In a recent CST blog, Gary R. Edgerton noted the dearth of work on televised sport, invoking the recent real-time tragedy from the 2 January 2023 NFL game between the Cincinnati Bengals and my hometown team, the Buffalo Bills. In that game, as Edgerton describes in his blog, Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed after a routine hit, suffering cardiac arrest from commotio cordis[1] which he notes epitomises the dissonance required by the audience to enjoy watching the sport. In so doing he argues (and I agree) that such research is a viable area of future study for American football as well as any other contact sport. Edgerton begins and, after listing several very good reasons to study televised sport, especially American football, ends his blog by invoking John Ellis’ question about the dearth of scholarship on televised sport, then notes that ‘Much more scholarly work needs to be done by TV scholars analysing sports on television.’

I absolutely agree that there should be more work on the overall topic and, while I understand quite well why live, real medical traumas are not televised,[2] Edgerton’s reference to the Bills brings up another matter, more relevant to my current area of study: media fandom.  More specifically, I am interested in exploring what is often referred to as the ‘curse of [the] Cancer Man’ from The X-Files (Fox, 1993-2018) which supposedly explains that the reason the Buffalo Bills made it to four consecutive Super Bowls (1990-1993) only to lose every single one was due to this character’s machinations.

For those unfamiliar with the series or this curse, XF follows two FBI agents who investigate paranormal and extra-terrestrial events.  Over the course of the original series, the two films and a revived series, everything became more focused upon a wide-ranging conspiracy that was initially represented by an unnamed character alternatively referred to as the Cigarette Smoking Man (CSM) or Cancer Man (William B. Davis).[3]  While the conspiracy and conspirators become ever more byzantine over the course of the series’ run, the relevant episode, ‘Musings of the Cigarette Smoking Man’ (4.7) is the first episode to focus upon Cancer Man’s backstory, though the series is at pains to make it seem as though the backstory is primarily diegetically fictionalised; that is, the backstory as told by ‘Lone Gunman’ Frohike (Tom Braidwood) is diegetically positioned as being either erroneous or fantastical.  This fictionalisation is done mostly through the use of comedy, e.g., making Cancer Man a frustrated novelist who falls victim to a predatory magazine; the edits made to his story distress him so much that he engages in a darkly comic version of the ‘Box of Chocolates’ scene from Forest Gump (1994).  More relevant to this blog, however, is the earlier scene of a pre-Christmas meeting of CSM and his various aides.  In this meeting, as they are discussing current and future plans, the following exchange occurs:

Cancer Man: ‘What I don’t want to see is the Bills winning the Super Bowl. As long as I’m alive that doesn’t happen.’

Aide: ‘It’ll be tough, Sir. Buffalo wants it bad.’

Cancer Man: ‘So did the Soviets in ’80…’

And thus the curse was cast.[4]

While curses of varying degrees of serious intent are not uncommon in sport (e.g., the ‘Curse of the Bambino,’ the ‘Curse of Bobby Layne,’ etc), between the comedic, fictionalised nature of the episode and the improbability of going to four consecutive Super Bowls and losing them all, it is perhaps unsurprising that this curse is still referenced.[5]  The Buffalo News, the local newspaper, updated its 2015 article on the subject in December 2022, after yet another loss in the playoffs. Though episode writer Glen Morgan has stated that he did not intend to curse the Bills in a Buffalo News article in October of 2022 (updated in December 2022):

…Morgan said he has braced himself, every year, for some sportswriter somewhere to look at the heartbreak of another oh-so-close finale and pull out what the Cigarette Smoking Man said about the Bills.

Cancer Man actor Davis has, on occasion, been asked if the curse is still in force; in Kirst’s article he is quoted, via his publicist, as saying ‘I do know what it’s all about and often joke about it, especially with a friend who lives in the area.’ We can read this as a form of affective play (cf Hills 2002) between crossover XF and Bills fans to which Davis has also gamely responded.  But this also brings up other points with regard to both media and sport fandom that are worthy of future study.  The facile answer to why the curse is still used to explain away poor sport performance is a desire to avoid attributing responsibility to a team and/or players with whom one has a parasocial relationship.  That facile answer also can play into the idea of fans being uncritical and/or irrational (i.e., believing in the curse as opposed to using it as a joke answer) which has been and is still a problem in the popular press (Bennett 2017).

So… what is the (or at least, an) answer for why references to this curse are so prevalent?  Well, I would argue it connects with three main things.  The first is the connection between locality and sports teams.  Serazio (2019) argues for this as ‘totemic;’ while I disagree with the implied connection to religion or ritual and instead follow Hills (2002) in seeing fan practice in terms of affective play,[6] Serazio is correct that sports teams can lead to strong connections between teams and their communities (see also Sandvoss 2003).  The second reason builds on that, however, which is the fact that both The X-Files as a series and the curse itself are commonly referenced and re-referenced.  Kompare (2005) argues that reruns have an archival function to create and reinforce national identity.  Here, I would argue that the repetition and inclusion of the curse into the sport archive as well as collective memory (Edgerton 2020) and its availability on YouTube and streaming platforms has built the idea of the curse into the local identity.  Finally, fans of media and sport both engage in affective play, of which this satirical and/or joking usage of the curse seems to be part.  Because of the differing levels of cultural capital of sport and media fandom (keeping in mind that they are often gendered, (perceived-)class-connected and/or otherwise contextual) and because sports teams tend to be location-based whereas media fandom has been characterised by Sandvoss (2005) as a deterritorialised Heimat (homeland) differing scholarly approaches often are used because of the perceived differences in and/or perceived lack of overlap between sport and media fan audiences.  Serazio’s (2019) book discussed above is a good example of this difference in scholarly approach.  But this use of the Curse of Cancer Man, in addition to providing humour to an otherwise dark and mysterious character, also sheds light on the somewhat artificial distinction between media and sports fans as it blends affective play, location/identity/collective memory and a media text engaging with sport which sport texts then incorporate.  They are, in effect, dialogic rather than disconnected.

Following Ellis (2021), Edgerton (2023) calls for more work on televised sport.  While I agree, I would argue that we can expand upon that call to look at how television’s use of sport impacts fan/audiences of both. That won’t break the curse, alas, but it will yield new and important knowledge.  And that’s good, too.


Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She will be joining the American University of Phnom Penh in August 2023 as an Assistant Professor of English/Humanities. She has previously worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan and Armenia. She can be contacted at



Anonymous (2015; updated 2022) X-Files: Buffalo Bills’ Superbowl woes due to Cigarette Smoking man and deep government conspiracy. Buffalo News, 24, Oct; updated 2 Dec. Available at:

Bennett, L (2017) Representations of Fans and Fandom in the British Newspaper Media. In Booth P (ed) A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, n.p.

Edgerton, G. R. (2020), ‘The past is now present onscreen: Television, history, and collective memory’. In Wasko J and Meehan E R (eds.), A Companion to Television 2nd Ed., Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 79-104.

Edgerton G R (2023) Why not sports on television?: A question whose time has come, CST Online, 3 Feb. Available At:

Ellis J (2021) The Question of Sport. CST Online, 21 May. Available at:

Ford, D (2021) In anticipation of a Super Bowl run, Josh Allen breaks the Buffalo Curse. Train Wreck Sports, 11 September. [online] available at: .

Hills M (2002) Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.

Kirst S (2022) You can Bill-ieve – ‘X-Files’ writer says there’s no conspiracy. Buffalo News, 29, October; updated 2 December. Available at:

Kompare D (2005) Rerun nation: How repeats invented American television. London: Routledge.

Sandvoss C (2003) A Game of Two Halves: Football Fandom, Television and Globalisation. London: Routledge.

Sandvoss C (2005) Fans: The mirror of consumption. Cambridge: Polity.

Serazio M (2019) The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture. NY: NYU Press.

Wolf J (2020)  Was Buffalo robbed of the first two NFL championships? Buffalo News, 31 January. Available at:


[1]     This condition occurs when there is an impact on the heart which occurs on the relative refractory period of the t-wave when the ventricles (lower chambers of the heart) are repolarising.  Because repolarisation is electrically and biochemically unstable, an impact during this period can send the heart into fibrillation, which means the heart is not beating.  This is why Hamlin needed a defibrillator, though on some occasions a precordial thump (another blow to the chest) can also reset the system.  Such a blow can come from anywhere at any time, however.  It is not exclusive to American football or contact sports more generally.

[2]     I was a paramedic when an undergraduate and did occasionally work Bills games as first aid in the stands.  In addition to HIPPA laws in the US which protect medical privacy and the various standards and practices rules on network television with regard to blood, gore and language, medical emergencies are chaotic, messy in all senses and can be traumatic for witnesses as well as victims and medical practitioners.  In addition, while training will generally take over during any emergency, the self-consciousness of being on what is effectively a stage with thousands or more watching is not helpful for anyone.

[3]     The character has been called ‘Roll Bloodworth’ and ‘CGB Spender’ at various points.

[4]     This is not the only iteration, however; the first ‘Buffalo Curse,’ encompassing all local sport teams, was referenced in 1921 (Wolf 2020). The satirical ‘Buffalo Curse’ website is devoted to the overall curse (  Buffalo based podcast Train Wreck Sports (2021) also posted a satirical article on current Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen breaking Cancer Man’s curse ( ).

[5]     For myself, I will only believe the character of Cancer Man is truly dead if and when the Bills win a Super Bowl.

[6]     Hills’ ‘affective play. . .deals with the emotional attachment of the fan’ in play (Hills 2002, 80). This allows for changes in subject position (Ibid: 63) and in general illustrates that fans are moving across boundaries of the physical and diegetic worlds at will as part of play.