Monday, November 27, 2017

The Fan Experience: Worth Considering

I take fandom seriously. If fans could take vows, I would probably offer mine to Notre Dame athletics: in good times and in bad, in sickness (or injury) and in health. You get the point.

I realize that being a fan means different things to different people, but I demonstrate mine by showing up when the Irish come to town. Hence, I am always a little surprised when people ask me if I am going to see the football team play when they come to town every other Thanksgiving weekend. I live 2500 miles from campus and 25 from Stanford's; I can't imagine not going to the game. On one level, the question is a non-question; my answer never varies. Yes, I will be there. For the first time in my 20+ year loyalty, I'm not so sure. 
The Stanford Cardinal defeated Notre Dame 38-20 on Saturday, November 25  in what was the final regular season game of the 2017 season. I left upset about the loss, but probably, even more disappointed? troubled? disturbed by the fan experience inside Stanford stadium. I can't say what I experienced was offensive, disrespectful or rude. In fact, nothing a Stanford fan or the Univesity did was inconsiderate or inappropriate (which, given the history of their band has not always been true). No, it's what Stanford didn't do that raised questions, has given me pause for consideration of how to express my loyalty to the Irish in the future.

In his book "The Joy of Sports" Michael Novak has described football as one of the three great American public liturgies (baseball and basketball are the other two). Liturgy in a religious sense gathers a community for the purpose of public worship that invokes participation, call and response, watching, listening, making time for silence, praise, worship, and song. Liturgy is framed by ritual and tradition; it is a celebration and it is timely. It's not difficult to understand how this concept applies to sport. 
Finishing the season 9-3, fans continue to raise questions about Coach Kelly
Collegiate and professional sports are orchestrated by ritual and traditions, too. Many are shared throughout the country and others are unique to each institution and organization. This is one reason that fans love to travel to see their team on the road. I have loved seeing Notre Dame play at Texas, LSU, University of Washington and even Rutgers. Nothing beats winning in enemy territory. It's fun interacting with the enemy and taking in the many ways they reveal their allegiance by donning certain colors, participating in their own unique calls and responses i.e. cheers and more. This notion of the liturgy, however, was vacant at Stanford.

Within the first ten minutes of the game (not on the official game clock), I turned to my friend and asked if we were at a pop concert. Would a football game break out? I have never been to a sporting event with so much music inundating the airwaves. It was incessant and prevented me from hearing anything on the field. I have written about the importance of silence on this blog many times and I found the total lack of it offensive. I had difficulty focusing on football because the music, totally unrelated to the game was so loud. Football is not a silent game. There is the sound of hitting, tackling, whistles blowing, fans reacting, clapping, and yelling. I want to hear the masses cheering and jeering. Please, no more Meghan Trainor.
I hate this band...but, damn it if I don't respect them.
I have never totally understood Stanford's infamous marching band. They delight in being different, but their impact is anemic. I can't stand USC's fight song— it's hard for me to like much about USC—but I recognize their band is impressive. They accomplish what they aim to do, set the tone for the men who are going to war on the gridiron. They entertain their fans during halftime and during the game itself, their music carries a cadence that increases fan engagement. Cheerleaders work in concert with the band, as they should. I might be wrong, but Stanford's cheerleaders seemed divorced from the Dancing Tree et al.

The pageantry and the rituals of college football are simply the icings on the cake of a great American liturgy, but the real "work of the people" is the game itself. Stanford beat us. They capitalized on every one of our mistakes. They stopped the run and covered our receivers. They deserve congratulations for converting, for being up when we were down. But honestly, this is something I could easily watch and experience on television. I could probably hear the actual game better, I could have saved $160 which is the face value of the ticket (more expensive than my USC at ND ticket). Call me an unsavvy shopper—I enjoyed sitting in a group with my friends—but that much for the fan experience I had is imprudent.

The late Michael Novak helped me understand the liturgy of football a little more. In the introduction, he spoke about the voice of Monday Night Football's Howard Cosell. He wrote, 
Howard challenged me to prove football is more than just mere entertainment, means more to us than entertainment, elates or depresses us more than entertainment, affects us more deeply. Entertainment is what occurs at halftime when you get up to go to the bathroom or to buy a hotdog. Entertainment is what you see on a television above the bar in a hotel far from home when no one is paying attention. Football is what makes the people are around the same bar silent, reverent, elated or despondent as the last quarter brings on the game's climactic moments. —Joy of Sports
Call me sour grapes for letting the entertainment get in the way of the football. And if I was Stanford fan, I might see things differently. But the liturgy isn't to be underestimated. It frames the source of the reason we gather, and well, some do it much better than others. I invite any Stanford fan to come to Notre Dame to compare and contrast.

Will I show up two years from now? Given my vows, I think the answer is probably "yes." However, when people ask me that question in the future: Are you going to see the Irish play this weekend? My answer isn't necessarily a given "yes." Staying committed to someone or something is a choice we are always making, affirming and doing. The fan experience at Stanford helped me appreciate that a little more. 

Photo Credits
USC band

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