I’ve always been an avid sports fan. But never really a big sports memorabilia guy – with one important exception. Above my son’s bed hangs an autographed painting that depicts the single greatest sports moment of my lifetime.
On September 25, 2006, an undersized, no-name, special teamer broke through the Atlanta Falcons’ line and blocked a punt that led to the New Orleans’ Saints’ first touchdown in the Louisiana Superdome following Hurricane Katrina.
For those of us that lived through Hurricane Katrina, it’s hard to overstate the importance of that blocked punt in the story of the recovery of southeast Louisiana. It didn’t rebuild any homes. It didn’t make families come home sooner. But it did something. We all felt it – even if we couldn’t explain it.
In the years thereafter, Steve Gleason has been transformed into an immortal symbol of the power of the underdog. His immortality comes not from his play on the football field, but through the grit and grace he has displayed in his epic fight against ALS.
The Story Of The Underdog Is Our Story.
Much like the racehorse is bred to run, we have been bred to value the story of the underdog. It is our story. It is at the core of who we are as a people.
In 2011, 80 percent of those surveyed in a Gallup poll responded that they believed Judeo-Christian values constituted the foundation of American culture. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, we know historically that for centuries the Israelites were the epitome of the underdog society. Christianity grew out of the Jewish tradition and was built around a 30 something year old carpenter that so threatened the Roman Empire that it sentenced him to death by crucifixion.
The United States sprang forth from a long shot revolution. While history is littered with nations torn apart by civil war, we beat the odds and remained a union. In the thralls of the Great Depression, we fought a World War and liberated Europe. In the 1960’s a civil rights movement led by an unknown Baptist preacher forced us to confront the hypocrisy of our democracy. Forty something years later, we elected an unknown Senator as our first African American president. The underdog story is our story.
The underdog story is so rooted in our nation’s religious and political culture, that some believe that our current problems stem from our inability to come to terms with the modern reality that we are no longer an underdog. Million dollar mega churches wrestle with how to remain true to their founding principles. Our political leaders wrestle with what it means for the United States to be the only remaining superpower. What happens when David grows into Goliath? Can he maintain the characteristics that made him David?
The Power Of The Underdog.
One of my favorite songs these days is “The Underdog” by Spoon. When it comes to music, I’m a melody and rhythm person. For some reason, my consciousness focuses on the music over the lyrics. I can listen to a song a hundred times and never really “hear” the lyrics. Interestingly, I’ve found that when I do finally “hear” the lyrics, they often tell a story that I relate to at a given time in my life.
“The Underdog” was apparently one of those songs for me. The melody and rhythm attracted me to the song. But when I finally “heard” the lyrics, this is what I found:
You got no time for the messenger,
Got no regard for the thing that you don’t understand,
You got no fear of the underdog, That’s why you will not survive.
Spoon sings of the great tension of the underdog. On the one hand, the term “underdog” is typically used to describe an anticipated “loser.” The Webster dictionary defines “underdog” as: 1) A loser or predicted loser in a struggle or conflict; and 2) A victim of injustice or persecution.
On the other hand, for centuries underdogs have emerged victorious and altered the course of history with their unexpected wins. The underdog’s power lies not in a single tangible victory, but in the ability to demonstrate the vulnerability of those who are perceived to be most powerful. In so doing, the underdog inspires others who are perceived as weak to continue striving forward. The battlefield of history is littered with the carcasses of nations and leaders that fell because they had “no fear of the underdog.”
The best selling author, Malcolm Gladwell, analyzes the power of the underdog in his recent bestseller, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants. Through a series of stories, Gladwell challenges how we think about obstacles and disadvantages and reveals how much of what we consider beautiful and important in the world sprang up from what looks like suffering and adversity. Gladwell writes as follows:
David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants. By ‘giants,” I mean powerful opponents of all kinds – from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression. Each chapter tells the story of a different person – famous or unknown, ordinary or brilliant – who has faced an outsize challenge and been forced to respond. Should I play by the rules or follow my own instincts? Shall I persevere or give up? Should I strike back or forgive?
Through these stories, I want to explore two ideas. The first is that much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.
The Underdogs Of Our Civil Justice System
Perhaps my own personal fascination with the “underdog” as personified by Steve Gleason and explained through the lyrics of Spoon and the writing of Malcolm Gladwell, stems from my work as a trial lawyer.
Despite the negative media campaign to the contrary, trial lawyers often represent the underdogs of our society. Severely maimed workers. Women widowed by industrial accidents. Children orphaned by corporate negligence.
Dealing with the aftermath of such tragedy can be overwhelming. Many families must tap into savings and retirement accounts to pay for necessary medical care. A family’s income may be drastically reduced if a father or mother is unable to work as a result of an injury.
During this time, when families are wounded and weary, it can be easier to simply hope and pray that the responsible party will “do the right thing,” accept responsibility, and compensate the family for the injuries it caused. Unfortunately, that does not occur often enough. Most often, the civil justice system is the only recourse that injury victims have against negligent corporations and profit motivated insurance companies.
Corporations and insurance companies that put profits ahead of public safety often refuse to acknowledge their mistakes and accept responsibility. These companies deny legitimate personal injury claims for as long as possible in hopes that weary families will eventually give up and settle for less than they deserve. Insurance companies attempt to manipulate the court system to prolong the process and protect their profits at the expense of personal injury victims.
Unfortunately, special interest groups have spent millions of dollars attacking personal injury victims and the lawyers that represent them in their fight against corporate negligence. Injury victims who file suit are often portrayed as greedy opportunists who are attempting to take advantage of their own misfortune in hopes of getting rich quick. Corporations and insurance companies have funded this myth in hopes of influencing potential jurors that may eventually be called upon to judge their acts and/or omissions at trial.
We as trial lawyers, often make this myth too easy to believe. Over the years, the cheesy lawyers on television commercials replaced Atticus Finch as the symbol of our profession. I must admit that I have been fooled by alleged personal injury victims that turn out to be nothing more than two bit scam artists. Nothing makes me madder.
Because over 99 percent of my clients are the underdogs of the civil justice system that we should all pull for. They are not greedy opportunists. I have had the privilege of representing brave families, who when faced with tremendous adversity, have had the courage to fight back to secure the resources they need to reclaim their lives. In fighting back, these underdogs have forced negligent corporations and profit motivated insurance companies to “do the right thing” for both themselves and sometimes for all of us. Because many underdogs have dared to use our civil justice system to fight back, we enjoy safe drinking water, cars with seat belts, and products with warning labels.
On the 8-year anniversary of Steve Gleason’s blocked punt, we remember one of our finest underdogs. An underdog that helped renew the spirit of a region in a single physical feat. An underdog that inspires us all to keep slinging rocks at even the mightiest of giants.