The reason there is an underdog, is that there is also a “top dog” –back in Victorian England, where many things that were considered entertainment would shock even those who consider the Real Housewives shows to be entertainment. One of those things was dogfights. The winner, of course, was named the Top Dog, and the loser was the underdog.
Now, I grew up in San Diego, which used to have professional football, basketball, and baseball teams. Currently, they only have a baseball team left, which is the result of some dastardly abandonments by the basketball and football teams. No, since you ask, I am not bitter about that, except for the fact that I am incredibly bitter about that. In any case, being a fan of any of these teams meant that you were going to be rooting for the underdog. Our sports teams, to this day, have never won a championship, although we have come very close.
But we are still huge fans. Weird, I know, but the thing is, this is what we had, and as a kid, it was enough.
National Underdog Day recognizes that America loves its underdogs. Each year on the third Friday in December, we cheer on the teams and individuals who are statistically expected to lose in competition. The way teams, and other examples of underdogs, are built, is that we have a group that is created for a purpose. One which they are really unlikely to achieve.
Staying with sports as an example, the San Diego Padres are a major league team, that for the first several years of its existence, was composed of mostly mediocre players and poor management. The owner once apologized over the public address system after the game for the way the team pathetically lost the game they had just played. But as a kid, I was already hooked, and it has been burnt into my brain to root for the team, even though that was usually a pointless endeavor. When the underdog wins, we call it an upset. But since this did not happen very often, I did not get to use the word much.
The saga of the underdog is also known as a Cinderella story. People love it when the previously lovable losers suddenly put it all together for just enough time for them to grab the prize that they have been looking for all this time. When success is a long shot and will require a struggle, most Americans will root and cheer for the underdog. In 1984, the Padres made it to the baseball World Series by the thinnest of margins. The entire city celebrated, and we all drank and danced to their success, because it had never happened before. Little did we know that it would be the last success we would see until 1996, and we would be thoroughly stomped in the series itself. I remain one of the people who has seen the only World Series game the Padres have ever won, and it has been 36 years since that game. But I still treasure the memory, because it was a moment for triumph against all odds, which is a joyful experience, and may be the reason that we root for the underdog, even thought it is usually a losing proposition.
I would spend my early years counting down the days until the Padres were finally mathematically eliminated from the possibility of success, and then the remaining thing to root for was which team’s chances we could ruin, and looking forward to the next year, when my optimism would again erupt like a blooming flower that would eventually fade and wither. But for the time in which the chance still existed, I would cling to the possibility in a die-hard manner that would clash with the reality of the situation until the last possible moment.
We also love books and movies about the underdog. The Rocky film franchise tells of an underdog that the crowd roots for, and is happy even when they usually do not win. Another example are the calculus students in the movie Stand and Deliver. It is the story of disadvantaged youth who strive to excel in mathematics for several years in high school, eventually learning enough to take and pass the AP calculus exam. At first, the test proctors think this is so improbable that they are accused of cheating en masse. The movie, based on a true story, shows how they retake the test and pass even more convincingly the second time. After which the testers have to admit their achievement. This is the epitome of an underdog winning at all costs, and it is the meaning behind the day.
Underdogs inspire us and remind us of our own potential. Hearing about them motivates us try and make a difference and to strive for our goals, even in the face of overwhelming odds. I think of this as a good thing, it exhibits our empathy and caring, and shows that we can hope against hope that the odds can be overcome, and that the favorites may not always defeat those who do not necessarily have all the possible blessings, but that they may make up for that with their grit, and their spirit, and their effort. We hope that for them, because we also hope that for ourselves. We like to see the little guy win, and the forces of darkness defeated.
Celebrate this day by telling your underdog story on social media. Or adopt a literal dog from a shelter, which would be very meta, but also a great way to show your desire to help the underdog. Or find a cause that is struggling and contribute or volunteer. The worst thing that can happen is that you are unsuccessful, but there is a chance, maybe not a very good one, but at least a chance, that you are the one that will succeed. You may be the Harriet Tubman, or the 1967 New York Jets, or the Mahatma Gandhi, or the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, or Apple Computer in the 1970s, or the 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Team. You could inspire others by your example, and you would also potentially win, or at least ensure that the Yankees don’t win every time.