06/13/2010 11:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Terrible Sporting Errors Are So Compelling

In 1970, Leeds United were heavy favorites in the F.A. Cup Final against Chelsea, the most important English soccer match of that year. Midway through the first half, a Chelsea player hit a soft shot toward the Leeds goalie, Gary Sprake, who handled it and then, inexplicably allowed it to trickle out of his arms and into the net.

I don't remember who scored the goals in the 2-2 tie but I remember that moment so clearly, even though it took place 40 years ago.

Forty years from now, millions of English soccer fans (and maybe a couple of Americans too) will remember England goalie Robert Green's horrendous error against the United States. It will define Green's career. No matter how many saves he makes and shut-outs he records, he will never shake that monkey off his back.

Likewise, Roberto Baggio has to go through life after shanking the final shot of a penalty shoot-out in the 1994 World Cup final, allowing Brazil to win the tournament. Baggio was a fantastic player with many wonderful accomplishments - but he will always be remembered for that ghastly moment.

I guess the equivalent for U.S. sports fans would be Bill Buckner's fielding error in the 1986 World Series.

What is it about such horrendous sporting errors that makes them so compelling? Why do we remember such disasters decades later? Is it schadenfreude, our fascination and guilty pleasure at the pain of others? Does it perhaps provide some sort of confirmation that we are all human and that even fabulously-paid athletes who usually make everything seem so effortless are occasionally prey to elementary mistakes.

The British media had scant sympathy for poor Robert Green. "Cock-up keeper Green wrecks dream start," said The News of the World, tabloid. The Sunday Mirror's banner headline read, "Hand of Clod," a play on the "Hand of God" goal scored by Diego Maradona that knocked England out of the 1986 World Cup. The the Sunday Times referred to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, saying Green's error was "one disastrous spill the Yanks won't complain about."

In the past, society had ample provision for the public humiliation of miscreants - scarlet letters, public pillories and stocks and the like. Today we have reality TV shows like "The Biggest Loser" but that is not as satisfying since the participants volunteer to take part. Do we crave some sort of public displays of humiliation?

I don't know the reason. I'll leave it to psychologists to theorize. But I do know there is something truly compelling about these awful moments. As the TV played and replayed Green's gaffe from every conceivable angle, I couldn't tear my eyes away.

In the end the errors of athletes are not that significant. An Internet compilation of the top ten military blunders in history gives us Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor among others which cost millions of lives. Another list of the worst errors by U.S. presidents offers President James Buchanan, for failing to avert the Civil War, Andrew Johnson's decision just after the Civil War to side with Southern whites and oppose improvements in justice for Southern blacks and Lyndon Johnson's decision to intensify the Vietnam War as its top three.

Compared to those, Robert Green mishandling a shot and allowing a soft goal is incredibly trivial. So why is it so compelling?