The Ecstasy of Defeat

September 15, 2002

I saw the mystified American basketball team lose last week to
teams from troubled Argentina (whose peso is equal in value to
those gold-foiled novelty chocolate doubloons) and Yugoslavia
(which has roughly the same land mass, and command of English,
as Kentucky). And when the games ended I felt not anger nor
disgust nor embarrassment, but delight. As the U.S. squad--12
guys in 12 Bentleys--Hindenburged, I was overcome by a shameful
joy, a malicious satisfaction in the Dream Team's demise. The
Germans have a word for this emotion, as well they should,
having inflicted on the world Milli Vanilli and Siegfried & Roy.
They call it Schadenfreude: pleasure in another's misfortune.

Even before last week, this has been the summer of schadenfreude.
Who among us doesn't feel a frisson of excitement at the prospect
of Martha Stewart's serving six to 12 (years, not dinner guests)?
Who wouldn't like to see Enron executives relocated from their
gated communities to other (all-male) gated communities? It's
exhilarating, don't you think, to watch James Traficant defrocked
in Congress, then dewigged in prison?

We may not like to admit to such feelings, but this summer sports
have exposed our schadenfreudean slips. Sure, the 20-game winning
streak by the small-market Oakland A's was great while it lasted
but not nearly as gratifying as the New York Mets--with their $113
million payroll--losing a National League-record 15 consecutive
home games, going 0 for August at Shea Stadium.

Likewise, baseball fans would love to have seen the completion of
the All-Star Game. But the sight of Bud Selig as he called it
after 11 innings--his shoulders in a Nixonian hunch, his palms
raised as if feeling for rain, his home crowd serenading him with
raspberries all the while--was a timeless tableau, and infinitely
more entertaining. (The sports editors of the nation's newspapers
evidently agree, which is why they only publish photographs in
which the commissioner looks exceedingly uncomfortable, as if
he's suffering from bitter-beer face.)

Indeed, I've heard from many people--not just sadistic
sportswriters but actual human beings--who were rooting for a
baseball strike, in the hope that players and owners would
annihilate one another in a catastrophic collision, as happens
to the helmets in the opening of Monday Night Football. To those
people, the labor settlement was a disappointment, schadenfreude
short-circuited.

In fact, schadenfreude is a headlong collision of the German
words Schaden (damage) and Freude (joy), and it seems to exist in
all sports fans. Even casual observers would derive great Freude
from seeing irreparable Schaden done to the self-esteem of Steve
Superior, the new Washington Redskins coach whose ego is
inflating at twice the rate of the Argentine peso.

Before Spurrier, the NFL's prime carrier of schadenfreude--its
host organism, if you will--was quarterback Ryan Leaf, who got his
karmic comeuppance this summer when he was, once and for all,
Leafblown from the league. His retirement was both boon and bane
to sports schadenfreudeans--an illicit thrill, but one that will
inevitably leave their autumns emptier. Sic transit gloria
Sunday.

It's a pervasive perversity, schadenfreude. The official American
supporters' club of the English soccer power Arsenal posts on its
website a "Schadenfreude of the Week," an account of bad news
befalling rivals Chelsea or Tottenham or Manchester United. But
that's mere self-interest masquerading as schadenfreude. (What
hurts Man United helps Arsenal, after all.) No, the truly
selfless sports schadenfreudean can enjoy--independent of his or
her rooting interest--any loss by the Dallas Cowboys or the New
York Yankees or Notre Dame. Pity, wasn't it, that someone had to
win last Saturday's Miami-Florida football game?

More entertaining than the Masters is the spectacle surrounding
Augusta National Golf Club, which is under intense public
pressure to admit its first female member. While the club's brain
trust refuses to succumb to what it regards as blackmail (whose
homonym--black male--was equally repellent at Augusta for more than
half a century), club members are moistening their green blazers
with ever-widening pit stains as the heat is turned higher every
week. And that thought is, I must confess, oddly uplifting.

Clearly, no one but a misanthrope wishes serious misfortune on
another person. But it would be cool if that California judge
threw out the case of the disputed ownership of Barry Bonds's
73rd home run ball, and the two knuckleheads who brought it, and
the baseball itself, so that neither Patrick Hayashi nor Alex
Popov nor their attorneys profited from it.

Imagine. Every time Bonds stepped to the plate, the principals
would see the linked s and f on his helmet and think not of San
Francisco but of Schaden and Freude, damage and joy. Farfetched,
perhaps, but a guy can dream, can't he?

It isn't much, as dreams go. But then dreams aren't what they
used to be. Ask the Dream Team, from the U.S., the world's
sixth-ranked basketball power--two spots behind New Zealand.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE

Schadenfreude is a headlong collision of the German words Schaden
(damage) and Freude (joy), and it seems to exist in all sports
fans.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)