Imagine, if you will, that you’ve convened for a refreshing cocktail with a friend who’s a casual fan of college football. Neither ignorant of nor obsessed with the sport, your buddy watches a few games a month, can name a handful of players who aren’t Tim Tebow and is broadly aware of the sport’s historically calcified power structure. He knows that national titles are fought over by a cabal of established Great Powers with membership turnover roughly equal to that of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Now imagine that to avoid discussing your friend’s pending divorce, you pose to him the following trivia question: When, on October 26, 1998, the Bowl Championship Series blessed the world with its first-ever standings, which team held the number-one ranking? As a fair number of you reading this already know, the correct answer, however counterintuitive, is UCLA. Given unlimited guesses, how many would your friend burn through before getting it right? Two dozen, perhaps? More than that? The list of football programs either obviously or debatably more pedigreed than UCLA is not short.
This little thought experiment interests me in part because the punchline is so incongruous. How strange that at the outset of a new epoch in college football, standing astride the sport was no classic imperial force in the mold of Florida State or Michigan, but UCLA – a program that has earned its reputation as a feckless mediocrity. It’s as if the Academy had awarded its first-ever Best Picture Oscar to Mermaids.
It interests me as well because it speaks to one of the dominant themes in contemporary UCLA fandom – football as beguiling disappointment. For all the losses piled up and boredom engendered by Bruin football in the last couple of decades, the program isn’t Duke. A few times a decade, the team makes a stirring charge into the top 15, just often enough to suggest that the program’s not totally wasting its vast resources. The ensuing, seemingly inevitable fades are more than enough, however, to cloak the fanbase in a cloud of chronic ennui, which someday we won’t be able to blame on Karl Dorrell.
Every community of sports fans accrues these shared narratives. Individual players, coaches, games and seasons get worked into plotlines that take shape over time. They form themselves into stories that we tell each other. If you follow a particular team long enough, you’ll hear the same things over and over, and you’ll get a sense of how ideological and self-justifying people get when it comes to their rooting interests. Bruin true believers, your author very much included, are no exception.
This element of fandom – how sports function as source material for collective storytelling – fascinates me and will be a recurring accent here at Bru Velvet. Let’s begin by looking at a few of the narrative threads that run through UCLA fan culture in 2009.
1. John Wooden as philosopher-god. To say that John Wooden is viewed worshipfully by Bruin fans is only a mild exaggeration. In almost 20 years of deep immersion in UCLA sports, I’ve never heard anyone associated with the university or any follower of the program say a bad word about him. He is lionized for both the staggering achievements of his basketball teams and for his creed of humility and sportsmanship. His former players speak of him in only the most reverential tones.
It’s very possible that no fan community in the world views any of its players or coaches in the same exalted light. Simply put, Wooden’s greatness is the core doctrine of UCLA fan identity. He will turn 100 years old next year.
2. Athletes as activists. The school takes justifiable pride in its athletes’ long track record of advancing progressive causes. Arthur Ashe, for instance, was one of the first high-profile sports figures to call public attention to the spread of AIDS and was visible in anti-apartheid politics. Kenny Washington reintegrated the NFL after World War II. Jackie Robinson went from four-sport Bruin star to civil-rights colossus.
These laudable examples imbue the Bruin mass psyche with both gratification and, let’s be honest here, a dash of sanctimony. I don’t think we’re quite so insufferable as, say, Notre Dame fans, but there is an unspoken belief that in rooting for UCLA, we’re on the side of the angels. In this respect, it doesn’t hurt that our rival’s most famous former baller is OJ Simpson.
3. Athletics as aesthetics. One of the underobserved aspects of spectator sports is how they work on a sensory level. Fan enjoyment is sensitive to things like the physical settings in which games are played and the uniforms worn by players. Some teams are just more optically appealing than others.
UCLA squads, whatever their quality in win-loss terms, are almost always a literal pleasure to watch. The powder-blue-and-gold color scheme is classically gorgeous, the Rose Bowl is among the most scenic sports venues anywhere, and Bruin cheerleaders are universally acknowledged to be most appealing to the eye. Even when your postseason ambitions begin and end with the Las Vegas Bowl, looking good remains the best revenge.
4. Trojans as felonious lowlifes. Many a Bruin fan views the USC athletic program the same way the Democratic Party views Big Tobacco – as a toxic, criminal undertaking operating under the thinnest pretense of legality. A fully evolved society probably wouldn’t allow it to exist. It possibly bears some institutional guilt for actual murder. (Remember: OJ.)
USC thus plays a vital role in the cosmology of UCLA sports, as a foil that encourages indignant self-righteousness in the fanbase. And good Lord does it play that role well: USC is in the news a lot for malfeasance both real and alleged. We’ll all be worse off if USC someday gets around to decorrupting itself. (Ha! That will not happen ever.)
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