In A Fan’s Life: The Agony of Victory and Thrill of Defeat, University of Colorado law professor—and lifelong University of Michigan football fanatic—Paul Campos delves into the strangest and ugliest depths of the rabid sports fan’s mindset. His ruminations on this particularly fervent form of obsession take him from the gridiron to the national political stage and beyond. In this excerpt from A Fan’s Life, Campos describes the “psychological mutilation” evident among his fellow members of an online message board dedicated to Michigan football, on the eve of one of the season’s most emotional games.
The night before the 2019 Michigan–Ohio State game, longtime board member EF Wolverine posted a mordant question: “Is anyone else crushed by an overwhelming sense of dread and despair about tomorrow?” He suggested, in apparent seriousness, that he “might self-medicate” so that he could “wake up tomorrow night, having missed the whole thing.” At this point, Michigan had lost seven straight meetings with its chief rival, and fourteen of the previous fifteen, in what is generally considered one of the half dozen most important rivalries in the sport.
From time to time a poster on the main Michigan and Ohio State boards will announce that he is taking the entire week of The Game off from work since he wouldn’t be able to get anything done anyway. This is not considered unusual or excessive behavior; rather, others respond that they are thinking of doing the same, or regretting that they cannot.
EF Wolverine’s question received a less sympathetic response. While many posters acknowledged it was quite likely that tomorrow would be yet another disaster, admitting even thinking about avoiding the experience was treated as a sign of a contemptible moral cowardice. The most sympathetic response came from another longtime poster, JJ Walker:
If you can’t get excited tonight, you should literally give up sports. Just bet large on OSU and don’t even watch the game. Don’t watch any of them, find some other hobby. Sports is an awful hobby for the woe-is-me crowd, you’re just going to be disappointed 99% of the time when your team doesn’t win it all.
JJ is an unusual poster in that he seems to have the rare capacity to be a deeply engaged fan who can nevertheless shrug off even the worst losses quickly. He genuinely loves sports in general, and rooting for Michigan in particular, but he somehow maintains a kind of balanced perspective that allows him to forget about a heartbreaking loss within half an hour instead of brooding about it for days or decades, like some people I know all too well. It’s undoubtedly a much healthier attitude than that of the typical deeply engaged fan, but there’s also something about it that seems somehow less than fully authentic. Let’s face it: someone who gets over a breakup fast enough to be on Tinder half an hour later probably just wasn’t that into you. The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care.
A far more common type of deeply engaged fan is one who claims that this is it, he can’t take it anymore, and he’s finally quitting Michigan football for good. In the end, this fan almost always discovers he just can’t quit it—or the board, to which he will make an awkward return eventually. Shortly after that Ohio State game, which did turn out to be yet another excruciating loss, another poster announced that, while he wasn’t necessarily getting a divorce, he would henceforth no longer invest any emotional energy in this ridiculously dysfunctional relationship. “I’ve sincerely stopped caring,” his post was titled. “It ‘helps’ that I may not make it to another season as is but I don’t really care either way The program is broken and nobody that can do anything about it will even try to do anything about it.”
He went on to suggest that fans who still cared should put their money where their mouths are and stop buying tickets and official merchandise and making donations to the athletic department: “Do what you can and deem worth doing but do something other than bitch and get mad about it. That changes exactly zero. Nothing.”
Me? I’m just kinda done. Again, doesn’t really matter in my case but I’ve chosen to stop caring because it doesn’t benefit me in any way. It actively makes me feel angry and bad . . . and why do that to yourself? UM Football used to be a fun escape and it just makes me angry now so I finally decided to stop letting it. I don’t accept what UM is. I won’t be putting my money in their pockets by donating, going to games or buying merch (I will still donate to Mott’s Children’s Hospital). It’s a drop in the ocean but it’s all I can do.
I don’t blame anyone that thinks that’s stupid, btw. Do what you like. I just chose to stop caring and the program made that very easy for me to do.
But of course, it doesn’t really work that way. You can’t really just wake up one morning and “choose” to stop caring about something that has been an integral part of your life, and therefore of your understanding of yourself—at least not without psychological mutilation. Doing so is, at least in theory, an option, but this poster’s declaration, a few hours after yet another devastating loss, somehow reminded me of a passage in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four recounting how his fellow pitcher Gary Bell would deal with a tough loss: “And then sometimes, after a bad game, he’d sit in the back of the bus with five or six beers in him and he’d mumble to himself, ‘I don’t give a shit. I don’t give a shit.’ But he did.”
How many times over the years have I seen a poster conclude he has better things to do with his autumn Saturdays, and that all this has finally become too much? The demand that people stop going to games since that’s the only thing the powers that be care about or understand is also a standard part of these jeremiads. Almost all these people discover that the board, like Michigan football itself, is like the Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. A lifelong addiction to anything eventually becomes indistinguishable, for the addict, from the rhythm and texture of life itself. Giving up your team, for the deeply engaged fan, is like renouncing anything else that has become central to your identity. Since November of 2016, I’ve contemplated for the first time in my life under what circumstances I might choose to cease to be an American. Choosing to cease to be a Michigan football fan does not feel any less radical, in that either choice would require that I become a fundamentally different person.
As time passes, I find that the passions that allow for the addiction of deep engagement narrow: when youth is on one’s side, it’s much easier to care deeply about many more things, including more sports teams. As a teenager, I felt real distress every time the Detroit Pistons and the Detroit Red Wings lost a game, which was often. Today I can barely name a single current member of either team, although I can recite their 1976 starting lineups from memory.
Like an alcoholic who discovers he can now drink only gin, I find only Michigan football can still elicit anything like the old thrill and despair. And there are days when I wonder, what if I should somehow cease to care about even that? Will I have at long last actually become a man, by putting away childish things? Or will at least a part of me remain a perpetual boy, who still gets upset—genuinely upset—about something as trivial, as fundamentally absurd, as who wins a college football game?
Given my age and social identity, being a deeply engaged college football fan is at least slightly embarrassing, like being a sixty-year-old man obsessed with Star Wars or Harry Potter or whether Prince What’s-His-Name and his American bride are really going to move to Canada. Casual fandom, if one must be interested in sports at all, is much more respectable: at least it’s something to make small talk about, like the weather. Being able to instantly cite the final score of every Michigan–Ohio State game of the 1970s is, by contrast, not the kind of accomplishment one should take pride in, if one wishes to be thought of as a Serious Person. But that is who people like us are, although we may choose to tactfully keep our less respectable passions out of sight in certain company.
Perhaps oddly, I’ve never felt the slightest urge to quit Michigan football, even after “we” stopped beating Ohio State, or winning conference championships every other year. I suspect this is how many people feel about their marriages, or their religion, or their country: they don’t question their relationship to those things, because those things are what they themselves now are.
And it is better to be something than nothing, even if that something is not something other people really understand.
Paul Campos is professor of law at the University of Colorado and the author of several books, including The Obesity Myth, Don’t Go to Law School (Unless), and Jurismania.