On Nonsensicality and College Football Fandom

Above: A Tennessee fan films himself during and after a loss to Florida in 2014. Tennessee lost 10-9, their 10th consecutive loss in the series. There is LOTS of graphic language here.

Being a sports fan, in general, is a highly nonsensical thing. The extent to which people identify with and love sports teams is an odd thing about human behavior; this article (The psychology of why sports fans see their teams as extensions of themselves) explains it nicely, with plenty of relevant links to studies, and one excerpt stands out in particular:

A sports team is an expression of a fan’s sense of self ...  It is not an obnoxious affectation when a devotee uses the word “we”; it’s a literal confusion in the brain about what is “me” and what is “the team.” In all kinds of unconscious ways, a fan mirrors the feelings, actions and even hormones of the players. Self-esteem rides on the outcome of the game and the image of the franchise.

Honestly, what the heck? This shit is bananas. It makes no sense at all. If you're a big fan of a sports team, imagine trying to explain your devotedness to someone who doesn't follow the sport in question. Now imagine trying to explain that to someone who has never heard of the sport in question -- doesn't know the game's purpose, rules or regulations. Now imagine trying to explain that to a person who doesn't know what sports or games are. Quickly, you'll find yourself sounding like an insane person. 

"Well, yeah, my favorite team is the New York Jets. They're a bunch of men, usually between 20 and 35 years old or so, running around and generally just hitting each other until one of them can carry a football -- it's this oblong, kind of weird shaped ball -- what? no, no, you don't bounce it -- across one of the lines on the field, the one that is the end zone. After that, another man tries to kick it through a couple of poles for an extra point. They're usually pretty bad ... they only won four of their sixteen games last year. I used to go to eight of the games every year when I lived nearby where they play, and spent thousands of dollars on tickets, food and merchandise. Now that I moved, I pay hundreds of dollars a year to be able to sit on the couch, unmoving, watching all of their games on television every weekend for 16 weekends."

This is amplified when you talk about college sports, specifically college football. College football is catching up to the NFL in terms of overall popularity, and it's relatively easy to argue for college football's dominance over the pros in terms of die-hard, life-long fans and traditions. You have to add in the equations of players not being paid; not being professionals; the team roster never remaining static due to student-athlete graduation and early entrances into the NFL; the fact that everyone on the field is likely much younger than you, always between the ages of 17 and 22; the factor of following recruiting closely enough to become somewhat invested in the decision of a random teenager about where he'll attend college; and you have to explain all the tradition and pageantry that accompanies football at big universities. 

Credit: Tim Casey

Credit: Tim Casey

None of it makes sense on a base level, and it makes even less sense when we talk about how people react to the successes and failures of their college football teams. I've been a Florida Gators fan my whole life -- my parents went there, my sister and I went there, many of my best friends went there. I only missed one (1) home football game during the four seasons I lived in Gainesville. 

In high school, the Gators were great. They won national championships in 2006 and 2008, while their basketball teams won national championships in 2006 and 2007. These championships spawned true elation; I remember where I was for each championship game and most of the other games from those seasons. I can tell you specific stories about the games surrounding those seasons as well, like the memorable occasion on September 18, 2004, where receiver Dallas Baker shoved a Tennessee player after first being shoved; the referees did not manage the clock properly around the ensuing 15-yard personal foul penalty, giving Tennessee enough time (roughly 45 seconds instead of roughly 20 seconds) to drive down the field and kick a game-winning 50-yard field goal as time expired to beat Florida 30-28. I didn't have to look up any of that to remember it all; I'm not even going to bother fact-checking it now. I know it's all correct the same way I know I turned 14 years old a month and nine days after that game. If you Google "Florida Tennessee 2004" you'll find a recap of some sort on the first page of the search results. You can fact-check me if you want. It still hurts. 

My memories of Gators football aren't all so specific; I remember the time Georgia's players rushed the field after scoring a touchdown to shell-shock the Florida players, leading to a rare Georgia win in the series, but I don't remember the exact day of that game in 2007 like I do the date of that Tennessee game. The point remains: I have more memories of Gators football from the ages of about 12 to (current life) than I do most other things. 

The elation you experience when your team wins doesn't last a super long time. You're soon faced with the "pressure" of defending a national championship when the season kicks off eight months later. Does your team have a 5-game winning streak heading into a primetime Top 10 matchup? Good luck enjoying that games while you're biting your fingers off. 

This isn't to say that watching college football isn't fun; it's one of the most fun things in the world to me. But you win national championships, conference championships or even divisional championships less than you don't win them, and the agony of losing particularly horrifying games is as vivid, or more vivid, than the joy of winning close calls or big matchups. Just watch that video above of a particularly dramatic Tennessee fan reacting to his team's tenth straight loss to Florida. ("You know, watching football is supposed to be fun. But I can’t even enjoy my football. It’s getting to the point where watching Tennessee football is becoming unhealthy.")

It's nonsensical. 

Football season starts this weekend. I'm flying from New York City to Gainesville to spend 10 hours tailgating in the sun before watching Florida take on a bad New Mexico State team in its season opener. I won't say how much money I'm spending on the entire weekend, but it's more than I'd spend on...many things. Florida is not expected to be a great team this year, and it hasn't been expected to be great in any of the past three years that I've made this pilgrimage to Gainesville for the season opener. I still plan on doing it every single year. 

It's entirely nonsensical. And I'll savor every moment of it.