Wherefore Art Thou, College Football?
As my previous articles have shown, I’m not a very knowledgeable football analyst, so I tend to write more about what I know, such as my own experiences as an Auburn fan. Now that the rock-‘em, sock-‘em orgy of analysis and prognostication that is National Signing Day has come and gone, I thought that I would offer some observations on a more philosophical topic. Thus, I ask and seek to answer (with my usual horrendous case of “tl;dr”) what I feel are these fundamental and essential questions: What is this thing called college football; why do we love it so much; and what does it means to be a fan?
One of my first sports related posts was on an AOL message board discussing the 1994 baseball strike, where I posited that game+fan=sport. My premise was, and still is, that a team is more than the players, coaches, and front office: that the team truly and essentially includes its fans. Furthermore, fandom and sportsmanship must include the concept of loyalty, where one doesn’t seek to Bask In Reflected Glory nor Cast Off Reflected Failure (BIRG and CORF in contemporary sports psychology), and where one cares about the team for more than the mere entertainment value of the game.
I really enjoyed Ken Burn’s Baseball series because it reached into the very root of the first real spectator sport. Yeah, the Greeks and Romans were big into the Olympics, and there were followers of particular runners, wrestlers, and eventually gladiators. But there were no fans as we now think of them until baseball became a sport people paid to watch.
So, what were these patrons of the ballparks watching—just a bunch of overgrown boys chasing a horsehide sphere? Heck no, they were watching THEIR representatives go up against THE OTHER. And thence, once people determined that “WE” were part of this enterprise, in a different role yet with the same objective and efficacy as if on the field itself, spectator sports were born.
The same course was taken with other team sports, especially college football. The nature of college sports has always been tied to the deep sense of community, loyalty, and representation, along with the concept of the fans being part of the team. It started as “we’ll take OUR best and throw ‘em agin’ YOUR best and find out who IS best”— best, both at the game itself (the direct logical conclusion) and regarding the institution at large (an arguably valid extension).
Subsequently, that extension to the institution itself became the thing of value, and a “W” in the scorebook, no matter how obtained, became the stick of measurement. Heck, the first recorded act of “cheating” in the Auburn-Alabama game was in the 1895 Iron Bowl—18-freaking-95—where Bama paid four football players from Wesleyan (two of which were professional boxers) to play for them and notch Bama’s first victory against the “cow college” that had stomped their sorry behinds the first four times. This was a hollow victory to be sure, but more importantly, the whole idea of “yours agin’ ours” went right out the window in the vain chase of a win.
But, if the “yours agin’ ours” concept can be maintained in reality and in spirit, then the extension of the players as representatives of the institution is also maintained. You can even extend that representation beyond alumni to everyone who identifies with the culture—the essential nature—of that institution, not just the colors of the uniforms. As long as the institution itself is fundamentally involved in the definition of the team, we, as true fans, can be a real part of the team. That seems to me to be what is unique to and nigh magical about college football.
I’d like to proffer a thought I developed that probably isn’t original, but one that struck me as somewhat revolutionary. I feel that the simple concept of recruiting players has served to weaken the notion of OURS and YOURS, since the kids being chased by the coaches are basically ANYBODY’s and NOBODY’s until they sign on the line. This environment was institutionalized long ago by the NCAA with their definition of the “student-athlete” and all the related rules about recruiting them.
Now, where there are rules, there are those who would bend or break them, and we have seen the ill effects of high-powered boosters across the country chasing the almighty “W” at all costs. Of course, actual cheating can be controlled (but never eliminated) through proper enforcement of the rules, as long as those rules are clear and reasonable. But it seems to me that the rules themselves, or rather, the institutionalization of the concepts of recruiting, the student-athlete, and “institutionally-sponsored” sports, actually create a divorce of college sports teams from the real representation of their own institutions and, eventually, from the fans themselves.
This divorce certainly embodies itself in those certain boosters who treat a college’s sports program like their own toy. However, I think the most egregious personification of this separation are the “sidewalk alumni” who are simply interested in grabbing the BIRG that backing a winner gives them, along with the shifting “loyalties” (if there ever was any) that kill true fandom. Short of college sports returning to a club-sports model, which isn’t going to happen our lifetimes, what can the real fan do to reclaim their rightful place as a part of the team?
HERE is where we can fight back as real fans, as real adherents to the institution. HERE is where we can take a stand and defend our true fandom. How do we do it? DENIGRATE the other team’s fanbase on blogs! Talk about what it means to be a TRUE AUBURN MAN, sticking with the (Burnt) Orange and (Navy) Blue through all the ups and downs, versus an “Updyke” Bama “fan” who only gets on board for the rush that the BIRG of the umpteenth national championship gives him. Above all, assault the opponent with the charge of having NO CLASS. (I should point out that my tongue, or at least the tip thereof, is in my cheek at this juncture.)
Now, believe me, I am not stating that wholesale disrespect of rival fans is the essential nature of our role as fans; if that were the case, then “Al from Dadeville” would be the paradigm. But there is something of value in distinguishing ourselves from other fan bases, as long as the distinctions made are true ones. I mean, if we aren’t really part of the team, then tell me, wherein lies the magic that I hope still exists in this beautiful thing we call college football? What is the worth of our traditions, like Toomers Corner or Tiger Walk? Are we just deluding ourselves by attributing any significance whatsoever to a bunch of young guys running around an oblate spheroid?
Actually, my last point was subject to a debate on our earlier incarnation of TET, with most of you folks stating that it is ridiculous, pointless, and irrelevant to discuss the “classiness” of Auburn/Alabama fans. I seem to have lost that particular argument at that particular time, and that is one reason I am re-formulating and re-presenting my argument within a theory of the meaning and value of college football.
Whether or not I have strengthened my argument, I leave to you, oh pundits of the gridiron. I just hope these ideas I have presented get us all to think a little more deeply about football and our place in it as fans. In any case, I think we can all agree that there is a legitimate reason why we give a flip about college football, that there is something of value in the sport and institution we love, and that it is, and always will be, great to be an Auburn Tiger.
(who tempts a haunting from the Bard by writing “For never was a story of more woe / than the 2012 Tigers, that saw Gene Chizik go”)