The problem with being a true sports fan, the type who lives and dies with each win or loss, is that you have no control over anything connected to your team. I remember talking with a friend a few years ago, and our conversation wandered from concerns about a bad financial investment he had made to our shared frustrations with the Lakers and their latest playoff demise. "I'm so pissed about the Lakers," he said, "and I'm not even invested in them."
He was wrong, of course. He was heavily invested in the Lakers. There's almost always a financial investment made in tickets to see your team in person; cable packages to watch them on TV; jerseys, sweatshirts, and caps to proclaim your allegiance; donations to college athletic programs; and even travel expenses for trips to glamorous places like Glendale, Arizona.
More important that all that, though, is the emotional investment. The time you spend worrying, wondering, thinking, predicting, discussing, and rationalizing could be measured in minutes and hours, but there's no way to quantify the weight of all that on the human soul. As Stanford fans, we all fall victim to this. If you're reading this right now instead of analyzing a spreadsheet, writing a brief, working on a problem set, or playing Monopoly with your kids, you're invested. (How invested am I? Including this piece, I've written 123,895 words about this team over the past two years, not including work I've done for other sites.)
As invested as we are as fans, however, we have no control. We can't decide when to take out a pitcher, which quarterback should start, or whether or not to sign the hottest free agent. Sure, we trick ourselves into thinking we can influence on field results by wearing a particular lucky shirt, sitting in the same recliner, or even -- as a friend of mine in college frequently did while watching his Chicago Bulls -- refusing to use the bathroom. It's all nonsense, and we know it. Unless you're a superfan like Phil Knight or Boone Pickens, you have no influence. Sports is the one important thing in your life that you have no control over.
This paradox can lead to sadness, frustration, and even anger in the wake of defeat. Years ago one of my best friends spent close to an hour sitting alone in the dark slumped against the trunk of a tree following a Stanford loss to Notre Dame. This moment was so powerful that two decades later it remains iconic amongst my cirlce of friends. When one of us is mourning one of our team's bad losses, the degree of dispair is usually described in the simplest of terms: "I feel like sitting under a tree." And really, who among us hasn't wanted to sit under a tree at some point?
The recent run of success enjoyed by Stanford football has changed things. Last Monday's Fiesta Bowl loss was certainly met with sadness, but more than a few fans let their frustration rise into anger. There was venom directed at Coach Shaw for his play calling at the end of regulation and into overtime, and more than a few even laid blame at the feet of kicker Jordan Williamson, labelling him a choker unworthy of his scholarship. (In fairness, the vast majority of Stanford fans have come out in support of Williamson.)
This is where things get dangerous. I can't imagine Stanford fans sinking to the depths of fanaticism that allegedly led Alabama fan Harvey Updyke to poison Auburn's beloved Toomer's Corner oak trees, but I'd never want to see the fanbase slip back into the type of apathy Andrew Luck felt as a freshman and described in a recent interview.
I would never condone the use of those three words most hated by true fans -- "it's just sports" -- but somewhere there needs to be a middle ground, and while most of us walk that path, even the best of us can stray when tested. When Williamson's kick dove to the left, I let out a guttural cry of pain which was immediately echoed by my laughing six-year-old daughter. With a sure victory so recently ripped from my hands, it was hard not to scold her. Instead I looked at her narrowly out of the corner of my eye, letting her know she was treading on thin ice. Her smile disappeared and she apologized, and of course I felt even worse.
This is what it means to be a fan.
[Photo Credit: Paul Connors/AP Photo]