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Paying the Piper can be tough

What a difference a month makes.  Four weeks ago, the Louisville Cardinals were ranked 6th in the nation pre-season, coming off a 12-1 season culminated by a BCS bowl victory.  Brian Brohm is mentioned among the top 5 players likely to be called to the New York Athletic Club on Heisman night, and visions of national championships are dancing in the heads of the Louisville faithful.  Louisville had beaten Kentucky for 4 straight years, and no matter how good Kentucky might be, Louisville was always going to be better.  How sweet life was for football fans in the 'Ville -- nothing but blue skies and rainbows as far as the eye could see.

Contrast that with Kentucky, who was coming off our best season in many years, 8-5 including our first bowl victory since 1984's Hall of Fame Bowl.  (Interesting aside -- Did you know that UK brought more football fans to last year's Music City Bowl by themselves than attended the 1984 Hall of Fame Bowl in total?  File that away for trivia).  Kentucky was expected to do well again this year, despite a tough schedule.  Most were picking UK to reach bowl eligibility, although not without difficulty owing to its challenging schedule.

Fast forward to now.  The difference can be measured in emotional light-years.  Kentucky is, to the amazement of almost everybody, undefeated in 4 games including a victory over a top ten rival and an SEC road victory against a team favored pre-season to contend for the SEC West, and only one week removed from being ranked in the top 25.  UK is now itself ranked 14th in all the land, and heads into one of the easier games on its schedule with its final non-conference opponent.  SEC heavyweights like Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Auburn all have worse conference records than Kentucky, and even undefeated Florida and LSU now look at the prospect of coming to Commonwealth Stadium as a serious matter.  Andrè Woodson has virtually supplanted Jeff Brohm in the Heisman discussion.

Contrast that with Louisville.  After a stunning loss to Kentucky two weeks ago, the hangover causes the Cardinals to fall to an utterly inferior Syracuse team in Papa John's Stadium.  Cardinal fans, seeing virtually all their pre-season hopes and dreams dashed asunder at the hands of both a hated rival and a conference cellar-dweller, have abandoned hope and hype for madness and recriminations.  Boos rained down from Papa Johns Stadium Saturday, and only about half of the fans remained around to watch Louisville's late effort to save the day.  Sunshine and rainbows have been replaced by tempest and flooding, and a tsunami of anger and bitterness is in the forecast.

Such is the way of sports.  How many times have we seen high hopes crushed early by injury, unexpected difficulty or simple lack of team chemistry?  For Kentucky fans, sunshine and rainbows are in the forecast, but let's all keep firmly in mind how rapidly and even brutally good fortune can change in college sports. 

Everyone loves a winner, but fans who are true to their team, even when it is losing or underperforming are the fans that reap the most benefit from those halcyon days when fair winds blow and team fortunes rise to unexpected heights.  Fair weather fans are plentiful, but they tend to abandon their team during tough times, showering boos and promises not to attend games, sell their tickets, or pull for other teams.  We have seen it lots of times here at Kentucky when the basketball team has underperformed, and I expect if we have a successful season in football, we will begin to develop the same kind of entitlement attitude as the Cardinal fans before their current misfortunes befell them.

For the record, I would like to address a few rationalizations I have seen flying around, last year here at Kentucky and this year at Louisville:

  1. "I pay my money for a ticket, and I can boo if I want" -- This is true.  In America, we have a tradition of allowing this.  But people with this sort of attitude exhibit no concern whatever for their fellow fans.  Most of the time, fans do not want to hear booing, they want to support their team, even if it is sometimes with stunned or disgusted silence.  Selfish fans who engage in booing and other negative behavior at games harm the experience for the rest of us who also pay for our tickets, but to assuage their own fundamental lack of control, they do it anyway without even the least concern for their fellow fans.
  2. "I pay for season tickets and contribute to the athletic program.  I have a right to expect a better product."  --  This is the ultimate expression of an entitlement attitude.  Contributions of wealth and time do not come with guarantees in leisure activities such as sports, or in business, or anywhere else in life for that matter.  The unspoken but implied theory here is that fans should be able to buy themselves a good college team, and have a right to do virtually anything, including unethical behavior, if their investment doesn't produce the desired result.  Ah, America, how utterly self-absorbed and shallow are we.
  3. "I'm booing the coaching staff, not the players" -- Of course you are, dear.  You would never boo kids, that would be un-American.  And of course, those kids would never consider the coach part of their team, and feel as offended as if they were attacked themselves.  You know, we excuse players all the time for committing fouls in defense of a teammate, but we never stop to consider that the coaching staff is also part of that team, and that players respect and feel defensive of their coach.  As fans, we demand unity in team sports until fortunes turn against us -- then we demand individualism for the purposes of assigning blame.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.  And if certain Card fans think this is directed at them, you are right -- along with certain Kentucky fans and Auburn fans, and probably many other team's fans throughout America who have been guilty of this behavior.  Auburn roundly booed quarterback Brandon Cox the other week, in case you missed it -- no real pretense that the boos were intended for Tuberville.  To their credit, they attempted to atone for that by chanting his name in a victory this weekend.  All well and good, but fans have a social as well as an emotional responsibility to our teams and to their fellow fans.  Passions sometimes run high, and people get swept away -- totally human nature and even part of the fan experience, but we shouldn't just dismiss it when people act badly.

We should all remember that how we behave as fans says something about the kind of people we are in real life.  Internet message boards and blogs are being cited all the time as evidence of one thing or another, and fans have a social responsibility there, also.  Maybe even more so, because the Internet grants us a cloak of anonymity behind which we can escape being held personally accountable for our words -- which is all the more reason for us to use it responsibly.

In the final analysis, teams will always have "fair weather" or "bandwagon" fans.  Sports in America is famous for them, and most of us have fallen into this category at one time or another.  At this point, I have to give props to Kentucky football fans.  Despite the lousy football we have played in the Bluegrass for quite a bit of the last 3 decades, Kentucky fans still have excellent historical attendance at football games, and the 23rd best attendance in Division I over the last 5 years, representing 94% of capacity, the exact same percentage as Louisville's much more successful team over the same period (Louisville's stadium is smaller, so attendance ranking isn't a good comparison) and surpassing football-crazed Alabama at 89%.  Fair weather fans?  Kentucky may have 'em in basketball, but they are hard to come by in football.

In summary, I would say this:  Support your team.  Yes, sometimes they suck, and we all have a right to direct criticism at them.  But just as everywhere else in life, being responsible and constructive in our criticism is always better than being reactive and destructive.  Venting is good for the soul, but too much venting is poison.  Support your team, even when it's tough.  That's the measure of a fan.