As my signature attests, I leave the heavy-hitting analysis and commentary to people who actually know what they’re talking about. My football knowledge is pretty limited; the finer points of the game still elude me. I don’t know all the branches of a passing tree. I still can’t spot anything short of a spectacularly flagrant holding penalty until someone else points it out. Blocking gaps, assignments, and techniques give me headaches. It’s pretty much the same for basketball (and baseball too, except I don't really are about baseball.)
What do I know? Well, I know a lot of theology, but it’s probably not suitable for this context. (I considered trying something humorous in that vein, but there are only so many jokes you can make about Tebow, Richt and Saban.) What’s the next best thing to theology? Philosophy, of course -- and you don’t even need a creed or a holy book for philosophy, just an opinion and a dose of pretension. Philosophy is about the Great Questions: ontology (what does it mean to "be"?), epistemology (how do we "know" what we know?), ethics (what is "right" and what is "wrong"?), choirology (what doesn’t taste better with bacon?).
Here’s my Great Question: what does it means it mean to be a "fan"? More specifically, what does being a fan "demand" of us? What do we have to do in order to be a "real" fan? (Because I’m a football fan first and foremost, most of the specific examples I use refer to football. However, I think my point is applicable to fans of all sports.)
Everyone knows that there’s a distinction between "real" fans and "fake" fans. The most common distinction I’ve come across is to separate the fans who stick with their team no matter what from "fair-weather" fans who only support a team when it’s winning. I’m going to propose another, slightly different distinction: there are fans, and then there are customers. Fans are people who love their team and understand that loving something means giving back to it. Real fans give back; customers only consume.
The word "love" in the English language is sort of like "celebration" in the SEC officiating handbook -- it can mean almost anything. I love a #1 (no pickles) with Coke at Chick-fil-A. I love N.T. Wright, Maylene and the Sons of Disaster, and Arrested Development. I love Georgia football. I love Athens. I love to write. I love my friends. I love my family. I love Emma Stone.
The Ginger Zombieslayer
Ahem. The point is, we use the word "love" to describe a range of emotions and degrees of attachment. I don’t love a chicken sandwich the same way I love my friends (though it’s close). I don’t love a band or a book the same way I love my family. What "love" means is largely contextual. "I love you" means something different when you scream it at a concert than when you speak it at a wedding. But this is a sports blog, so our focus is on what it means to "love" a team. What does that mean?
First of all, a team is made up of human beings, so it qualifies for a different type of love than does a movie or a car or anything else inanimate. Second, I think most of us have a deep passion for our team, so "love" in this case means more than just "liking" or "enjoying." But if it doesn’t mean that, what does it mean? I believe that to love a team means we have a relationship with them, albeit a very specific kind of relationship. For instance, we know many of our players’ names, but most of us aren’t on "first name basis" with any of them. It’s a relationship with specific limits, but it’s still a relationship, and all loving relationships between human beings involve giving and receiving.
What does our team give us -- or, to put it another way, what can we reasonably expect from them? Ideally, we can expect our team to do its job, which is win games. That includes a lot of smaller things. We can expect them to show up to their practices, to put in training and conditioning on their own time. We can expect them to know the skills that are specific to their positions, and to understand the strategy that guides the team as a whole. We can expect them to run the plays as called and stick with their assignments. We can expect them to follow the rules and not to cheat on the field or off it. We can expect them not to emerge from an alleyway on a scooter . . . actually, that may be a little much to ask. Overall, what we can reasonably "expect" from them, because they are our team, is that they work as hard as they can on the field (or the court, or the diamond) and that, win or lose, they leave it all on the field. We can expect that they give their best to the game.
Why can we require all of this from them? What gives us the right? Is it because we buy season tickets? Is it because we buy shirts and hats and jackets and jerseys and flags and bumper stickers with the team logo on them? Is it because of our Hartman Fund donations, or because we have our own skybox? Is it because Hairy Dawg officiates our wedding or because we grow our hedges from clippings from The Hedges?
Is simply cheering them on enough? If we buy, say, a Georgia "G" magnet for our car, we can imagine that somehow part of the money we spend will make it to the athletic association. But if all we do is flip on the TV and watch them play on CBS or ESPN, is that enough to establish a relationship, enough to justifiably expect anything from our team?
I, at least, certainly operate as if this were so. When I’m watching the game in my living room and a receiver gets open and our QB chucks him the long ball and he has got the safety beat and there’s nothing but green between him and the endzone and he OH MY GOD WHAT THE HECK HE DROPPED IT HE DROPPED THE DADGUM BALL OH GOD OH &@!#% -- since this is a PG-13 site I’ll cut it off there (even though Georgia athletics is probably a NC-17 subject). The point is, when a player makes a bad play, I take it personally. "You call that a tackle?" "That defensive lineman is the size of a compact car and you threw the ball right to him!" I get frustrated, I get angry. I pace and wring my hands and think about punching kittens. Why? Because I believe the team owes me, that they have responsibility to me to make plays and win the game.
Florida Gator Fan Cries (via stewbaca69)
Sorta like that, except in better colors. (Language warning)
But is that justified? Yes, I think so. How, though? If you’re a coach, then you are justified in demanding performance out of your players because they are your players. If you’re a customer, then yes, you are probably justified in expecting player to preform because you pay good money to see them do it. But I think a fan is something different from a coach or a customer -- and so a fan has a different justification for having expectations for their team. A fan’s justification is a relationship. And in a real relationship -- not just a romantic Relationship, but any kind of real relationship between human beings -- we receive, but we also give.
So the new question is: what can the team expect from us? What are our players justified in demanding of us? It’s an odd question, at least to me. Most of the time, I approach the game from a consumer mindset -- maybe not explicitly or wittingly, just by default. I watch or attend a game because I love the game: I love big plays and body-slamming tackles and stiff-arms and acrobatic interceptions. I love touchdowns and blocked kicks and two minute drills. But that only makes me a customer, because my relationship to the team is predicated on whether or not they can deliver those things for me. A fan is someone who is not only concerned with being entertained or with the vicarious validation of Our Team beating Your Team. A fan is someone who loves the game, who loves the team, and understands that love means holding your team accountable and being held accountable yourself.
What can a team hold us accountable to? Here are some suggestions. The team can expect us to stay on our feet as long as the game is in play. The team can expect us to keep it down during offensive snaps but to go crazy every time the ball advances, whether by one yard or by fifty. The team can expect us to to scream and yell and jump and curse and stomp and flail and generally go guano-crazy as long as the opposing offense is on the field. The team can expect us to never boo one of the players, ever. The team can expect us to cheer when the refs call against the other team (even if it’s a bad call) and to mercilessly heckle the officials when they call against our team (even if it’s the right call). The team can expect us to stay in the stands for all sixty minutes of regulation, no matter what the score scoreboard looks like. Oh, and in case you missed it: the team can expect us to never boo one of the players. Ever. No exceptions. The team can expect that we leave it all in the stands, that we give them our best.
Here’s another way of looking at it. Everyone at a football game has a specific job that they have to preform. The players have to win the game. That’s their job. The coaches’ job is to put the players in the best position to win the game. It’s their job to coach their players up -- to recognizes their mistakes and weakness and help them to improve. They are the ones best suited for the task, because of their experience, knowledge, and relationships with the players. That’s why we pay them the big bucks.
The fans’ job is not to criticize the players because that job already belongs to someone else. The fans’ duty is to be behind the players 100%. The fans’ job is to cheer the team on, and to keep cheering, whether it’s the first quarter or the final minutes, whether we’re up by ten or down by twenty-one. Fans’ duty to their team is to "have their back," to cheer them on, and as long as the team is on the field that is what fans will do. When players make mistakes or get lazy, it doesn’t give fans the right to boo or complain or slack off. The terms of the relationship don’t allow it. Moments when the team falters -- whether a single player on a botched play or a thirty-minute team-effort implosion -- are the very moments when the fans’ support is most crucial. Cheering even when the team doesn’t preform, cheering even when defeat is certain, maintaining and expressing their pride in their team -- that’s what real fans do.
Even if Uga gives up, that doesn’t mean you can, too
That’s not an easy thing to ask. When the kicker shanks the crucial kick, when the lineman jumps the gun on a critical down, when the defense allows another pass across the middle for the first down, again -- that’s when my first instinct is to groan and cover my face and pout and mutter obscenities, or wave my arms and yell them out loud. Those are instincts, ingrained reactions, and overcoming them isn’t simple or easy. But is it any more difficult than what we ask of the men who take the field for us on Saturdays? Doesn’t a real relationship -- doesn’t real love -- require equal commitment from both sides? If we can expect our players to train themselves, in mind, body, and spirit, into finely-honed athletic machines, they can expect us to train ourselves, in mind, body, and spirit, into single-minded, steadfast, passionate supporters. We do this knowing that there will be times when they screw up and they know that we will too. But being a real fan boils down to this: giving three hours of your life away to something you love, with no conditions and no strings attached.
On any given Saturday, there aren’t likely to be more than ninety-thousand fans of one school or another in a particular stadium. So what about the rest of us watching on TV or listening on the radio? What can we "give" to the team if we’re not actually present? Beyond that, what can we do when games aren’t being played at all? Does our responsibility to the team extend to Sunday through Friday, or even into the off-season?
There isn’t much you can do for the team when you’re hundreds or thousands of miles away, watching on a TV screen (or worse, tracking scores on a computer or phone). But you can still cultivate the interior attitude of a fan. Watching a game on TV is a clinical, detached experience for me; when I watch a game from the stands I’m usually excited but when I watch a game on a TV screen I’m usually nervous. It’s even harder to stay upbeat and positive and maybe it can’t be helped. But I think it’s possible that being a good fan is worth the self-discipline required to keep your eyes off the clock and the scoreboard and to put your support behind the team and cheer them on, win or lose.
We expect things of the team when they’re not on the field -- staying out of trouble, for instance. So I think it’s appropriate that the team expect things from us when we’re not on the field. The first thing that comes to mind would be how we conduct ourselves before and after the game, when we interact with opposing fans. If we ask the team to represent us in a positive way, they can ask us to represent them positively to other people and other fanbases. That means being polite, helpful, and friendly to fans of other teams -- although it doesn’t mean no good-natured ribbing. Maybe it goes even farther than that -- if we elect to represent our school by putting a metallic "G" on our trailer hitch, maybe the team can reasonably expect us to not cut people off or tailgate when we’re on the road. Extreme? Maybe. The point is that when players get arrested or commit crimes, they cast us and our school in a bad light. But when we act obnoxiously to opposing fans, when we are sore losers or arrogant winners, when we harass visiting fans or trash other campuses, we cast our school and our team in a bad light. The relationship is reciprocal. At the very least, it seems to me that a classy fanbase would be a whole lot more attractive to a visiting blue chip recruit than an obnoxious one. (On a related note, fans sure as hell don’t treat their campus like a garbage dump. That’s a customer thing.)
If you’re reading this, you probably take part in discussions, online and face-to-face, about your team and your team’s players. Are fans allowed to criticize players away from the game? If a kick returner fumbles the ball or a defensive back blows a coverage, they screwed up, that’s a fact, and it would be silly to pretend otherwise. So acknowledging our players’ shortcoming isn’t off-limits, with two caveats. First, criticism shouldn’t ever be mocking or mean-spirited. Second, to fulfill the proper role of a fan during a game, we have to let that criticism go. Afterward it may be permissible to gripe about this player or that one, but during the game our devotion must be complete.
One final thought: is the fan’s duty to the team different from his duty to the coaching staff? I would say yes. At Georgia we’ve been blessed with a head coach who is both a winner and a good man and most people I know admire and appreciate Coach Richt. (When faced with a difficult or challenging situation, I often pause and ask myself, "What would Coach Mark Richt do?", hence the handle. The answer is usually "Celebrate in the endzone.") But games are won or lost on the field, by the players. Our allegiance is to the players, and since the coaches’ job is to serve the players, we can and should be critical of the coaching staff. Of course, it’s polite to give the coaches the benefit of the doubt because they, you know, do this for a living; but in my view, the fan’s primary allegiance is always to the team and the players. (Just spitballing here: anyone think there would be a market for "WWCMRD?" on a bracelet or a key chain or something?)
I tied this in, but it doesn’t really require a pretext
I don’t claim to be the kind of fan I describe here. Maybe my ideal fan is really only that, an ideal. But I believe it is an ideal worth aspiring to. It’s something I’ve mulled over during this off-season; a 7-5 regular season with blowouts at the hands of two major rivals provokes a lot of thought over what it means to be a fan. This fall I’ll have the chance to put my money where my mouth is (or my mouth where my mouth is?) as it will be my first chance to attend a game as a University of Georgia student (anyone know where junior transfers fall in the student ticket pecking order?). Maybe once I’ve gotten a few more games under my belt I’ll report back and revise my thoughts.
I think being a real fan is a serious thing -- if we really do love the game and love our team, we should be willing to treat it in a way commensurate with our passion for it. But I try not to take myself too seriously; if you disagree, let me know. Tell me what you think: how do you distinguish a fake fan from a true one? Does my "customer/fan" distinction hold water? Do fans have any responsibilities? To whom are we responsible? And seriously, what doesn’t taste better with bacon?