We learned a lot in 2020, most of it sad and depressing. In the moments when we weren’t terrified, mourning, angry, or all of the above, some of us might have turned on sporting events once the UFC got back to broadcasting events and the NBA concluded the 2019-20 season in The Bubble. Sports looked different for a year with no fans — or a limited number — but the product was watchable. Sure ratings were down, but that wasn’t a sports problem, it was an international health crisis problem.
While the professional games felt somewhat like the normal product, the college games certainly did not. Possibly the worst was college football. There was no uniformity in how the season was executed. The SEC and Big 12 started early enough to get in double-digit games while the Big Ten and Pac 12 had a strenuous debate about playing at all in 2020, and then ended up playing six-game schedules.
Combine that with no non-conference play and the season felt like the schools were in one of those money boxes with a limited amount of time to grab as much cash as possible as it’s blowing away. Judging the season strictly in terms of enjoyable viewing, it was terrible because of the lack of fans.
In college sports, the fans are part of the show. There’s a reason that the broadcast shows the Wisconsin fans “Jump Around,” Virginia Tech taking the field as “Enter Sandman” plays, and why student sections are still allowed to storm the field after a big win. It’s what makes the game fun to watch. These aren’t seasoned professional athletes. The product isn’t as good as the NFL or the NBA, so the passionate fan bases make up the difference and offer the viewers something that they don’t get with the pro game.
The problem with that entertaining rabid fan support, is that it can also manifest itself in terrible ways. One of the worst is death threats. It can happen when a punter makes a mistake that results in a huge conference loss, or when high school students decide to exercise their human rights and change their minds about what university to attend. It happened to New York Giants tight end Ricky Seals-Jones, Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones and many others. Recently it happened to a player who decided not to enroll at Michigan State.
Demitrius Bell is a four-star wide receiver from Nashville who committed to play for the Spartans in June. On Twitter, he confirmed a Wednesday report that he had decommitted, and reopened his recruiting process. The next day he tweeted that the ugly side of passionate college football fandom came for him as well.
It’s not unique to high school football recruits. It happens to many people of any notoriety for various reasons. Deadspin’s own Julie DiCaro took part in a Peabody Award-winning project in which random men were instructed to read the mean tweets she and ESPN’s Sarah Spain have received. A couple of those tweets requested that Julie be beaten to death with hockey equipment.
That was back when Twitter many times did not handle threatening and/or hate speech properly. If an account threatens the life of someone, that account will likely be suspended and the tweet removed. Who knows what was sent to Bell, but the quote tweets and replies to his decommitment that are visible aren’t violent.
However, that doesn’t mean he’s lying. Accusations of that are absolutely in the replies. Those people must be so blinded by their green and white lenses that they can’t empathize with something that happens to high school athletes on a regular basis. It happens so much that before the 2016 election, a company I worked for would close the comment section on Facebook posts about recruits decommitting. They did that while knowing that we needed every single Facebook interaction we received and then some.
So yes, college fandom is different. The 8 a.m. tailgating, painted bodies, and fight songs are what sell the product. But that fanaticism often goes too far, particularly when it comes to wishing death on high school students for changing their minds about what college they want to attend. The fact that school spirit can be channeled in the same hate that makes the world an uncomfortable, and far too often a dangerous, place is disheartening.
The way that college is marketed from the brochures to the movies is very much about fun, yet somehow people can use it to drum up the same hatred that pollutes the rest of society. Uh oh, I can feel that 2020 sadness returning.