From my latest article at WorldMag.com:
The New York Yankees are the bullies of baseball, always buying other teams’ players and the wins that go with them. The Oakland Raiders are (or were) every bit as dirty and sinister as their dread logo indicates. The Los Angeles Lakers are just so glitzy and glamorous. The St. Louis Cardinals are like that snotty-nosed kid in school who never did anything wrong and was the best at everything. And the New England Patriots win a lot, sure, but they’re always cutting corners, the buncha cheaters.
Each of these teams has, at one time or another, been seen as a villain in its sport. While those without a rooting interest ignore some teams, these pro franchises are nearly universally loathed. Counter intuitively, though, that’s a good thing.
No story is complete without conflict, and nothing creates conflict like a proper villain: Darth Vader, the White Witch, Voldemort, Kaiser Söze, Shredder, the Yankees. You might look at sports and think that all the conflict happens between the lines during competition, and while that’s usually true, sports villains make for drama. They take the level of interest in a mere game and give it a shot of passion. They draw in fans who might otherwise be disinterested. Villains are just plain interesting.
What makes sports so much a part of everyday life and makes it so parallel to our normal experiences? Drama does, that same drama brought about by villainy! It’s what makes sports accessible and engaging instead of just rule-bound athletic competition. Without drama, sports would not connect as often to our shared emotions and dreams: tension, fear, excitement, exhaustion, failure, elation, heroism. We learn lessons from sports because of these connections, not because of the skill level of the athletes.
Villains are, by definition, despicable and not to be imitated. We don’t condone their actions, and in fact, we despise them. Yet we need villains because they provide a crucial ingredient to the value of our sports and stories.
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