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The Ecstasy of Defeat
Steve Rushin
September 16, 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.
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September 16, 2002

The Ecstasy Of Defeat

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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 sports-writers 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.

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