"We" Won A Title

Though they didn't make a single play on the field, Ohio State fans claim ownership of the Buckeyes' 2014 National Championship. Why is that? And why is being a diehard fan worth it?

Just walking in, you know this isn’t a “campus” bar. It’s not a place with brightly colored drinks or shot specials.

No, The Varsity Club is an Ohio State bar. The evidence is everywhere on a crowded Saturday afternoon. Fans of all ages have packed in out of the cold shortly after leaving Ohio Stadium and the 2014 Ohio State national championship celebration in January.

A gray-haired, bearded man sipping a beer with his wife in a Varsity Club booth made it clear that this was the place for a longtime diehard Buckeye to celebrate.

“It’s one of the most amazing seasons of all time,” Dave Greiner said. “With all the adversity we went through, national media against us, it was very rewarding season.”

There’s that word – “we.” Greiner, who went to his first game when he was just 6 years old and later attended Ohio State, used it to describe the national champion Buckeyes, identifying himself as a part of the football team.

Now 60, Greiner is far from the first and won’t be the last fan to refer to himself as part of his favorite squad. Ohio State fans, especially those who have been longtime supporters, feel that part of the championship that Urban Meyer and the 2014 Buckeyes won belongs to them. “We” won a title, after all.

The use of “we” starts when you’re young. Or at least it did for me. I’m not sure when I started using it, but I know I have heard my dad use it while watching Buckeye football and basketball games for as long as I can remember.

My use came from a desire to be a part of something with my father, and it grew into the desire to be a part of something bigger than myself. It’s a practice that I have since given up, dropping the habit when I went into journalism. But it’s a practice that has always fascinated me, raising questions about what it means to be a fan.

Why The We?

“Oh, you’re on the team?”

Anyone who has used “we” to talk about their favorite team has heard this sarcastic retort. It usually comes from a casual or nonsports fan who doesn’t understand that some feel a deeper connection to their favorite squad.

That connection, that feeling of belonging, is not exclusive to Ohio State. It happens throughout sports, part of the larger social construct that comes with a passionate relationship with a group of men or women who play a game.

Jennifer Crocker, who earned her doctorate in psychology from Harvard, is a professor of psychology at Ohio State and an Ohio Eminent Scholar in Social Psychology. Prior to working in Columbus she was a professor at Michigan for 15 years. She has seen passionate fan bases firsthand for years now and co-authored several papers on self worth.

“It’s this notion that people can somehow transcend themselves,” Crocker said of sports fandom. “I think being part of something larger than yourself that you really care about and that other people really care about, it’s like we are all in this together. It makes people feel connected, part of a community, like they belong to this community. All of Ohio are Buckeyes. You don’t have to have gone to Ohio State.”

You don’t have to have gone to OSU, but it helps. Those who attended or are attending Ohio State would seem to have a better claim to using the term “we” when discussing the Buckeyes, but there were certainly individuals in attendance at many Buckeye games this season and at the national championship celebration who didn’t attend Ohio State.

Dave Greiner’s wife, Denise, was one of them. She was there alongside her husband in the Varsity Club booth, soaking in the season that had passed.

It’s not all that surprising. After all, I used “we” to talk about the Buckeyes long before I was old enough to attend college.

“I’m a Buckeye, they’re Buckeyes, we are all one – then a win reflects positively on me and it’s a boast to my self-esteem even though I didn’t win the game,” Crocker said, offering an explanation for the widespread phenomenon.

“I think intense fans include the team – they’re part of their identity. We’re all Buckeyes. I think a lot of people in Ohio have that frame of mind – we’re all Buckeyes.”

There is actually a psychological term for the relationship that fans form with their favorite teams. It’s dubbed a parasocial interaction, described as “interpersonal relationships in which one party knows a great deal about the other, but the other does not” according to a 2013 paper by Daron Vaught of Elon University entitled “Fan Identification, Twitter Use, & Social Identity Theory in Sport.”

“It is clear that consumers’ desire to be part of something bigger than them serves to view specific athletes and teams as extensions of themselves, and the world of sports has proven to be an effective avenue by which to do so,” Vaught wrote. “Sports … offer a more communal sense of belonging, such as with a specific town or school, thus doubling the level of connectivity.”

Sound familiar?

Anyone who has rooted tooth and nail for their favorite team has felt that sense of community that comes from sports fandom. Just wear Ohio State apparel outside the state. If you are in a big enough area, some stranger will reach out to you with an “O-H” or another gesture that offers a legitimate bond with someone who would otherwise be a complete stranger.

Vaught goes on to suggest that the relationship between fans and athletes is a one-way street, that while fans group themselves with players, the inverse is not true. But what about all those references to Buckeye Nation from the team after it was crowned champion?

A Two-Way Street?

“We won a national title.”

While Ohio State fans all over the country have uttered that phrase countless times since the clock hit all zeroes in the first-ever CFP National Championship Game, there is one group that can say it with more sincerity. Those who were actually members of the 2014 Ohio State football team – the ones who put in the work on and off the field and received championship rings for their efforts – can utter the phrase with impunity.

Prior to the unlikely 2014 run, the last time Ohio State could say it won the football national title was following the 2002 season. Cie Grant was a senior and integral member of that team, forcing a Ken Dorsey incompletion on the final play of the national championship game.

“It’s not weird at all for fans to do that, for fans to interact with, ‘We just did it, we won the title,’ ” Grant said. “They’re doing everything for us short of actually going on the field. Our fans travel well. If you’re traveling hundreds of miles, thousands of miles to support your team when they’re on the road, (you have a right to feel a part of it).”

That was true 12 years ago when Grant and his teammates won a title, and it may be even truer now. Social media allows players to put themselves out there more and allows fans to get a better sense of who the helmet-clad athletes they’re rooting for actually are.

The evidence of that connection was everywhere this season. Whether it was fans wearing jerseys or shirts in crop-top fashion, exposing their abs to mirror the gameday attire of running back Ezekiel Elliott, or offering up defensive end Joey Bosa’s postsack shrug, fans identified themselves with the 2014 Buckeyes.

For current students, that connection may be even deeper.

Jake Schumann is finishing his last semester of a civil engineering degree at Ohio State and was able to watch his university win a national championship in his final season on campus. As the son of an alumnus, Schumann has been a fan since birth and said attending school at the same time as the Buckeye stars gave the championship a special feeling.

“To be attached to the university while it happened, you feel that much more a part of it,” the Tipp City, Ohio, native said. “It’s your school doing it, so it’s a sense of pride. This was my favorite football season since I’ve been here, obviously.

“It’s your peers that are doing it. You see the guys on campus. You know they are students too. You feel like you kind of know them.”

By all accounts, that feeling of connection between fans and players was just fine with the athletes.

“I just want to thank you guys for being out here and supporting us all season,” Elliott said to the crowd at the championship celebration. “It means so much to be out here representing Buckeye Nation.”

Can’t We Just Get Along?

Referring to yourself as part of Ohio State, whether it be the football team, basketballteam, athletics department or university as a whole, would seem to be harmless. Clearly, a simple association with the Buckeyes is not a problem, but there can be a negative side to the connection.

The term fan comes from fanatic, after all, and many in Buckeye Nation display the type of obsessive attachment to the university that is worthy of the root word. Most often these displays are relatively benign. My father ritualistically hangs an Ohio State flag outside the house on game day and I’ve seen (and been a part of) shouting matches revolving around the team’s performance.

In Vaught’s paper he points out that the more you associate with a team, the more likely you are to display “high levels of aggression and willingness to consider anonymous acts of hostile aggression.”

Certainly, the Ohio State fan base is not immune to this type of behavior. Even in victory this season fans destroyed property and were met with police resistance when celebrating the CFP National Championship in Columbus.

That happened when everything went right. When the team goes through a negative experience, the result can be worse.

Take the tail end of Jim Tressel’s tenure. The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper, published a story about improper benefits that wide receiver Ray Small claimed to have received days before the coach’s resignation. For then-editor Zach Meisel, it made for some uncomfortable interactions with the fan base, including his fellow students.

“I received death threats the day the Small story came out,” Meisel said. “I never took them seriously. I remember my mom and my grandma were worried. It definitely changed my opinion of college football fans.

“The blind loyalty, the blind allegiance, it’s unbelievable. The death threats, I laughed at. It was the ones that tried to outcast me. I am just doing my job. I understand that I attend Ohio State, but I didn’t want to be a cheerleader after college, I wanted to be a journalist.”

This past season, punt returner and H-back Jalin Marshall received an onslaught of negative comments online after he lost two fumbles in the game at Minnesota, including at least one fan who suggested on social media that the redshirt freshman kill himself. This was after a game that the Buckeyes won.

“It makes me kind of ashamed being associated with people like that,” Schumann said. “But every fan base has it.”

Those types of extreme reactions – buoyed by the anonymity of the Internet – represent the worst qualities that can come from a diehard fan base, but there are less extreme negative outcomes from feeling so attached to a team and its performance.

That loyalty skews reality.

“If you are a Buckeye watching the game, you see the infractions of the other team and you tend not to see what your team did as infractions,” Crocker said. “So it can skew your interpretation of what happened.

“It can be devastating when you are that attached and you experience a loss. I think we all know about the out-of-control behavior. The blow you experience can lead to anger and depression.”

We’ve all met that fan. Some of us have been that fan. Nothing Ohio State does is wrong, no matter what the replay might show. And a loss can leave us despondent in the immediate aftermath and sometimes beyond.

“There is (a downside),” Schumann said. “Over the last few years I’ve tried to find a balance. I realized how ridiculous it is to have your mood so tied to it. So much of your weekend is tied to how Ohio State does; it’s something you can’t really help. It affects me more than I wish it did.”

And yet it does. Like most fans, Schumann has had his day ruined by the Buckeyes. And yet they all keep coming back for more. Why?

Why Is It All Worth It?

While the negatives of such devout attachment to the university can be extreme, most fans are able to keep things in perspective. And the ability to belong to something outweighs any potential downside to the fandom.

“It’s like a homecoming every weekend,” Schumann said. “There are hundreds of thousands of people on campus every time there is a game – little kids and 80-year-old alumni. The whole state of Ohio, it’s a connection that we all have. It’s pretty cool.

“This is a unique thing when you really think about it.”

That sense of community, the connection with others that comes from being a sports fan, is the single biggest positive result of allowing oneself to become immersed in a team or university, Crocker said.

The professor cited the numerous charitable acts surrounding the athletics department, such as the annual blood drive competition with Michigan, as an example of harnessing the power of that communal connection for good.

There are less obvious positive impacts of the connection as well. While a negative outcome on the field can induce anger and sadness, the communal feeling of being a sports fan can alleviate a feeling of depression or loneliness.

Ohio State football has often been called a religion, but in some ways it’s more inclusive. As Nyla Branscombe and Daniel Wann pointed out in their 1991 paper “The Positive Social and Self Concept Consequences of Sports Team Identification,” there are no real barriers to entry into the fan base, no ideologies or belief systems to adopt.

“Strong identification with a specific sports team provides a buffer from feelings of depression and alienation, and at the same time, fosters feelings of belongingness and self-worth,” Branscombe and Wann write. “Sports viewing provides individuals with something grander than themselves that they can feel a part of, without requiring any special skills, knowledge, or acceptance of particular institutional values.”

This season Ohio State fans had the chance to be a part of a remarkable run to the CFP National Championship, to bask in the glory of one of the most unlikely championships in the sport’s history.

Twelve years earlier, Grant helped give the fan base that same opportunity. Now a husband and a father living in Pennsylvania, his children are dedicated Ohio State fans. Sure, the fact that their father played for the Buckeyes is a huge reason why, but Grant said he didn’t have to force them into it, and no one who experiences the sense of community and belonging around Ohio State has to be forced to buy in.

“There is adrenaline, there is an unbelievable spirit that is throughout that place that just breathes its own life,” Grant said. “It’s chilling. It’s just something that is there and it comes out. It’s contagious, man. That’s the part that I really liked the most. I went into it to convince myself that I was an Ohio State Buckeye and now I look at my kids and my family and it’s just like, ‘Wow, I didn’t just bring the Buckeye spirit to myself, it’s all around me.’ That’s the coolest part.”

Back in Varsity Club, that longtime Ohio State bar on Lane Avenue, Greiner wasn’t quite so loquacious when explaining the connection he feels to the university and its athletics teams. The sentiment, however, was the same as that of the linebacker the fan of more than five decades had watched win a title 12 years ago.

“I think when you’ve been a fan as long as I have,” he said, “you just feel a part of the team.”

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