Why I’m joining the Evil Empire (Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 38)

On fandom, futility and hitch-hiking a ride on a bandwagon

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern storytelling/sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.

I uttered my first non-ironic, not-joking, utterly-serious “Roll Tide” a couple weeks back. 

Friends, I am here to tell you: it felt damn good. 

I was standing outside a pizza joint in LaGrange, Georgia — generally Auburn or Georgia territory, but the Tide rolls where the Tide wants — and I saw an older gentleman wearing one of those classic ‘80s half-mesh trucker caps with the Alabama logo on the front. He had the wisdom of years about him, and also the serene confidence that comes from knowing your football team is capable of conquering at least half the countries on earth.

This was it. My opportunity to formally leap onto the Alabama bandwagon. I breathed deep and, casual as I could manage, offered a neighborly “Roll Tide!” 

He looked at me like I’d just told him the sky was blue. “Roll Tide,” he nodded in reply, in a tone of voice that said Of course the Tide rolls, son, the Tide always rolls.

My friends, I am formally announcing my Alabama fandom. I have become a Tide fan for the most purely mercenary of reasons: because I’m now paying tuition money to the University of Alabama, and I would like a victory-laden return on my investment. (...oh, and an education for my kid. Right. That too.) 

I know this is like declaring that I’m now pulling for Darth Vader, or asking you to consider if maybe Thanos had a point. I’m fully aware that I’m jumping on board a bandwagon that’s already rolling at escape-velocity speed. A band-locomotive. Band-rocket. Whatever. I don’t care. I’ve spent decades getting yelled at on the internet; you think @ghostofbear69 or @godisabamafan1831 calling me a fake fan is going to bother me? Hell no. 

[Yes, I realize a public declaration of fandom also puts me at risk of being accused of bias in my official work capacity. First, welcome to 2021; every journalist born after 1980 now wears their fandom proudly on their sleeve (or podcast). Second, the last thing I ever want to do is cover for my teams’ mistakes. I’ve ripped my childhood favorites before, in great detail, over and over and over and over again. Hell, last year I even compiled all the worst losses for your ghoulish rubbernecking. So trust me, bias ain’t going to be an issue here.]

Longstanding sports protocol demands that you pick a team — or, more to the point, get one grafted onto your DNA thanks to wherever you first popped into this world — and stick with it for the rest of your natural life. This is the kind of sports monogamy generally decreed by fans from places like Boston and Pittsburgh and New York, places with a long legacy of titles. As with most decrees by fans of Boston and Pittsburgh and New York teams, you can safely and easily ignore this one completely. Let me show you how. 

Me, I’ve spent most of my life rooting for Atlanta sports teams. As you can imagine, that hasn’t worked out very well. One championship (two if you count the technicality of an Atlanta United title) over the course of hundreds of seasons. One. My brother who lives in Tampa won more than that in the space of four months earlier this year. 

You can sum up the entire futility of Atlanta’s sports history with two numbers: 28 and 3. That’s it right there, the score that the Falcons led the Patriots by in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI before utterly collapsing. The Braves’ run of 15 division titles with one ring, the Hawks’ perpetual this-is-the-year!, the moving trucks of the Flames and Thrashers, even the also-rans of Georgia Bulldogs football and Georgia Tech basketball … it’s all a part of 28-3. Hope is fruitless, because the worst possible outcome isn’t a possibility, it’s a certainty. 

It’s kind of liberating, really. When I was a younger, more invested Atlanta fan, I did all kinds of stupid things — punching the brick wall of a bar in Charlottesville when the Braves lost the 1992 series, shattering a desk when Mark Wohlers gave up a crucial home run to Jim Leyritz in the 1996 World Series. (It was an Ikea desk. I ain’t the Hulk.) 

But as I got older, and as the trend line became clear, I found a more healthy outlet for my rage. After the Braves made the last out of the season — and it was always the Braves making the last out — I would take my dog on a walk for as long as it took to calm down. Back in the ‘90s, those walks would take a couple hours. By the last couple years, I was good with a trip to the mailbox. Perspective. 

[Reader interaction alert! Tell me how you deal with your favorite sports team’s brutal losses. Every answer gets an extra helping of condolences from me.] 

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My college fandom hasn’t produced any greater rewards. William & Mary, my undergraduate institution, has never even been to the NCAA tournament, one of only five schools in the country never to do so. Three times in recent years they’ve faced basically a one-game playoff to get in, and all three times … nope. (Thankfully they didn’t make the field of the NCAA tournament last year, just prior to when the tournament was cancelled, but that would’ve been on brand.) 

My grad school, the University of Memphis, never quite got its act together while I was there despite having three eventual NBA starters on its roster. A few years later, Memphis lost to Kansas in the national championship when the Tigers could not hit even a single free throw that would’ve put the game out of reach in the final seconds. (The fact that then-Tiger Derrick Rose’s cavalier approach to entrance exams would eventually result in the entire season getting invalidated is just the glint on the candle on top of the icing on the cake.) 

So yes, you can see why I might be a little jaded when it comes to the idea of perpetual fandom for a losing cause. You can only hear so much of that “it’s about the journey, not the destination” shit before you start thinking that you’ve been on this damn journey long enough and you’d like to see what the destination is like once in a while. 

Look, I love the heartstring-yanking longform stories of long-suffering Cubs fans finally seeing their team reach the mountaintop as much as anyone, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend my life being one of those fans, you know? I admire the fans who devote space in their obituaries to throwing one last middle finger in their team’s direction, but life’s a heavy enough burden to carry without adding the misery of allowing an incompetent/underachieving franchise to lay claim to your soul. 

If you lock yourself into just one hereditary fandom, you limit your options. So I strongly recommend you open your mind and your heart to a wider array of teams. Pick teams in different sports, pick teams in different conferences, I don’t care. The point is, give a bit of yourself to a few more (hopefully) deserving recipients. Your old favorites will always be there, waiting to grind your soul into hamburger that they’ll then burn on a too-hot grill and serve with American cheese. Gross. 

Follow my lead. Thanks to various friends, travels and Netflix binges, I now count myself as a new yet loyal fan of:

  • The Alabama Crimson Tide

  • Paris-St. Germain soccer (football, whatever)

  • Wisconsin Badgers football 

  • AFC Richmond

  • The band Phish 

  • The Seattle Kraken, an undefeated hockey team (yes, they’re expansion and haven’t played a game, shut up)

  • Valtteri Bottas, the DGAF F1 driver

Not all of them will win. Some, in fact, have already suffered humiliating defeats -- PSG, for instance, somehow managed to burp its way out of a highly promising Champions League run in the brief window between me buying a ticket and going to my first match. But all of them at least offer new ways of losing … and, sometimes, even more than that. 

Alabama has won its first two games since I’ve been a fan by a combined score of 92 to 27. You may call that unfair. You may call that ridiculous overkill. Me, I call it a good start. Run up that score, Saban! No mercy! We demand blood, right, fellow Tide fans?

The risk here, really, is not that I’ll be branded a bandwagoner. The risk is that I will act as an anchor on the entire Alabama franchise, bringing the whole Saban locomotive to a sudden, grinding halt. We’re about to test which is stronger: the universe-cracking might of Alabama football, or the gravitational pull of my sports futility. 

Roll Tide. Please. 

—Jay

This has been issue #38 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.

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