser.

In this environment, have a care. Entering Wednesday, the Wizards had the 11th-best record out of 30 NBA teams, while the Caps were eighth in the 31-team NHL. If someone in our family was comparably good amid such broad competition, would our response be one of bitter disappointment and character attack because he or she fell short of the highest prize?

Make no mistake, as we watch the games in front of us: The athletes are not the only ones who are showing parts of their true selves. When games reach their most intense pitch, a large-screen TV makes for revealing viewing.

But a mirror does, too.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit

Tom Boswell has been a Washington Post sports columnist since 1984. He started at The Post in 1969 as a copy aide, and he spent 12 years as a general-assignment reporter, covering baseball, golf, college basketball, tennis, boxing and local high school sports.

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