Over the past week or two, this community has done a fair amount of discussing what it means to be a fan, how to distinguish between a “real” fan and a “fair-weather” one, and what value might be assigned to each group. In Brian's inaugural Athletic Director post, he mentioned “sustaining the enterprise” in his three-point assessment of what an AD's job should entail - - and got some comments that he hadn't given enough attention to the fanbase. In the “Michigan Dark Secrets” thread, there were so many Body Snatcher-like accusations of “not a real fan!!” that posters started giving a disclaimer before they divulged their confession: “This may make me sound like a bad fan, but....”
So, what exactly is a fan? Hans Christian Andersen gave us a rather silly test to determine the authenticity of a royal claim in “The Princess and the Pea”, involving a legume and multiple layers of bedding. In reality, such a test is as simple as determining one's parentage; it has nothing to do with sensitivity. When it comes to fandom, however, the situation is reversed. History, parentage, even educational background have little to do with it. This forum is chock-full of Michigan maniacs who earned (or are currently earning) degrees from other institutions, even - - dare I say it? - - Ohio State and MSU. Fandom is all about sensitivity, and this makes it a rather subjective assessment.
As I perused the posts in “Michigan Dark Secrets”, I was struck by how differently passionate people can react to a single pivotal event. Some of us were unable to watch to the end of a game, when our team was being thrashed on the field of play. Some were unable to turn away. Some stopped attending games in person but watched on TV, while a few in despair had to record the contests and decide after the fact whether to watch or not. As in politics (oh no!! verboten subject!), it seems that intelligent people of good intentions with a common desire can see the path to that goal taking opposite directions.
There was, however, a thread of continuity throughout, and that was this: every Michigan fan made his decisions (whether to buy a ticket, whether to stay for the end of a game) with the athletes, the school, and the program solidly in focus. And I think this rather clinical distinction is where we all come together on the great Venn diagram. The students who petitioned and rallied for change found their drive in a desire to make Michigan athletics proud, the same drive that compelled other students to stay the course. The fans who held their ground and stayed in their seats even as their team was crumbling before them did so because they longed to give support and strength to a program they love, but so did the fans who got up and left.
Apparently, fandom cannot be quantified in a specific action or characteristic. It exists in that nebulous world of sensitivity. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously once said of defining pornography, “I know it when I see it”. In the case of fandom, I know it when I feel it.
By contrast, the “fair-weather” or bandwagon fans are, well, not fans at all. They're spectators. I don't care much about major league baseball, but hey, I live near Kansas City. When the Royals made a run last year, I bought a shirt and wore it. Yay, team! Good job! Whatever. I'll never be jumping out of my seat on an August afternoon, knocking over my neighbor's beer, to reach for a foul ball. But I'm important to that franchise (as independent voters are to political parties), because they can earn my attention and therefore, my support.
A fan's attention and support doesn't have to be earned. Even a disenchanted fan loves his team and desperately wants to regain that thrill of pride. Wolverines who went all Tasmanian Devil after the 2006 Ohio State game felt themselves redeemed in 2011, while spectators at both contests watched with interest and said, “Huh. Good game, eh?”
Let's hope that the new athletic director, be it Jim Hackett or anyone else, finds a way to “sustain the enterprise” that both re-connects the fans and catches the interest of the spectators. HARBAUGH was a magnificent first step. Winning will be a good second.