Why We Scapegoat

Because Billy Cundiff exists, Ravens fans don't have to come to terms with the fact that one of the best rushing teams ceded the turf to one of the worst. Or that they could only turn three New England turnovers into six points. Or that their offensive line turned to soggy swiss cheese at the merest whiff of Vince Wilfork.

Because Kyle Williams exists, 49ers fans don't have to grasp that their offense went 1-for-13 on third down, the one being a pointless hail mary at the end of regulation. Or that they all but gave up after halftime on what had been an effective run game. Or that the vaunted San Francisco D didn't force a single turnover, and had no answer for Victor Cruz.

Because Joe Pisarcik and Brian Sipe and Earnest Byner and Scott Norwood and Gary Andersen and Trey Junkin and their kind exist, it's cognitively possible to accept that one man in one second can lose a 60-minute football game played by 92 humans. We know this is too simple and perfect to be true. We know it. Only in Greek tragedies and fairy tales can individuals effect enough change to bring their worlds down around their ears. We discarded the Great Man theory 150 years ago, but we still cling to the Goat Man theory like a talisman for a parallel universe in which a butterfly did not flap its wings and our team won the Super Bowl. There, we think, our alternate selves are happy, and that's some sort of consolation for our own miserable existence in this reality where a football player made a mistake that happened to come at the exact wrong time.

There's an Ursula K. Le Guin story called "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," about a blissful society maintained only by the periodic sacrifice of one innocent child to a life of squalor and torment. It's soft sci-fi, pure dystopian fantasy, but is there any darker dystopia than the morning after your football team lost a game they could have — should have — won? And what if you could dispel all that sorrow with the simple offering up of one man's reputation? Would you do it?

The true horror of "Omelas" is not the forsaken child, but that all citizens are informed of the sufferer upon coming of age, and with few exceptions, all come to accept it as the cost of living. What is eternal damnation for one, a pittance for the happiness of others? If it helps you sleep tonight, of course you're going to go to bed hating Billy Cundiff and Kyle Williams. There's a reason the term scapegoating goes back to Old Testament times. When we put the sins of all onto the one, we preserve something deep and primal: hope.

It is our hearts that curse while our brains know better. Bill Cundiff didn't lose a game, the Ravens did. Ditto Williams and the 49ers. But that's too complex to process completely, and too painful. The scorn goes to the goats because it's easy, and it's a narrative, and it makes us believe for a second that there is such a thing as destiny denied — a belief that succors us through our own failures in life. Compartmentalizing logic from emotion is a survival skill necessary for all us lonely bastards tossed by the vagaries of life and fate. To err is human; to scapegoat, just as human.