The relationship between the collegiate athlete and the fan is complex, resembling, in some ways, the relationship between the clergy and the theologian. In most others, it is more akin to zoo animals and schoolchildren.
The mercurial nature of collegiate fandom centers on identity and its usurping. The popular fan mantra “we’re number one” is deliciously presumptive in who this “we” is. We should not forget the uncomfortable and seldom discussed fact that, for the most part, college football players hate their fans. A greater suspension of disbelief is required in being a college football fan than in reading the final chapters of Huckleberry Finn.
This is true in sports fandom in general but college football fandom in particular. The college football fan is encouraged to personalize rivalries beyond his proper station, appropriating a contact high from the team’s success and a hangover from their loss. In its broadest sense, this personalization limits the lexicon of those who follow sport to the abbreviated form of “fanatic” (as opposed to “admirer” or “connoisseur”) and offers so many easy tangents to religion.
As Warren St. John noted in the early going of his study on fan culture, “Being a music fan is its own end. But being a sports fan, though, is as much about opposing as advocating.” Surely some of this stems from musicians being worshiped on a stage rather than in a pit.
Artists, we contend, leave behind the baser elements of human nature. Transcendent, they open our moon roof from the outside as we sit captive in the backseat. They are buffered by their fans’ insistence that they become more than what they really are. And, once achieved, the artist with fan support has almost unlimited reserves of fan forgiveness.
Somewhere, someone, right now, is excited about a New Kids on the Block reunion.
The athlete’s support, on the other hand, is finite, and available only for as long as the fan can see himself as greater than he really is. A change of wardrobe is all it takes for the athlete to lose a fan. Plus, new idols await each season. And once the athlete’s playing days are through? Well, no one wants to see the reflection in a broken mirror.
However, some of the problem is simply a numbers game. College football fans gather in highly regimented, high-density numbers in (relatively) few places. To see the gameday crowd at a big-time college football game, the raging euphoria and matching T-shirts, is to see an equally blendered mix of obsessive-compulsive disorder and riot.
Such a quiet riot awaits fans of Alabama football next weekend. They will fill the stadium to standing room only again, a feat the Great Leader referred to as his “most positive” experience as Crimson Tide head coach (although having a 6-6 regular season and nearly blowing the bowl game sets the bar pretty low in this matter). They will cheer every good play’s success and second-guess the others (hell, maybe all). But they will come, and they will see themselves as they wish they were on that field.
Theologians, they don’t know nothing ‘bout my soul.