We all want to be #1... or do we?

Joseph N. Abraham MD, University of LouisianaPopular wisdom has it that the new UL administration is committed to investing more heavily in athletics. In this Summer series of essays, I am offering a note of caution: "big-time" athletics programs bring many positives, but they often bring many negatives as well. I think it is possible for UL to have a program that wins games, builds our University and our community, and avoids most of these negatives...

...but only if we design it that way.

Last week in my essay "What is the Ideal Athletics Program?" I suggested that excellence is more about attracting huge crowds to games, even during losing seasons. One friend then commented that Oklahoma State perennially does this, and another that Texas A&M does, as well.  That got me to thinking about a trend that I have seen in some states.

First, an observation. There are only two schools that I know of where visiting fans are automatically offered food and drink. One is UL. (When Middle Tennessee visited two years ago, after the game one of their fans remarked that only one person had been rude to him. Surprised, I asked him what had happened. He said he walked by some tailgaters, a Cajuns fan put down a full plate of food and said to him, "You're gonna eat this!!")

The other is, again, A&M. Every time I have been to Texas A&M, multiple tailgating groups have offered my friends and me food and beverage. Having said that, though, I remember the Oklahoma State fans as having been very hospitable, as well.  I can't be sure, it was several years ago, but I think they fed us, too.

Which is interesting. As I have traveled around the country, it seems to me that often the #2 school in a state is often much warmer and more hospitable than the #1 school. Now before I offend someone, by #1 and #2 I don't necessarily mean rankings in sports or academics; I don't even necessarily mean the relative ages of the schools.  In general, #1 is the school that receives more national sports attention than #2 does; or perhaps more important to this discussion, the school who received national attention first.

When the Cajuns have played at the University of Texas, I had no complaints, everyone was polite. But no one offered us food or drink. When we beat Oklahoma in the NCAA basketball tournament, their fans were not uniformly gracious. Similarly, when we beat Ohio State in the baseball regionals last year, some of their fans didn't take it well; on the other hand, the Miami of Ohio baseball fans who came to Lafayette this year were very good sports, both in losing to USM and in beating the Cajuns. To me, the Mississippi State fans have seemed warmer and more informal than the fans from Ole Miss. I have heard good things about the FSU fans, but have not experienced their hospitality first-hand; I do know that I was shocked at how some Florida fans treated us when the Cajuns visited Gainesville.

Providing that my hypothesis has merit-- and granted, I'm working with a small sample size-- I wonder if the difference doesn't somehow tie into my definition of #1 and #2, above, that it's about who developed their sports program first. Because there is a caution here for UL.

Everyone wants to see UL win more; I certainly do.  But why?  Aside from the fact that it feels better, winning grows your attendance, your enrollment, and your funding for athletics and academics.

But stop and think about that for a moment.  If winning brings spectators, then just who is going to the games now?

More importantly, who is not going? That is to say, who will only show up once we start winning?

When the question is phrased that way, it almost answers itself. The people who go to games when a team struggles, are fans, loyal fans. And the people who will only show up once we start winning are fair-weather fans. (See the essay, "The No-Shows".)

Actually, "fair-weather fans" isn't even accurate... because I'm not sure they are really fans.  They aren't fans of the game, they aren't fans of the school, they aren't fans of the players.

They're fans of winning. Which means they're really just fans of bragging rights; or more precisely, they're fans of themselves. They will buy tickets once we do something for them.

Pelican, Louisiana, University of LouisianaWinning tends to attract a certain mind-set. I am going to posit that the people attracted to winning, and winning alone, are preoccupied with how others see them: they don't want to be seen with "losers."

"Being seen" is the insight here; how they are seen, is paramount to fair-weather fans. They tend to make great sacrifices to "look good": they need to make sure they wear the right clothes, drive the right car, and most importantly, hang with the right people.

Now this is an interesting thing.  If you think, on the other hand, that being a winner or a loser is about character, then it would seem that only winners will stand by their friends through good and bad; and so, only winners will continue to pull for a losing team.

If so, then might we conclude that the people who only pull for winning teams are, in fact... losers?  Certainly, such people can bring a lot of negativity to a program. They don't handle losing well; they often handle winning even worse.

Some of these people who want to 'be seen', who don't handle losing very well, also have a lot of money. They will sacrifice many things, things that the loyal fan would not sacrifice-- family, friends, leisure time-- for money.  This is not surprising; the fair-weather fans are preoccupied with appearances, so they need money to look good.

And when they show up at a university, they start using their money to make everything else 'look good', i.e., the way they want it to look. They too often stick their noses in the hiring and firing of coaches: they frequently work to fire even the successful coaches, because the coach isn't winning "enough," he or she is not providing enough bragging rights.

Too often, the well-heeled fair-weather fans then go afield of athletics, and begin exerting monetary and political influence over the core industry, they meddle in the academic side of the university. They want to influence who is hired in the administration and sometimes even in the faculty ranks. They will also attempt to influence the admissions process, and sometimes even grading, for the athletes, for their children, for their friends' children.

Not surprisingly, fair-weather fans don't really understand what a university is all about. They certainly aren't happy about the disorder that is inherent in the life of the mind:  the public disagreements, the arcane and confusing debates, the radical ideas and ideologies. They are even less happy about the inelegant 'geeks' and 'dweebs' who comprise so many of the brightest teachers, researchers, and administrators.

Not at all.  The fair-weather fans want a university built around appearances, rather than substance-- in essence, they want the university to be a reflection of themselves.

So suddenly a university can go from winning a few more games, to serving a group of malignant meddlers who subjugate the entire university to the sports program, and the sports mentality.

It doesn't have to happen that way, and it doesn't happen everywhere. How is it that Oklahoma State (and as I noted in my previous essay, South Carolina) manage to bring in large crowds, win or lose? How is it that some programs-- particularly, the #2 programs-- attract folks who are more hospitable, more community-minded?  How can UL lose so many games, yet still be the top fund-raisers in the SunBelt, in athletics and academics?  How can we build our athletics, without losing sight of our real goals of education, research, and community development?

I have some suspicions about it all, but I'm not sure. The main thing is, some schools manage to do it. And I hope that we fans-- we loyal fans-- and the new administration take a good look around for examples to study. As we grow our athletics programs here at UL, we all should do everything we can to make sure that we're more like #2.

And less like #1.