College Sports and The Plight of the T-Shirt Fan

 

On November 24, 2011, Thanksgiving Day, the University of Texas Longhorns and the Texas A&M Aggies met on the gridiron for the final time. Amid the flurry of conference reshuffling in college football, the Aggies were opting to leave for the SEC, while the Longhorns had reaffirmed their allegiance to the Big 12, thereby putting an end to this annual grudge match for the foreseeable future.

Finger-pointing and recriminations abounded. The University of Texas was a Big 12 bully, hogging conference revenue and arrogantly ignoring the concerns of its peer institutions. Texas A&M was a turncoat and a traitor, destabilizing the conference in a jealous cash grab. But wherever you fell in the debate, this series, which stretched back to 1894 and had spurred on countless bonfires, hexes, brandings, fight songs, as well as 117 games and more than a century’s worth of football rivalry, was coming to an end.

The game was a sloppy one, full of mistakes, miscues, and turnovers on both sides. But those early stumbles gave way to a hard-fought, back and forth finish. In the fourth quarter, Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw a touchdown pass that put the Aggies ahead of Texas 25-24. With less than two minutes left in the game, that late score seemed to seal an Aggie victory as the sputtering UT offense took the field. Then, with the clock steadily winding down Texas quarterback Case McCoy  capped off a few solid plays by scrambling for twenty-five yards to put the Longhorns in field goal range. As the final seconds ticked away, senior Justin Tucker kicked a forty-yard field goal as time expired to give Texas the victory. It was a fittingly thrilling finish for the last battle between the two venerable rivals.

As a Longhorn-supporter, I was enthused by the outcome of the game, and still feeling aggrieved that the Aggies were fleeing the conference. I took to Facebook, as one does to boast about accomplishments they had nothing to do with, and said, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, A&M.” Ryan, a friend of mine from high school who had opted for the sunny plains of College Station after graduation, replied, “Plenty of sports to compete in yet! Pleasantly, you are one of few t-shirt fans I know to chime in about tonight’s game.”

T-Shirt fans? Ryan obliged me with an explanation. T-Shirt fans are “people without a legitimate rooting interest in the game — people who never attended the institution.” I had never set foot in the student section. I had never come in as a freshman and learned the school’s time-honored traditions from the upperclassmen. I had never been part of the campus rabble cheering on their classmates. I had no official affiliation with the University of Texas to speak of, and therefore, I was not to speak.

Ryan had made his point clear. I wasn’t a real fan of the Texas Longhorns. I was just some guy in a burnt orange t-shirt.

Pity the plight of the T-Shirt Fan.

 

Orson Welles would be proud.

 

Collegiate athletics operate in a strange limbo between the insular and the accessible. They are simultaneously an exclusive, individual source of school pride, as identifiable and treasured as any building, banner, or monument on campus, but also an open invitation to the public at large, to watch, to cheer, and to support as though the school were their own. They are a reason for a campus community to come together and an excuse for television networks to broadcast around the world. They are at once both open and closed — available to all but belonging to few.

Enter the T-Shirt Fan — the poor souls lured in by the excitement and fun of college sports with no team to call their own. Some never made it to college. Some hail from schools whose teams are no more worth talking about than their cafeterias. Some, like me, attended universities who can only boast that their football team has been undefeated since World War II. Whatever the reason, a T-Shirt Fan is a man without a country, come to support an adopted institution.

They’re often fans who love the game and simply want a dog in the fight. For all the venom (rightfully) spewed at the BCS, there’s an unpredictability to the college football season that is strikingly different from that of the pro game.1 Few sporting events can pack in as much elegant chaos as college basketball packs into March Madness. In both sports, there’s an exciting freedom, creativity, and diversity of play that’s much harder to achieve amidst the speed and strength at the professional level. What’s more, there’s also a certain regional connection to these institutions that make college teams feel closer to home than their professional brethren. All these factors come together to create fans of the sport with no team to “legitimately” root for.

These are the fans on the other side of the fence of the inherent contradiction in college athletics. Despite what the NCAA will tell you, big time college sports are essentially a professional endeavor. Sure, the players involved might technically be amateurs,2 but they train like professionals, and face similar expectations. The coaches, training staff, and administrators involved are in much the same boat as their professional peers. Above all else, the sheer amount of money at stake in collegiate sports like football, basketball, and baseball turns these pursuits into professional operations rather than extracurricular activities.

By the same token, college sports receive a commensurate level of national attention, and inspire the same sort of civic pride, local support, and national followings as the pros. So people like me pick a team; the same way an NFL fan in Idaho picks a team; the same way an NBA fan in Arkansas picks a team; the same way an MLB fan in Indiana picks a team. Maybe it’s because we have a friend or relative who attended the school in question. Maybe it’s because it’s just the closest one. Maybe it’s simply because some team happens to strike our fancy. However we reach the decision, we pick a team, find the appropriate t-shirt, and cheer.

 

There's a lot of empty space on the left half of the map.

 

Despite that fact, I’d like to think I’m not much of a carpet bagger. Both of my parents went to the University of Texas, and brought me up as a Longhorn-booster.  So did my my girlfriend, my grandparents, my aunt, and several other good friends who all attended the school and slowly but surely indoctrinated me. I grew up going to Texas Exes events with my parents, learning the history behind Longhorn traditions, and cheering on the athletes in burnt orange. When I tried to use this defense with Ryan, he responded, “Well, you still chose not to attend that university. I am just saying that I think it’s unfortunate when people who are not members feel the need to say unsavory things about a rivalry that means so much to the people involved.”

And there it is. “To the people involved.” By attending a school where football had gone out with the Roosevelt administration, I had extricated myself from having the right to comment. Or at the very least, I needed to take a backseat to the real fans — the kind who had true reverence for this rivalry.

I don’t mean sound too harsh on Ryan.3 He’s at least partially right. I had a wonderful college experience that I would not trade for anything in the world,4 but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a certain wistfulness about not being able to participate in that big time college sports experience. There is a certain connection you build in rooting for your classmates, hunkering down in the student section, and celebrating the big wins on campus. It’s something that I am never going to be able to have in the same way that someone like Ryan will, and it’s something that will always make me envious of him and those like him.

But in the end, I believe in something of a Lockean Labor Theory of Fandom. Locke argued that private property ownership came from taking a public good and combining it with your personal labor, thereby making it your own. At its core, the theory is about the idea that ownership comes from investing yourself in something, from putting enough of your time and energy into it that it becomes yours. To my mind, the same goes for being a fan.

 

This philosophy was originally articulated in Locke's "Second Treatise on ESPN."

 

There’s always going to be something admirable about cheering for your hometown team or supporting your alma mater. But that does not invalidate the people who pick a team halfway across the country, or halfway across the world, and follow it with as much fervor and enthusiasm as any other fan. It does not diminish the fans who stick with their support through good times and bad. And it does not make bolstering triumphs, harrowing defeats, or treasured rivalries any less meaningful for those who have so invested.

I traded high-fives when Ricky Williams won the Heisman Trophy. I was scolded for cursing at the television when Major Applewhite was pulled for Chris Simms. I held hands with my family members as we breathlessly watched Vince Young’s final scramble to beat USC. I winced when Michael Crabtree put a dagger in the heart of Texas fans everywhere. I cheered when UT made it back to the National Championship game and lamented when Colt McCoy’s injury forced them to take on Alabama short-handed. I made it through the five-year skid against OU and basked in the subsequent years of plenty. I’ve worn burnt orange in enemy territory, driven for miles to find a bar with the Longhorn Network, and watched all four quarters of National Championship games and cupcake games alike.

I may never officially be a part of the University of Texas, but I’d like to think that means I’ve still earned my fandom, no matter what t-shirt I’m wearing.

So hook ‘em, T-Shirt Fans.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I don’t mean to discount the “Any Given Sunday” nature of the NFL, which is one of my favorite aspects of the league. College football, however, has the immediacy of its ranking system where one loss can crush a team’s entire season. That creates a different sort of unpredictability. It’s certainly exciting, but by the same token it also leads to a good bit more unfairness than in the NFL.
  2. And heaven forbid we pay them.
  3. I ought to note that he subsequently apologized.
  4. By the way, unless you’re the one playing, an athletic team is a terrible reason to pick a school.

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3 Responses to College Sports and The Plight of the T-Shirt Fan

  1. Dan Blumberg says:

    As President of the University of Texas Ex-Students’ Association of Arlington, Texas, I formally welcome all “t-shirt fans” into the group. We appreciate your support as well as your enthusiasm and energy. And we recognize the progeny of Texas Exes (as we are known) as our own. Some of them may choose to attend college elsewhere. But they will always be longhorns at heart. And when cut they will still bleed burnt orange.

  2. Mom says:

    You have had the big time college sports experience. There cannot be too many highs to equal sitting in the Duke basketball arena with thousands of other cheering fans watching the Blue Devils win the NCAA championship.

  3. Pingback: Dallas Cowboys 2013 NFL Draft: A Failure in Triage | The Andrew Blog

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