A Critic and a Fan

This past Saturday, College GameDay came to Austin, and I crossed an item off of my bucket list by going. I made a sign on Friday, woke up at 4:30 Saturday morning, arrived at campus at 5:30 to snag a prime spot in front of the cameras, waited two and a half hours for the show to begin, and made a fool of myself on ESPN (my whole family watched for me and my mom sent me the picture below while I was there).

That’s (a very excited) me! We lost, but my sign said “Welcome to Austin, SU! (We’ll give y’all the “L” tonight!)”

It was an experience and a half. I lost my voice, I got sunburned, I felt sore and hungover the next day (no alcohol necessary), and I’m still trying to reclaim a normal sleep pattern going into work this week because I’m still pumped. I would do it again in a heartbeat.  It was a magical day and many dreams came true.

And, in spite of my critical stance of the NCAA, I feel zero guilt for indulging in a fun day centered around college sports. Because to me, College GameDay coming to Austin encompassed some of the best things about collegiate athletics. Here’s my short list:

First, there’s the ability of a sporting event to gather a crowd of thousands of strangers together as a community. I stood by a section of LSU fans, who seemed like lovely people, and we all had a good time together. We didn’t even have to exchange names. We had a common purpose, even if it was directed at separate teams, and enjoyed the rivalry and camaraderie. Texas lost the game that evening, but the fans won the morning. No other campus events have the capacity to do that on the same scale as university athletics. 

Second, athletics provide a heartbeat to universities. This really set in on my walk home, where tailgating was already hours underway at 11:00 AM for a 6:30 PM football game. Would alumni come back to their colleges for any other reason than for sporting events? Would we tailgate for academic purposes? Would multiple generations come together to hang out on a Saturday for any other reason? Would dance teams, cheerleading squads, or marching bands exist without football stadiums to house them and would their audiences be half as large if they did? What else would universities rally around, but athletics, where rallying is encouraged?

Finally, for all of its flaws, the NCAA does provide at least partial aid to thousands of college athletes. And I’m a firm believer that there is nothing morally wrong with the marketization of collegiate athletics, as long as the athletes get a fair (key word) share of it too, as well as a safe, supportive work environment. It’s the NCAA’s process, not its product, that I take issue with. So I don’t think that it’s hypocritical for sports critics to also be sports fans. Those two terms are not mutually exclusive. You can be two things.

That being said, I do believe it’s irresponsible for fans to turn a blind eye to the structural issues surrounding the sports we love, whether it’s at the youth, collegiate, or professional level. It’s impossible for me: I can’t go to a football game without thinking about the power imbalances surrounding the event, the structural barriers college athletes face, or the inattention the NCAA affords its athletes. I believe this concept of critical fanhood extends to the arts, politics, industries, pop culture, and any other object of our attention as well.

I will rarely turn down an invitation to a college football/basketball/baseball/softball game, but I always joke that I just might ruin the experience for whoever is accompanying me by critiquing the NCAA in between plays. But I still see the good of college sports. It’s buried, but it’s there, and I can support that. So still I go to the games, because I’m not about to let the NCAA take the fun out of college sports any more than it already does.

Maybe I still sound hypocritical. Maybe I should pitch my tent in the “critic” camp or the “fan” camp. That’s a tension that I wrestle with all the time. But if College GameDay ever comes back to Austin, you better believe I’ll be there in the front row with my critical hat on the whole time.

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