Do College Athletics Have a Fan Problem?

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterFebruary 12, 2014

Rashaan Evans chooses Alabama as his commitment to play NCAA college football during national signing day on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Butch Dill/Associated Press

This is not an Auburn problem, a Texas Tech problem or a problem with schools being represented in a negative light. In fact, college athletics’ bout with the deranged fan comes down to the people, a small percentage of irrational and illogical so-called devotees unfit to root for a particular school.

The problem, however, is that this percentage—regardless of how small and insignificant it might appear—has power. It has a voice. And when this voice surfaces, as it did in one chaotic stretch in multiple sports, suddenly the small cracks in the foundation become a little more pronounced.

When Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart shoved a fan after diving after a loose ball while playing Texas Tech, the sporting world ceased to breathe. The invisible barrier between athlete and engrossed onlooker vanished.

The scene was prompted by notorious Texas Tech “super fan” Jeff Orr, and what he said to Smart to induce a response. While speculation over a racial slur was a topic of conversation early on, Orr, in a statement released by the school, admitted to calling Smart “a piece of crap.”

Regardless of what was actually said—and we may never know if it was actually something worse—something was said. And if the defense of the situation is you only called a 19-year-old “a piece of crap,” then consider this our slow, head-first dive down a deranged wormhole.

Let’s dive deeper, though. Let’s explore the depths where high school athletes are insulted for putting on a different hat and a smile.

Rashaan Evans, the talented 5-star linebacker from Alabama, served up national signing day’s biggest surprise last week. He committed to the Crimson Tide over Auburn despite the fact that the Tigers were considered a heavy favorite throughout much of the recruiting cycle.

This decision incited the anticipated backlash from some Auburn fans—especially given the rivalry in play. Andrew Bone of spoke with Evans about the response:

It's getting worse. Someone actually put out an article about my family's business telling all Auburn fans not to go there. We are going to eventually start losing money. People are telling restaurants in the town not to serve us.

It's hard for me to go out and chill with my friends like I have always done because people keep coming up to me telling me I made a bad decision. It's grown men. They are asking me why I did this to them. I told them I had to do what is best for me.

Evans went on to add that social media has also been particularly unkind in ways we’ve seen before. The all-too-familiar “I hope you tear your ACL” responses have poured in with the causal recklessness that has almost become expected.

Recruiting has become a wasteland in terms of negative encounters and responses. Evans’ current situation isn’t an issue with Auburn—or a reflection of an outstanding fanbase—but rather the latest in a long run of horrendous interaction between players and the public driven by social media.

Of course, no individual should have to deal with this kind of spewed hatred. With professional athletes, however, there’s at least some compensation for the venom headed their way.

Butch Dill/Associated Press

The gargantuan paychecks are gargantuan for a reason. And while dealing with social-media backlash isn’t written clear as day in the job description, it’s an unspoken part of taking on such responsibilities. It’s not a fair burden to bear, but it’s one that comes with tremendous perks.

With college athletes—the ones playing for a degree—this situation is more convoluted.

They are not professionals. In fact, most of them are unemployed, can’t order a drink at a bar and have only been driving a car for a few years. They are operating off scholarships, padding pockets and athletics budgets until they’re told their work is done or they’re allowed to leave.

Before it gets to that point, however, the term “student-athlete” will likely be tested for some of the elite. Maybe it will arrive unexpectedly in a conference basketball game. Or perhaps much sooner, well before arriving to campus.

The line once separating these athletes from the fans sitting in the stands or nestled behind their keyboard is now blurry. Not in everyone's eyes, of course, but to enough of the minority that the same conversation wages on. It’s a conversation most kindergarten teachers have with their students.

“Please be respectful to others.”

“Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” 

“Do not call a 19-year-old a piece of crap.”

“Do not tell a high schooler you hope he blows out his knee.”

Bruce Waterfield/Associated Press

We can take solace in the fact that only a small percentage of fans has demonstrated this lack of decency, but how far does this actually get us? And are we supposed to find comfort in the same regurgitated defense that most of us exercise common sense?

We do. Most of us understand that yelling at a teenager—in person or via 140 avatar-backed characters—is unacceptable. Even with this understanding, there’s not much we can do to spread this necessary gospel.

There isn’t a definitive method to prevent the various degrees of fan misbehavior, either, which is perhaps the most frustrating part of all.

For the stadium confrontations gone wrong—those moments when the lines were clearly crossed on camera—there are ways to ensure that at least one unfit individual never has another altercation with a player, at least in that facility, ever again. Remove him, ban him for life, do whatever it takes to make a small percentage that much smaller.

The realistic truth of the matter, though, is that fans will exercise their right to be indecent if they so desire. Social media will remain a fluid point of contact. Overreactions won’t suddenly subside. And collegiate players of all sports will be forced to cope with these one-sided run-ins with fandom by acquiring thicker skin.

Unfortunately, it’s a rather helpless situation. Fight back or respond, and a retaliation of any kind will begin to paint a different picture. The fan in this instance has been given the power, an open mic to deliver hatred in a variety of ways.

I suppose if we’re looking for a silver lining in the current turbulent landscape of fan behavior, it’s that athletes are discovering ways to contend with troubled fans earlier than ever. This is a sad positive to have to lean on, although one that carries some weight. Student-athletes are thrown into the mix before they even realize what for, a painful initiation Rashaan Evans is in the midst of.

Hopefully, the percentage continues to shrink, to the point where fan impropriety is a genuine surprise. At the moment, however, the only surprise is that fans aren't abandoning these boundaries more often.