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Patrick Hruby

Pass the Haterade

In praise of sports hate

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I loathe the Los Angeles Lakers. Detest the Dallas Cowboys. Would be hard-pressed to say a nice thing about Tiger Woods that doesn't involve his bank account and/or marrying a Swedish bikini model. When the insufferable New York Yankees and irritating Boston Red Sox met in last year's American League championship series, my sincerest wish was for both clubs to crash and burn -- and somehow embarrass the Chicago Cubs in the process.

In short, I'm a player hater. A nattering nabob of athletic negativity, the sort of anti-fan whose favorite childhood sports memory involves Bobby Hurley's leaving the floor to go potty during UNLV's bushwhacking of Duke in the 1990 NCAA championship game.

And to think: I didn't even like the Running Rebels.

I know I'm petty. Thirty-two flavors of pathetic. Peyton Manning could donate his entire salary to tsunami relief; I'd still pull for him to overthrow his next pass into Rodney Harrison's waiting hands. A bigger person would repent, put down the Haterade and get on with a positive, purpose-driven life. So would I, sans two nagging details.

I'm a small, purposeless man. A shabby barnacle on the hull of S.S. Humanity.

More importantly, I'm having too much fun.

Coretta Scott King once said that hate is too great a burden to bear, injuring the hater more than the hated. Maybe so. Then again, she never experienced the sheer, giddy joy of watching Kobe Bryant weep like a figure skater following the Lakers' defeat in the 2003 playoffs.

Truth is, sports contempt can be glorious, as uplifting as a V2 rocket. Just ask the guys behind, a Web site mocking Carlos Boozer's ugly free agent defection from Cleveland to Utah last summer.

"Response [to the site] has been great," says Tim Parnin, 35, a Cavs fan and Web designer. "We've been selling T-shirts to Sweden, Australia."

"Someone in Japan bought 20 shirts," adds Brian Kirby, 36, also a Cavs fan and Web designer. "Just one person. We get Koreans, Chinese. Thousands of people from Belgium for some reason."

To root is human; to root against, sublime. Besides, a thousand Belgians can't be wrong. Herein, the case for player hatin':

Hate is Fun

The dialogue ("yippee!") is dreadful, the acting ("noooo!") an affront to grade school drama productions everywhere. Yet in botching the "Star Wars" prequels, George Lucas managed to get one thing right.

He focused on Darth Vader.

Everyone admires heroes. But great villains always steal the show. Think Iago in "Othello," the shark in "Jaws," John Rocker at Shea Stadium. Black hats make us watch, if only to witness their eventual comeuppance. Would the recent presidential election have been as enjoyable if John Kerry wasn't an effete, flip-floppy windbag? If George Bush wasn't a devious, warmongering moron?

On, a flash "Star Wars" parody casts Boozer as Lucas' Dark Lord. If the helmet fits ...…

"He is Darth Vader to Cleveland," Kirby says. "He's the bad guy now."

Search your feelings. Admit the truth. Heckling beats cheering, hands down. Why else sit in the bleachers? The thrill of victory is nice. But the malevolent glee of seeing Jeff Gordon go three races without a finish is nicer.

To put things another way: When Longfellow wrote that the sweetest thing next to love is hate, he wasn't talking about Notre Dame football. But that's only because motion pictures -- and by extension, "Rudy" -- had yet to be invented.

Edward Hirt, a psychology professor at Indiana University, says few students detest instate rival Purdue when they first arrive in Bloomington. They quickly learn otherwise.

"You get acculturated to it," says Hirt, an expert on sports fan behavior. "When you root, it's fun to vilify the opponent. A lot of people around here have vilified the [Detroit] Pistons. Personally, I don't like them, either. Rasheed Wallace is a bellyacher. [Chauncey] Billups seems cocky. Hate makes competition so much easier. Don't we do that in wars?"

Good enough for armed conflict, good enough for professional basketball. Out with an injury, Boozer did not travel with the Jazz for their March 15 game at Cleveland. No matter. Fans staged a "Loozerpalooza" rally at a bar near Gund Arena, whacking a Boozer piñata filled with chocolate coins.

During the Cavs' subsequent blowout victory, scoreboard operators repeatedly flashed Boozer's picture. The crowd booed vociferously.

"It was kind of ridiculous," Parnin recalls. "But fun."

"And since he didn't come," Kirby adds with a laugh, "we get to do it again next year."

Subtract the antipathy, and you're left with apathy. Consider the low-rated NBA Finals. Detroit and San Antonio? Nice little squads. But hardly as captivating as last year's Lakers, a big, bad outfit loved and loathed in equal measure.

Like fantasy sports and gambling, a dollop of dislike makes any contest more compelling. No joke. Personally, I'm indifferent to Robert Horry. However, the guy looks like Will Smith -- a man responsible for both "Wild Wild West" and "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

Voila! Straw man found. Granted, I'll never get Smith's fiendishly insipid "Men in Black" theme out of my head. But I will have a reason to watch the Spurs. Well, besides Eva Longoria.

Hate is Cheap

Speaking of money, a Yankees cap will run you $24.99. A pinstriped jersey costs $149.99. Season tickets go for thousands. And the club's current roster will set you back a cool $200+ million.

A Yankee Hater T-shirt, on the other hand, can be had for less than twenty bucks.

Next to Arena Football, hate is the best bargain in sports. Conventional fandom turns you into a two-legged ATM, cashed out by team owners at every opportunity. Two hundred and seventy-nine dollars for a personalized Atlanta Falcons jersey? And you can't even stencil the name of our southern NAFTA trading partner on the back?

Please. Player hatin' only asks for an itsy-bitsy piece of your blackened soul. And the occasional pair of "Dook Sucks" boxer shorts ($14.99).

Do the math.

From an emotional standpoint, enmity is even cheaper. Sports love blossoms slowly. Demands commitment. It's hard work, akin to a real relationship. Once in a while, you'll feel elated; more often, you'll have your heart broken, especially if you follow Chris Webber.

But hate? Hate is as effortless as disliking Rafael Nadal for his silly pirate pants, or Nick Lachey for being, well, Nick Lachey. It's reaping a lifetime of "that girl was psycho!" jokes from a single lousy date, taking your worst first impression and never bothering to dig deeper.

And really -- in an era of TiVo and XBox, who has time for anything more?

In the free agent era, loathing is a lazy fan's godsend. A franchise cornerstone like Derek Jeter can provide years of carefree, no-hassle contempt; if Cap'n Intangibles somehow gets traded to Kansas City, it's easy to shift one's ire onto equally-overexposed Alex Rodriguez -- and still make it home in time for dinner.

Easy come, easy go. Such is the nature of sports revulsion. As Cavs owner Dan Gilbert slouches his way toward Dan Snyder's Bethlehem, Parnin and Kirby are preparing to roll with it.

"There's [an anti-Gilbert] site already done on our computer, ready to go," Parnin says. "We're begrudgingly using some restraint."

"We're just waiting," adds Kirby.

Hate is Healthy

Does player hatin' make you a bad person?

Dr. Phil probably wouldn't approve. Nor would Yoda. Of course, only a fool would take his behavioral cues from a stilted, funny-talking puppet. Or Yoda, for that matter.

Seeking answers, I contacted Dr. Christian End, a Xavier University psychology professor and fan behavior expert.

Doctor, every time I see one of those Coach K American Express commercials, I want to put a bullet through the screen. Like Elvis. Do I need professional help?

"I'm not condoning hate, but I don't think you need immediate help," End replied. "Unless you're having to buy a new TV every week."

Er, not yet. Still, I really enjoy hating Duke basketball. Is something wrong with me?

"Hate is such a strong word," End said. "If you're enjoying it, it's definitely producing some sort of psychic reward for you."

Considering my sudden, inexplicable affection for Michigan State, that much seemed obvious. And after consulting a half-dozen other experts, I came to a startling conclusion.

Sports contempt can be healthy.

"The overwhelming majority of people are just blowing off steam," says Dr. Jordan Weiss, a psychologist and author of "Our Secret Rules: Why We Do The Things We Do." "They need a place, and to the extent that they don't have a place, they may do it physically in real life.

"So if you can get on the radio and and say, 'Derek Jeter is a [jerk],' and then get off and go, 'Whew, got that out of my system,' that's good. As annoying as those shows can be, they do allow for ventilation."

And that's not all. The Germans have a word for taking malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others: Schadenfreude. Player haters know this pleasure well, usually when Kansas falls to the mighty
Patriot League champs in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Similarly, a sense of spectator superiority can provide psychic satisfaction -- which explains the enduring popularity of the semi-literate Vee-Jay hopefuls on "The Real World," and why I get a kick out of following the Washington Redskins.

"It's a way of finding a pleasure that's a little bit perverse but still enjoyable," says Jefferson Singer, a Connecticut College professor and abnormal psychology expert. "We walk around in life dreading negative consequences, being embarrassed and shamed. When it happens to someone else, there's that moment of, 'It wasn't me.' That's very much a hardwired impulse."

At a basic level, hate is part of being a fan. We ally ourselves with players and teams for a sense of group identity and a booster shot of self-esteem. Yankees backers feel like winners. Cubs boosters pride themselves on unwavering loyalty. Arizona Cardinals supporters enjoy masochism and a dark tan.

The flip side of this mind-set? Putting down outsiders, especially other groups competing for the same prize. Or dumb enough to root for the Atlanta Braves.

"One of the ways we feel good about the group we belong to is to disparage the other group," says Indiana's Hirt. "We think it's not very nice to make fun of other people to make yourself feel good. But we all do it."

The key to wholesome sports loathing, experts say, is knowing when to say when. You wouldn't take 100 aspirin for a headache; similarly, it isn't wise to hop into the penalty box with Tie Domi. No matter how much you dislike the guy.

"If you're getting into fistfights with other fans, or chucking batteries at a player, then it's a problem," End says.

Point taken. The next time Coach K pops up to talk credit cards and human development, I'll eschew firearms and reach for something less destructive. Like the remote.

Hate Makes Great

Nathan Winters isn't keen on Barry Bonds. But contempt alone didn't compel the 25-year-old Web developer to create, an online rebuke of the San Francisco slugger.

In early February, Bonds said he welcomed the vulgar chants he receives at Dodger Stadium, adding "you got to have some serious talent to have 53,000 people saying you suck."

"Barry's horrible for the game," Winters says. "If he really is proud of what everyone says, let me build a Web site to find out."

Winters is doing Bonds a favor. Fact is, sports stars treasure hate. It stokes their competitive fires, and spurs them to new heights.

Think of it this way: An athlete like Bonds has money, fame, adoration. Without haters to confound and doubters to disprove, what sort of motivation is he left with?

Try the sad spectacle of Michael Jordan treating LaBradford Smith's fluky 37-point game like the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.

"People can use anger and transform it into energy," says Jane Middleton-Moz, co-author of "The Ultimate Guide To Transforming Anger." "Say you've been fouled and think it's unfair. To use that anger and turn it into harder work in the game, that can be a good thing."

Can it ever. Hatred of the King's tea tax spawned the American Revolution. Hatred of Soviet bluster put a man on the moon. Sean "Puffy" Combs went around the world and was player hated. He returned to headline the "Godzilla" soundtrack, producing arguably the greatest rap remix of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" yet recorded.

Face it: Place a warm cup of beer anywhere near Ron Artest, and he'll probably end up hoisting next season's MVP trophy.

Hate Will Set You Free

Fandom is a prison. Root, suffer, rinse, repeat. You lash your mood and self-regard to a leaky ship captained by grown men in numbered pajamas; in the end, you have nothing to show for it save a Sports Illustrated commemorative football.

Oh, and that's when your team wins.

"I talked to a man who was in a depression for four months because his team lost the Super Bowl," says Middleton-Moz. "He had no interest in his kids, his wife. It was like he had lost. I was like, 'You need to get some help.'"

Correction: He needed to get some hate. Contempt liberates. Gone is the cycle of hope and despair, the silent prayers to make the next shot go in. A committed anti-fan can't lose. Tiger failed to make the cut? Terrific. Tiger won another tournament? No problem. All the more reason to keep on loathing.

In baseball, fans celebrate when a hitter succeeds three out of 10 times. Happy haters relish the other seven at-bats. Each and every season, only one team wins a title. The rest go home in humiliating defeat.

Again, do the math. Hate is the gift that keeps on giving.

"You know, I gotta be honest," Winters says. "Besides Bonds, I think the Yankees suck, too."

As does Phil Jackson. Which is why I'm ecstatic he's back with the Lakers. Life is better on the dark side. Player haters of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains -- that, and compulsively supporting Lance Armstrong.

Talk about another guy I can't stand.

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