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Beyond Winning and Losing: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Lions

To live as a Lions fan is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.

The Detroit Lions may never win another game, and it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes it seems as if the team wallows in their perpetual, perennial failures, and those who follow along, do so only to bathe in the cool depression of a losing culture. To be part of something brings comfort, no matter how difficult that thing is.

When you know why you are a Lions fan, you can bear almost anything, for insanity in individuals is something rare, but in groups, parties, nations, and fan bases, it is the rule. That’s paraphrasing Friedrich Nietzsche a little, and while there’s not much overlap between postmodern philosophy and football fandom, there are some clear parallels between the concept of Nihilism and basic Lions fandom.

Whenever the Detroit Lions lose, the responses are generally close to the same regardless of what point of the season, the strength of the opponent, the difference in score, or any other factors.

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

Some fans respond by trying to find the bright side. What went right in an unfortunately poor outcome that can be clung to in the coming weeks or impending offseason. What building blocks can be found from which a winning team can be imagined in the coming games or seasons? These sorts of things take time, building a winning team, a winning culture. He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying. The team truly only needs time, everything else will come together. If the team is truly losing, and losing poorly, then they’re “tanking.” It’s a convenient excuse for fans to cheer for something negative. It’s not that they’re trying to win and failing, it’s that they’re trying to tank and succeeding!

For some fans, none of that will ever matter. Hope, in reality, is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man. It’s not about wins and losses. It’s about futility and a constant Sisyphean struggle. Every loss is simply one step closer to an inevitable, lengthy offseason. Every win is simply a failure to lose, a tease for the next loss.

That player doing well? Simple trade bait. That veteran playing above his contract? He will retire early, leaving you all disappointed. A rookie playing well? Don’t get attached. In fact, many times simply denying when these players are doing well makes it easier to cope, so that’s a perfectly valid strategy. Better not to think of the positive. Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings, always darker, emptier, and simpler.

It isn’t about building a winning franchise anymore, really. It’s about punishment. Cut the player that missed a tackle. Trade the player that dropped a pass. Fire the coaches that haven’t been winning and the general manager who hired them.

“The team will never get any better as long as the Fords own them,” is a common refrain. It’s a meaningless phrase with nothing really backing it other than the duration the team has been owned, but it’s a good way to avoid thinking critically about what is really wrong with the franchise. A hands-off owner isn’t going to actively work against the team, and while they could be doing more, we have seen teams like the Redskins, Browns, and Chargers with hands-on owners who simply muddle whatever progress the team makes on the field by getting involved.

Taking the Browns as an example again, the whole “fire everyone’’ chants that start after literally every loss, tie, or close win the Lions have had over the past decade of seasons seem hilariously shortsighted when comparing that approach to the teams that have actually used it. The Browns have been the most ineptly-managed team of the past few decades and one thing they have to their “credit” is a constant firing and hiring of coaches and staffs, rotating of quarterbacks, and general disregard for team building over time.

The same is true for writing off progress the moment any sign of regression is shown, as their firing of one Bill Belichick shows. There is no better example to use, but if you want one you can always look at the Cardinals using back-to-back picks on first-round quarterbacks and coaching staffs, just throwing away those first-round picks like it’s candy.

But nothing really matters anyway. So just fire everybody. Every time. Forget building a team and working towards anything. We love life not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving. None of us are Lions fans because we’re used to seeing a winning team week in and week out.

It’s easy to look at teams like the Browns, whose failures are legendary. They’re a great example of a team that has failed, in part, because of their constant flux at quarterback and coach (they’ve had seven head coaches and something like 40 quarterbacks in the last decade), but they also have instances where they don’t tolerate team building if results aren’t immediate. After a 3-13 season in 1990 they hired a so-called “defensive mastermind” to lead the team from obscurity to greatness. He went 6-10 in his first year, similar to the Lions. Expecting improvements, he would only go 7-9 the following year. The Browns made the mistake of letting that coach stick around, where he went 7-9 the year after that. He teased them by going 11-5 in his fourth year before being canned after a 5-11 year. Nobody has heard from that coach since. After that, they would only go to the playoffs one more time before they started their head coach shuffle, with no coach sticking around longer than four years and only one making it three. Team building is a lie.

The greatest coaches always win right away and never have bumps along the way as they try to “Build a team.” Do you think Tom Landry would have been okay taking his time to build a winner? Mike Shanahan didn’t take his time, neither did Bill Walsh. It is a proven fact that if you win early, you’re set up to win often. Just look at Doug Pederson and Sean McVay! Both won pretty much immediately and look at them now. Sitting cleanly above .500. Have to appreciate the hustle.

This is all very tongue in cheek, of course, for those who haven’t already caught on. I’m not truly comparing all of Lions fandom to the concept of Nihilism, which, by definition, denies any meaningful thing in life (fandom, based on feelings, would fall among those things). Still, the constantly negative reactions that radiate from Lions fandom (even those justified by record) have always remained nothing more than a muffled din for those of us who have hung around long enough to be disappointed by the team.

It’s easy to preach patience. To say that fans should wait, to stop being reactionary to every loss, every poor play, every sign that things aren’t absolutely perfect. Easy, but rarely received well. The Detroit Lions fan base has endured more heartache and near misses than any franchise in the NFL, aside from the Browns. So while patience is important, it’s impossible to expect.

The same is true for perspective. It’s easy to call on stats like the Lions having been within a single possession for every loss this season and the final minutes for every one as well. It’s another to entirely rationalize what that means for the team right now, next year, and in the next few seasons.

So go, be angry. Call for firings. Call for players to be traded or shut down to IR with even minor ailments. Ask that the owners sell the team. Do anything within reason that lets you get it all out. Being a fan of a franchise that isn’t winning is frustrating and often times maddening.

Realize, though, that others will be looking ahead, and it’s not just “kool-aid” or “tinted glasses” every time. Finding a method—looking for what’s working among the more obvious things that are not—is not a coping mechanism. It’s just a different outlook. We’re all here to enjoy what we can while watching our favorite football team. You don’t have to enjoy the bad times with the good, but you do have to endure them. We all do, together.