The Curse of Specialness

If you follow sports at all, you know that this week, the Boston Red Sox won their second World Series in four years. This is an amazing turnaround for a team that until 2004 had not won a championship in eighty-six years—a streak of futility that fans dubbed “the Curse of the Bambino,” since it began after the Sox traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919. Since I’ve been a Red Sox fan for over thirty years, I’ve been pleased by this recent run of success. Yet as a student of A Course in Miracles, it has also given me an opportunity to reflect on how sports fandom is a great window into the nature of specialness.

In the Course, “specialness” is what we acquire when we are set apart from and set above other people. It is what we normally call status, honor, respect, esteem, and (ego-based) love. Robert likes to describe specialness as a kind of quasi-physical energy that can be transferred from one person to another. There are many ways this transfer can occur: everything from a pat on the back to an invitation to the boss’s house to a wedding ring. One way we can acquire specialness is simply to associate ourselves with a special person or group of people, whose specialness is transferred onto us by that association.

Rooting for sports teams is a great way to acquire specialness without a whole lot of effort. (Of course, people follow sports teams with varying degrees of commitment and intensity—the descriptions here will be mainly of the more extreme end.) Sports fandom is all about specialness by association, is it not? Fans don’t acquire specialness by actually doing anything impressive; after all, they aren’t on the team. Instead, they acquire it simply by connecting themselves to their favorite team—often a team they root for simply because it represents the “special” geographic area they happen to live in. They associate themselves with the team in various ways. They acquire clothing with team logos, including replicas of the actual uniforms the players wear. They acquire other team paraphernalia like posters, pennants, and car flags. They pledge allegiance to the fan base of their chosen team, which these days is often called a “nation”—Red Sox fans are members of “Red Sox Nation.”

Loyalty to the “nation” is very important. Fans fiercely defend their team’s honor and prestige, especially against their archrivals—for Red Sox fans, the hated Yankees. Traitors are regarded with contempt. When Johnny Damon left the Red Sox for the Yankees, he immediately went from hero to pariah, merely by switching uniforms. And attachment to the team can be very intense—”fan” is actually short for “fanatic.” A quote attributed to various football coaches sums up the attitude of the most die-hard fans: “Football isn’t a matter of life or death. It’s much more important than that.”

Of course, a winning team confers a lot more specialness points than a losing one does. Because of this, while there are fans who stay with a team through thick and thin, you also see all sorts of new fans come out of the woodwork when a team is a winner. These are derisively called “bandwagon fans,” and commentators have noted just how many “lifelong” Red Sox fans seem to have emerged in the last four years—kind of like the millions of people who now swear they attended Woodstock. Conversely, when a team loses, its fans tend to disappear, and even those who gamely stick it out often try to subtly disidentify with the current team. In the stadiums of losing teams, I’ve seen fans with bags over their heads. One interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed is that when a team wins, its fans usually say “We won,” but when it loses, the fans usually say “They lost.” “We” share in the glory of victory, but “those bums” are fully to blame when they lose.

However, specialness can be a tricky thing, so as a fan you have to be careful. While winning normally confers specialness, too much winning can actually cause a team and its fans to be regarded as arrogant bullies, which reduces their specialness. Research on the Yankees, who have won far more championships than any other team in Major League Baseball, confirms that they are both the most loved and the most hated, with the “hated” numbers actually much higher. Conversely, while losing normally takes away specialness, extreme losing can actually confer the increased specialness of the “lovable loser.” The big losers elicit our sympathy. The Red Sox and their fans had this form of specialness in spades during the years of the Curse. But now that they have become a powerhouse, the “lovable loser” mantle has passed fully to the team that used to share it with the Sox: the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908. Now the Red Sox and their fans are in danger of becoming the arrogant bullies. Several sportswriters have put the question succinctly: Have the Red Sox become the Yankees?

The ironic thing is that the specialness acquired through sports fandom never really satisfies. Before the Red Sox won in 2004, their beleaguered fans often expressed the sentiment that if only the Curse were broken before they died, they could die in peace. But the Curse was broken, and that peace has not come. Red Sox fans, like any other sports fans, always want more. Now they want to become a dynasty, but no matter how many titles the Red Sox win, it will never be enough. It is a truism in sports that you are only as good as your last game. The Yankees are a great example; their most recent manager had won four championships, was loved and respected by virtually everyone, and led his team to the third best record in baseball this year, yet he was fired because he hadn’t won a championship lately. If the Red Sox win ten consecutive World Series but falter in the eleventh year, Sox fans will be unhappy once again—and will probably want the manager fired.

It’s easy, especially if you’re not into sports, to laugh at the foibles of sports fans. Rooting for an athletic team to win is so obviously not a real path to happiness. However, the dynamics we see here are relevant to us all, for in the Course’s view, the specialness game is one that everyone plays in one form or another. We all have our ways of acquiring specialness. We all have our “teams” that we identify with, be they families, employers, religions, nations, etc. We all promote our teams with fanatical loyalty and drum out the “traitors” in our midst. We all try to take credit for what “we” did when our team hits a home run and blame what “they” did when it strikes out. We all try not to look too cocky when we’re doing well, and try to elicit sympathy when we’re not.

Most of all, our versions of the specialness game leave us just as unhappy as the sports fan whose team will never achieve permanent victory. The real curse isn’t failing to win a championship for eighty-six years; the real curse is specialness. Happiness simply doesn’t lie in being set apart from and set above other people. It comes only when we realize that we are all equal members of the same team: beloved children of a loving Father Whose Will for all of us is perfect and eternal happiness.

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