At age 22 I began attending LSU medical school, and I thought despite growing up an Auburn fan I would give my new school a shot and see if I could bring myself to cheer for the purple and gold tigers as well. It was a stupendous failure. I’m not sure my efforts survived more than a week. My heart apparently was capable of serving only one master. And I am certain I am not unique in that regard. Many, perhaps most of us, as fans are eternally and irrevocably bound to our team. Even if our initial choice of fandom was voluntary, we could no sooner change it than we could change our height.
For better or worse, our fandom becomes a very real component of our identity. In a time when our jobs can take us across a continent and membership in more traditional institutions is waning, college football allows us to indulge in the tribal in-group/out-group conflict we were evolutionarily made for in a (usually) healthy way. Our group struggles against others on a field of grass, and the triumphs, failures, and tribulations of those contests binds our in-group together. No matter what we may suffer, we can take solace in knowing that the others of our tribe suffer it with us. Nothing breeds solidarity like persecution. We’re all in this together.
The role of a fan and a player are fundamentally different however. I may owe all my allegiance to Auburn, but Bo Nix and Tank Bigsby owe Auburn absolutely nothing. They are under no obligation to play another down for Auburn and are free to enroll wherever they please. And I don’t mean that merely in the technical sense that it’s within the rules for them to transfer. I mean it by the spirit of the unwritten rules of college football. We as the fans are not entitled to their services. They have very serious personal interests at stake which take priority in their decision as to where to play. We don’t know exactly why they have chosen to transfer, but it’s not hard to imagine that both of them have a goal of playing professionally. They may have decided that their best chance at reaching that goal would be to play somewhere else. And given the current state of Auburn’s offensive line that very well may be correct.
But this unusual case of two star players who were almost certainly guaranteed to start next year choosing to transfer has forced fans to fully recognize that fundamental difference between us. It is all too easy for us as fans to assume that players have the same relationship to the in-group that we do. More than a century of the false "amateur student-athlete" model passively encouraged that misguided notion. Like any other performance with spectators we create para-social relationships with these players that we shouldn’t. It’s comforting to believe that their relationship to this school and this team is the same as ours and that it validates our choice. But how could our relationships possibly be the same? If nothing else, our investment is solely emotional, whereas theirs is brutally physical. Deep down we all knew this, but it was so much more comfortable to ignore it.
That makes the shattering of that cognitive dissonance all the more jarring. Bo and Tank are not like us. They never were. Given their personal interests, they were always part of our in-group in a very unique, temporary, and transactional way. They do not love Auburn in the same way we do, and they may very well love Auburn in ways we will never be able to. And because of that difference, we can never hold them to our internal standards as fans. So don’t. With the transfer portal and NIL the game has changed, and the sooner we can come to terms with that, the better off we’ll all be.
We're all just trying to have a good time here. Don't be a jerk, and we won't have a problem with you.