Earlier this week, a former Oregon Duck blasted fans for being ignorant and disrespectful to players. We received this, from a former player at a different school, on what he believes about a spectator's obligation to a team.
I played football at a I-AA (excuse me, "FCS") school a few years ago—sure, it’s not Pac-12, but I know the environment of playing competitive football at a university whose expectation is to win a national championship every year. The world the Oregon player described is 100 percent true, and while that might not exactly be news to people, it’s something that just gets stuffed under the surface and people are supposed to accept it for what it is.
The coach for whom I played is a good ol' boy with an air of the plantation owner who resented the fact that he had to use fast black kids to win conference and national championships. In a closed-door meeting he once told a white player, "I don’t like being around these niggers any more than you do." To his credit, his feelings about race didn’t impact who he played, though that can be chalked up to his self-interested desire to win.
Coaches are mercenaries, going from school to school, hired to do one thing: win. They build their slave armies to do their bidding on the field and bring the school pride in the form of victories and cash. Once the recruiting honeymoon is over, players figure out pretty quickly what they’ve gotten themselves into.
It’s ironic that the least valuable slaves are the only ones with the power to walk away. I was a walk-on who was recruited with the promise of eventually earning a scholarship, and was compared to a player with a similar background and set of physical skills who is now in The League—any 18-year-old will buy into that. By the time my freshman year ended with a position switch that didn’t go as smoothly as planned, I was jaded with the bureaucratic politics of football. I planned to play one more season and then walk away to try to improve my grades. Early on was a huge game against a BCS bowl regular.
I got cut while getting dressed for practice. While everyone else felt the euphoria from the huge upset, my emotions were more bittersweet. I watched the game from the stands, following the coaches’ signals, knowing every play before it came in. I continued going to the games for that reason, usually sitting alone at the top level of the end zone so I could see the plays develop. From my perch I saw more than football erode into dismay. After huge expectations following the upset victory, I watched the season deteriorate into a barely-above-.500 finish, and the behavior of the fans deteriorated as well. At my school, missing the playoffs is a losing season. Two in a row, and we were all "losers." Hearing fans, adults and students, personally rip the players was disturbing; without a doubt, none of them would’ve had the courage to call our quarterback a "worthless piece of shit" to his face.
There is a certain romance to college football, one not found in the NFL, that you can only conjure up by imagining the most wistful Brent Musburger voice talking about marching bands and tradition. Allegiances to college teams run much deeper, because in most cases the "real fans" attended or currently attend the school for which they root. This is why you’ll find Northwestern fans scattered all over the country, and no Browns fans anywhere.
I’m getting my master’s degree in Europe right now and the number one thing I miss the most isn’t the game itself; it’s the sense of community one finds at American universities, especially football schools, especially in autumn. College sports are about community. My mom was a Big Ten champion and All-American athlete in the '70s, and while she can give you the two-deep roster of her favorite NFL team, she can’t name a single player on her university’s roster offhand, and it doesn’t diminish the spirit with which she cheers on State.
That’s part of college football—players rotate in and out at essentially the same rate, so fan attachment is to the TEAM. Maybe some of it is the amateur-professional dynamic at the root of Mike Gundy’s famous press conference eruption. Question the professionals. Question the play-calling. But do not—do not question how hard the guys wearing the armor are fighting. Football took 55 hours out of my weekly schedule. Think it’s wrong that some people are treated differently on campus, people who otherwise might not have gotten in? How much revenue do you bring the school?
I won't say that paying customers have a duty to be positive, but if they are going to voice an opinion, they have an obligation to be at least supportive. Schools like Penn State are the academic institutions they are in part because of football. Players are doing their share. They endure daily physical and mental stress for the amusement of the thousands of fans in the stadium, and bring in the millions of dollars that fund libraries and research and tenure. You don't see the football team in honors program lectures drunkenly jeering the kid giving a presentation who hesitates and stutters when he forgets a bullet point about poliheuristic theory or cellular biology.
I went to every home game the rest of my years as a student, but only because of the loyalty I felt to the guys I knew out there, the guys I came in with. I don’t know how to explain to people what it feels like to watch the student section empty in the third quarter of a conference game we were winning.
I wrote this kind of off the cuff and didn’t really have a planned direction, but the bottom line is that it's extremely disheartening to see fans turn on players. We're already dehumanized enough by our coaches; we should be able to count on our fans.