Underdogs Celebrate February 24

Underdogs Celebrate February 24

Underdogs.  We root for them.  We cheer for them.  We use adjectives such as “scrappy” and “tenacious” to describe them.  They have “vigor” and “fight”.  Something in our DNA appears to be wired to will them to success.  Underdogs appear genuine whether in literature, movies or sports.  We will leave underdogs in the arts to other writings and view this article through the world of sports.

The Loyola – Chicago men’s basketball team became the darling of the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament.  As a low 11 seed out of 16 teams in its assigned Region, Loyola handed defeat to the larger and established programs of Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State on its way to the Final Four.  Jean Dolores Schmidt, BVM, all five feet and zero inches of her, serves as the Chaplain for the Loyola team and remains better known as Sister Jean.  We rooted for 100 year old Sister Jean in her Loyola scarf as much as we did Loyola during the NCAA run.  A small school with a plucky but ever so polite Chaplain taking down Blue Blood basketball programs fit comfortably as an underdog for whom we could cheer.  Go Ramblers!

Loyola’s bid fell short at the Final Four.  Need an underdog champ?  How about the 1983 NC State basketball team that defeated heavily favored Houston in the 1983 NCAA Basketball Tournament.  Houston, the overall number one seed and top team in the nation, played a frenetic pace resulting in countless fast break scoring opportunities.  That style earned the Houston team the nickname Phi Slama Jama.  The team was loaded with future NBA stars.  No one could keep up with Houston until they met NC State in the Championship game.  After NC State outran Houston to a 54-52 victory, we all recall the famous video of NC State coach Jim Valvano running around the court looking for anyone to hug.  True underdog material.

Off the field or court, issues may play in our perceptions of underdogs.  Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympics.  In no small measure, the host country, Germany, used the Olympics as a platform to promote its ruling political party, the Nazi Party, and its leader, Adolf Hitler.  Somehow, in this tense, politicized arena, Jesse Owens, a black U.S. Track and Field athlete, won 4 gold medals, set 3 world records, and broke or equaled 9 Olympic records.  As the Nazi’s promoted their brand of hate, prejudice and racism, Jesse Owens kept climbing to the top of the podium to the angst of the host nation.

Need a feel good underdog?  Take the 1969 New York Jets football team.  The Jets met the Baltimore Colts in the fledgling Super Bowl (Super Bowl III).  As an 18 point underdog, the Jets were scheduled to be the annual punching bag representing the American Football Conference sent to the Big Game.  The leader of the Jets, a confident and cocky quarterback named Joe Namath, “guaranteed” a Jets victory.  To the shock of the sports world, the Jets beat the heavily favored Colts, 16-7, in a game which many credit as setting professional football on a path toward the success it has become today.

Sports Illustrated came up with its own 100 greatest sports moments of the past 100 years.  Many underdogs earned their rightful place on that list.  Did these underdogs who knocked off mighty basketball teams from their coveted perches find themselves on top?  What of individuals who gave awe-inspiring performances under intense geo-political pressure?  Could Broadway Joe carry the Jets to the top with his delivery on a promise of an improbable win?  Not even close to Sports Illustrated Number One top sports moment of the past century.

We need to go back 41 years ago today, February 24, 1980 in otherwise quiet and quaint Lake Placid, New York, for the Winter Olympics and the Miracle on Ice.  The Soviet Men’s Hockey Team, comprised of career, professional players, each with substantial experience in international play, entered the Olympics as the odds on favorites.  Indeed, the Soviets won the hockey gold medal in five of the last six Winter Olympics.  Heading into 1980, the Soviet team had not lost an Olympic hockey game since 1968.  The Soviet Union skirted the required “amateur only” status of athletes by having its hockey players serve in military organizations with the exclusive purpose being to play hockey while receiving shelter, food and a regular paycheck from the government.  These Soviet hockey players were professionals in every sense.

In contrast, the U.S. team consisted of a collection of college players.  The U.S. put forth the youngest team at the 1980 Olympics.  For perspective, a month before the Olympics, the U.S. and Soviets played an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden which the Soviets won by a score of 10-3.  The Soviets had also just bested the National Hockey League All Star Team by a score of 6-0.

For even greater perspective, recall that 1980 remained firmly entrenched within the Cold War.  While the U.S. and Soviets played the exhibition game at Madison Square Garden, U.S. Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, denounced the upcoming Summer Olympics to be played in Moscow due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.  The U.S. ultimately boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics.  International Olympic competition during this period remained viewed through the geo-political prism of the Cold War.  A superior and dominating hockey team was viewed as an extension of the Soviet Union itself by the Soviets and as aggressors by the Western World.

Preparing for the Olympics, the U.S. Coach, Herb Brooks, recognized that changes were required in order for the U.S. team to compete with the elite hockey teams.  Brooks utilized a more uptempo and wide open style of play more aligned with the European teams.  In addition, Brooks sought players with a certain mindset in addition to physical skills.  Tryouts for the team included a 300 question psychological examination to determine a player’s response to stress.  Only one player from the 1976 Olympic team made the cut for the 1980 team.

During the preliminary Group Play stage of the 1980 Olympics, both the Soviets and and the U.S. teams remained undefeated in their respective groups.  Shockingly, the Soviets averaged over 10 goals per game in this Group Play stage, collectively outscoring their opponents 51-11.  In the final Group Play game, the Soviets finally faced stiff competition from the Canadian hockey team.  Being so close to the Canadian border in Lake Placid and with legions of passionate fans, the Canadian fans packed the arena.  The rabid fans chanted “Rah, Rah, Canada!  Nyet, Nyet, Soviet” for all three periods.  Despite putting up the best game in Group Play, the Canadians fell just short in a 6-4 Soviet victory.

In the Elimination Round, the U.S. faced the Soviets with most (all) expecting another lopsided Soviet win on the march toward another gold medal.  In fact, ABC television planned to air the game not live, but on tape delay.  ABC even broke away from coverage of the hockey game to show men’s slalom competition and even a cartoon, “The Pink Panther in: Olym-Pinks”.  Good thing the game took place before Twitter, Facebook and the invention of social media platforms.

After the first period, the score was knotted up at 2-2.  The Soviets started the second period with its backup goaltender.  Apparently, the starting goaltender had been shipped off to Siberia for allowing 2 goals by the U.S.  After the second period, the Soviets lead 3-2.  In the third and final period, the U.S. scored two goals in the span of minutes and found themselves leading 4-3 with ten minutes left to play.  The Soviets ferociously attacked for the remainder of the game.  The Soviets took 39 shots on the U.S. goal as opposed to 16 shots on goal for the U.S.

Years later, some Soviet players admitted to panicking once falling behind the Americans.  The Soviets were not used to playing from behind against any opponent much less in an Olympic contest.  The Soviets remained even more confused when the U.S. did NOT fall back into a defensive posture, but rather continued to play the wide-open offensive style.  U.S. Coach Brooks could be heard yelling “Play your game.  Play your game” to the U.S. team.  Under pressure and stress, the psychologically evaluated U.S. team members just continued to “play their game”.

To the surprise of all, in the last minutes, the Soviets did not pull their goalie from the net in order to get a player advantage on offense.  That approach represents a basic hockey tactic when trailing by one goal very late on the game.  After the game, when questioned, the Soviet coach conceded that the goalie was not pulled as the Soviet team never practiced that play as they were never trailing an opponent.

With the clock ticking down in the final minute and the American fans going wild in the arena, announcer Al Michaels delivered his famous call:  “. . . Five seconds left in the game.  Do you believe in miracles?  YES!”  

While the U.S. team continued on and defeated Sweden for the gold medal, that game appears as a mere afterthought.  The U.S., the youngest hockey team at the Olympics with the least amount of international hockey experience, took down Goliath in a Bear suit.

Under the format in place in the 1980 Olympics, the Soviet team won the silver medal for hockey.  Traditionally, each member of a team which earns a medal turns in the medal at the Olympics to have it engraved with the player’s name.  No Soviet player turned in his medal to be engraved.

The 1980 Miracle on Ice combined various underdog elements.  The Soviets were the ultimate dominant team on the world stage arguably with the most talented and experienced players.  The U.S. lacked experience with its talent unproven.  Entering the 1980 Olympics, the Soviets simply did not lose at the Olympics while the U.S. did not know how to win.  The Soviet Union had just invaded a foreign country and the Soviet hockey team bullied its way through the international system.  The U.S. was forced to lead an international response to the aggression in Afghanistan and the U.S. hockey team had to take on the bully on the ice rink.  Intrigue on multiple levels!

But what also adds to the underdog scenario is a good back story.  In wanting to cheer for the underdog, we want to like them and, if possible, identify with them.  It became easy to root for the 1980 U.S. hockey team as we learned that the team members were true amateurs barely beyond their teen years.  We could envision ourselves taking these guys to early morning practices at the local rink just as we took our kids to soccer or baseball practice.  When the hockey game ended, these students still needed to worry about Chemistry experiments or an upcoming Economics exam.  The players were real and not some elite and untouchable group of “superior” athletes.  

Here we are 41 years later to the date and the “story” of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Men’s Hockey Team still feels good.  It resonates.  I can still root for that underdog.

OK, so we like underdogs and their stories.  We feel good cheering for the underdog.  The reality remains that most underdogs do not win precisely because they lack the talent, skills, abilities or experience of the opponent.  Can we still learn from the underdog?  Of course!  Underdogs remind us of life lessons and even help me in mediations.

Every Dog Has Their Day

Quite often, in presenting positions in mediation, lawyers can well advance their arguments and equally well tear down the anticipated positions of adversaries.  They conclude by stating that the opponent has very little chance of success if the parties proceed to trial.  Amazingly, as the mediator, I hear those same arguments from both sides with each side convincing itself that only its position can carry the day.  There are rare times, however, when all parties acknowledge that a particular case or even the judge assigned to the case present a meaningful obstacle for one side.  One side will have an uphill battle and can truly be considered the underdog in the litigation.

In those instances, I need to remind the party adverse to the underdog that not only is there a chance of success for the underdog, but underdogs do sometimes come out on top.  Loyola did not win the NCAA National Championship as the team was beaten in the Final Four.  That fact is of little solace to the University of Miami, University of Tennessee, University of Nevada, and Kansas State University – each of whom were heavy favorites and each of whom were eventually taken down by the underdog Loyola Ramblers. 

Parties can handicap the odds and determine who may be favored to win.  Yet, that process is no assurance of actually winning.  The “win” for the favored party in mediation would be to use the superior position to gain some leverage in negotiations and bring finality to the dispute through settlement.  The heavy favorite who proceeds to trial may find itself with Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State on the sidelines wondering “What happened?”

Everyone (i.e., the Judge and the Jury) Loves the Underdog

Whether it is the Miracle on Ice, Rocky Balboa, Jesse Owens, or Atticus Finch, we all want the underdog to succeed despite all that is confronted.  We like the underdogs and love their stories.  We can feel in the underdog our own insecurities, shortcomings, and challenges and want to know that we have at least a chance as does the underdog.  We connect with the underdog.

An underdog’s story will easily and readily resonate with judges and juries in trials.  I do not suggest that these triers of fact will disregard their obligations to remain impartial and be swayed by emotions in favor of an underdog.  Rather, judges and juries are still human and they may connect or identify with an underdog.  The party who establishes a connection with a jury clearly has an advantage in the process.  Do not underestimate the underdog.

The Underdog Usually Has a Good Story

When I was a young lawyer, an old, salty, experienced trial lawyer confided one of his secrets to success.  He viewed each trial as a Shakespearean Tragedy.  There would be a side of “good” and a side of “evil” as decided by the jury.  The jury would want to be on the side of “good”.  The trick is to represent the clearly good actor or be able to position your client or the claims on the side of good.  The nature of the case was pretty much irrelevant.

One way to get to the side of “good” would be to tell a story through the trial to which a jury could relate.  Underdogs present with a ready made storyline already built in.  Underdogs, by and large, are the little guy going up against the heavyweight or the immovable establishment.  Their stories are organic and easily told.  Underdogs are well positioned to be on the side of “good” in the view of the trier of fact.

In a few weeks, we will be treated to March Madness otherwise known as the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.  When the games are revealed and everyone can study the brackets, we will find ourselves looking for those underdogs to succeed and not plotting a path for the top favorites.  We fundamentally think in this fashion as we yearn for an underdog to keep making noise at the Big Dance.  The college basketball royalty may again find themselves in the Final Four.  But maybe, just maybe, an underdog may have its day and we find ourselves rooting for another Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean.  The 1980 U.S.Men’s Hockey Team was given no chance to succeed as well.  Remember those underdogs when you hear yourself claim that an adversary has no chance of success.  Everyone else may just be rooting that underdog.

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