This originally appeared on The Mid Majority on November 2, 2008.
This being the first Sunday of The Mid-Majority's Season 5 (and a Daylight Savings-adjusted morning upon which thousands of churchgoers will miss their services), it's as good a time as any for a Bible story. Today, we'll be reading from the Old Testament, the first book of Samuel.
No tale is as carefully tied to our regular basketball business than one which appears in the midst of that book. 1 Samuel 17:49 is read verbatim during the greatest two minutes of American sports cinema, the second in a devastating emotional triple-apex within the championship-game locker room scene from Hoosiers. Preacher Purl steps forward before the team and intones meaningfully,
And David put his hand in the bag and took out a stone and slung it. And it struck the Philistine on the head and he fell to the ground. Amen.
Now, about that amen part. That's not the end of the story, not by any means. David's post-slingshotting career, a life of complex morality, is one of the most fascinating character arcs in all of recorded literature. After he sliced off Goliath's head with the giant's own weapon a couple of verses later, Israel violently ran the Philistines off the land (with swords, it should be noted, not slingshots), and the victorious king ended up betraying the young hero in a jealous rage. While in exile among the Philistines, David engaged in some double-agency and later deposited himself in an adultery scandal, before ultimately fulfilling his destiny as Israel's great king. Oh, and he ended up having an esteemed writing career too.
But back to the moment that sent David on his trajectory. It's quite a scene to imagine, perhaps embellished a bit for the purposes of drawing the action in extreme and simple relief. After an odd declaration (1 Samuel 17:9) that absolutely everything rides on this single mano-a-mano conflict, two warriors and their implements face off in an staging space, the interested parties standing in rapt attention on opposite sides of the arena. Why, it's the first sporting event in Judeo-Christian history.
Which is why its lasting power as a sporting metaphor is dependent on its being plucked from context, and why its distilled essence is most potent when limited to that single passage. Large and imposing force on one side; small, smart and crafty upstart on the other.
David v. Goliath carries a disproportionate weight in the United States. This is, after all, a country that owes its existence to a rag-tag bunch that in the 1770's used cannonballs instead of stones to bring down the giant British Empire. David's slingshot is woven into our flag, installed in our hearts, shows up on our x-rays. It's in our essential nature, in our national soul, to root for the underdog. In fact, it's widely thought that the term originated here during America's adolescence.
Here, in its entirety, is a poem distributed in newspapers around the country in 1859, perhaps the first-ever print appearance of the word "underdog."
The Under Dog In The Fight
by David Barker
I know that the world, the great big world,
From the peasant up to the king,
Has a different tale from the tale I tell,
And a different song to sing.
But for me, and I care not a single fig
If they say I am wrong or right,
I shall always go for the weaker dog,
For the under dog in the fight.
I know that the world, that the great big world,
Will never a moment stop --
To see which dog may be in the fault,
But will shout for the dog on top.
But for me I shall never pause to ask
Which dog may be in the right.
For my heart will beat, while it beats at all,
For the under dog in the fight.
Perchance what I've said I had better not said,
Or 'there better I had said it incog.
But with my heart and with glass filled up to the brim
Here's health to the bottom dog.
Interesting historical time, that. In 1869, a year after "David Barker's" thoughtful meditation appeared, a soft-spoken political underdog gained the White House, and before Abraham Lincoln could settle into his new home, the southern states had taken up arms and staged an unsuccessful assault on the mighty Union. While some may conclude otherwise, that any sentimental attachment to the Stars and Bars a century and half later constitutes a fondness for the slavery days, my own travels and conversations lead me to believe that the majority of old Confederates simply cling to the romantic notion of being the bottom dog in the fight.
Within a generation of the Civil War's end, popular academic theories tying physical activity to healthy minds, along with the effect of the worldwide Olympic Movement, led to a rise of organized sports in America. At last, a country that has always had an uneasy relationship with power had a non-violent outlet for its urges (and later a bottomless well of metaphors when it did end up engaging in life-or-death battles around the world). As the 19th Century became the 20th, professional leagues formed around various rulebooks. Colleges and universities drafted teams that played baseball, American-style football, all manner of pastimes.
As with in any arms race in recorded history, those with more resources to apply to athletic artillery built great dynasties with areas of influence greater than their own backyards -- the New York Yankees, for example, and the Montreal Canadiens and UCLA. Over and over, challengers rise to face imposing favorited forces, in arenas with color-clad supporters on each side, that tiny sliver of 1 Samuel played out over and over again in safe simile. In the final accounting, nobody dies, and the scoreboard is reset to zero.
Since we Americans don't turn on each other in armed conflict, state and city versus neighboring region, this is how our primal aggression is channelled now. If Northwestern State defeats Iowa that's the end of it, it's not an open invitation to class warfare. Two years ago, the streets did not run red with the blood of Hawkeye fans, the Demons did not march to Iowa's campus, set it on fire, or even steal its spot in the Big Ten. It was just a basketball game, amen.
Moments like that, when the powerless defeat the powerful, resonate deep within us and unleash the spirit of revolution that lies at the historical center of our very American-ness. They speak to an essential facet of our human condition, the reason why David appears as a figure in the Christian tradition, the Hebrew Bible as well as the Qur'an. Our souls are designed to strive upward, no matter what forces press down upon us.
And drawing that connection into sharp focus, between the internal yearning and the detached external event, can help us get to the tangle of untruths at the center of this greater lie, the Hickory High fiction, the apocrypha that is the original story of Goliath's defeat.
First and foremost, the sheer disposability of modern Davids. When Northwestern State, or George Mason, or Butler, or Davidson lose their giant-killing power -- as they will eventually or have already -- they are no longer useful to the multitudes who stole from them brief and stirring reminders of Who They Are. With modern television, it's possible to sit as a passive observer and receive multiple jolts of that Goliath-killing feeling, and that makes these moments of magic as pedestrian as the common orgasm.
Another key problem is simple underdog politics. When a sports David wins an inspirational but ultimately meaningless contest, it's an exception that simply proves the exception, not the rule. It's a self-perpetuating illusion that the "little guy" has a chance to trade marginal effort for success if the stars align correctly, the same dynamic that drives American Idol, the same one that sends the destitute and despondent to casino slot machines and pick-4 tickets. When David wins, a surviving Goliath scores a greater yet more invisible victory -- the core reality of a looming power structure has been acknowledged, a reminder that true parity is as mythical as it was the day before.
It's easy to be a champion of the underdog, a cheerleader for the low seed, a grandstander for the little guy made good -- it's a potent message that sells extremely well. But not here, and not anymore. From here on out, those messages will be saved for other venues and other audiences, the ones that ultimately fund our efforts in this space. There are many more of them out there, with shorter attention spans and weaknesses for string sections, than there are of you. These programs covered here are what they are, competing for resources in a crowded landscape, playing chess without a full set of pieces, trying to combine strengths in such a way to bury the weaknesses. That's poetry enough for me.
Indeed, few have patience for the whole story. This site is about the chapter, not the verse... the book, not the brief passage. With the luxury of extended longform, bridging across miles and state lines, years and seasons, The Mid-Majority is about the long, hard and often endless road. In the big picture, the moments of glory are more powerful when set against a backdrop of monotonous, endless struggle. But, by God, that's what makes the victory all the sweeter.