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PROVO — I heard a statement over the weekend that caused me to reflect. Speaking of the BYU loss to San Jose State last Saturday, I heard someone say, “BYU fans deserve better than this.” This statement triggered a number of reactions in me.
First, this is the type of statement that one might expect from BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. The Cougars are 6-5 through 11 games for the second time in three years. Holme posted on his Twitter account early Sunday morning: "We all know -- football must get better..." But I didn’t hear the statement in question from Holmoe.
In the KSL postgame locker-room show, BYU star linebacker Kyle Van Noy said, “I’m disgusted at how we played in the first half. … That was not BYU football.” He stopped short of apologizing to fans but maybe would have had he been given the chance.
We all know -- football must get better...
–Tom Holmoe via Twitter
But the statement wasn't by Van Noy either. Nor was it made by any BYU administrator, player or coach. Rather the statement was made by a fan. I don’t know if the fan is a season-ticket holder or just a cable subscriber. I don’t know if he attends only home games or road games too. For all I know he just has Internet access and tunes into BYUtv.org to catch game replays.
But the comment did make me think: What exactly do fans deserve?
My initial reaction was that a football game is like a movie. Purchasing a ticket gives the customer the right to watch the show. But does the moviegoer deserve to be entertained? Much less, does the moviegoer have any claim on the outcome? Does the moviegoer deserve a good ending? Does purchasing a ticket offer any guarantees other than where litigation will occur if such should arise?
I suppose one test of whether moviegoers have more than just the right to watch is whether they are entitled to their money back if they aren’t satisfied with the product. I have never considered asking for my money back after watching a bad show, much less called for the director to lose his job.
Thus, I’ve never personally sympathized with fans who believe Holmoe needs their help in making coaching decisions. As a ticket holder I’ve never felt entitled to anything more than the right to watch the game. I don’t feel like I deserve to watch a competitive game and much less do I deserve to watch the team win. And I certainly don’t feel like I deserve an apology if the team doesn’t play how I want it to. If I’m not entertained, I vote with my feet and leave — and I might not come back for a while.
But maybe my analysis is off. Maybe the better analogy is that a football team is like a corporation and fans are the equivalent of shareholders. No individual fan has much power, but collectively the fans wield tremendous power, especially those fans (boosters) who have donated the most money to the program (purchased the most shares). If not for the ticket revenue and booster donations, the football program would not survive, at least not in its current state.
Under the corporation analogy, the fans do deserve more than just viewership rights. The fans purchase tickets (shares) and deserve a dividend (wins). The shareholders can always vote with their feet (and sell their shares), but they also have more power than that. Shareholders have the right and ability to appoint the board of directors. Shareholders do have a claim on who leads the company — they are entitled to call for the coach’s job.
Thus I suppose the answer to, “What do fans deserve?” depends on whether fans view themselves as moviegoers or shareholders. I know boosters who view themselves as moviegoers and I know TV watchers who view themselves as shareholders. I’m not sure there is a correct answer. I personally am a moviegoer, but I can understand why someone might view themselves as a shareholder.
All of which leads me to another question: What do the players and coaches deserve?
Does BYU quarterback Riley Nelson deserve unconditional support from fans? Does he deserve to be criticized? Does he deserve to be placed on a pedestal when he wins and torn down when he loses? Does he deserve a broken back and dislocated ribs?
What does BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall deserve for thinking Nelson gives his team the best chance to win? Does he deserve to lose his job? Does he deserve to be mocked on Twitter for publicly stating that football is his fifth priority, behind faith, family, friends and education? Does he deserve to be criticized on message boards for not showing “enough” emotion on the sidelines or in his post-game interviews?
I suppose some of the answers to these questions lie in whether fans view themselves as moviegoers or shareholders. But I also think the answers to these questions are more nuanced.
As a kick returner for BYU in 2006, in a game against Wyoming, I returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown (the referee didn’t quite see it that way and called me out at the 1-yard line). I will never forget the rush of excitement I felt as I jumped to my feet, looked to the stands, and saw 60,000 people cheering for what our team and I had just accomplished. An instant bond with the fans was forged in my mind, one that I will never forget.
And yet, I have dozens of former teammates who have felt that same adrenaline, that same bond, that same support, only to be later booed, criticized, mocked and humiliated by many of those same fans. I have friends who have refused to go out in public for days on end to avoid fans that once cheered and supported them. As players, we know that some fans are fickle — and we know football is just a game. But psychologically, it can still be crushing to feel so loved one moment and feel so hated by the same group of people moments later.
To this day, I have former teammates who refuse to watch BYU games, refuse to enter the stadium due to the betrayal they felt at the hands of those that once supported them. My heart aches for those players. Sure, they should forgive and forget. I’m sure they have tried. And ultimately, each player alone is responsible for how he feels toward others.
Regardless of who bears the fault, these players dedicated four years of their lives to something that still causes them pain to this day — and that makes me sad. I wonder how Nelson will look back on his time at BYU. I consider it a privilege to watch him each week — one of the toughest, grittiest, “Houdini”-type players in BYU history. I wonder if he will look back on his time at BYU with fondness or pain. He has been roundly criticized, mocked and blamed, all because he throws a football slightly less accurately than many of the BYU greats. Don’t naively assume that the negative treatment he has received will not affect him. It affects us all.
Some people reading this article may think, “If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Jeffrey R Holland recently gave a poignant speech in which he addressed this very issue. Reading his address is a well spent 10 minutes.
For a culture that holds dear the concepts of fair play, civility, honest effort — in short, sportsmanship — intercollegiate athletics at times sure has a strange way of showing its commitment to such values.
At a BYU devotional last year, Professor Ed Adams delivered a wonderful address about traditions, and the importance of evaluating whether our traditions are in harmony with our morals. Quoting former NCAA president Myles Brand, Adams stated, “There is something very wrong taking place in sports, including college sports. It isn’t universal. It doesn’t happen all the time. But it happens often enough to suggest that we — the fans — are losing our way. ... For a culture that holds dear the concepts of fair play, civility, honest effort — in short, sportsmanship — intercollegiate athletics at times sure has a strange way of showing its commitment to such values.”
In sum, I don’t know that the BYU football players and coaches deserve much more than the chance to play football. I don’t believe they deserve anyone’s support, and certainly not unconditionally. I also don’t believe they should be free from all criticism. But I do believe they deserve to be treated with respect. Each of us may define respect differently. Each of us may have a different perspective on what the appropriate level of criticism is.
But I hope that every player and coach that comes through BYU would not have to feel remorse and pain when they are done. At least not at the hands of those people who once supported them.