Monday, December 20th, 2010

How Your SAT Scores Determine Your Future (As A Fan)

Twenty years ago this month, the fat envelope arrived at my house, alerting me that I had been accepted early to Northwestern University. I was bound for Evanston.

Tonight, I will sit as close to court-side as possible, as Northwestern’s basketball team comes to Madison Square Garden to play St. Francis of Brooklyn.

For most of the rest of New York—let alone the rest of the country—the game is an afterthought. For me, it is a chance to watch my alma mater in the Mecca, during a season in which the Wildcats will try to earn their first-ever invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

The provenance of sports fandom tends to exist in fairly neat boxes, with the two most prominent being Geography (allegiance based on where you grew up or perhaps an adopted town from later in life) and Biology (a form of DNA—like baldness or those hips—a living inheritance from your parents).

But then there are those rooting interests that spring from nothing so much as serendipity, although we don’t like to think of it like that—that your Oregon tattoo could have been Oberlin.

And so my evening at the Garden is a moment to consider one prominent root of a sports fan’s rooting interest: What if that admissions envelope had come back not thick but the dreaded “thin”—a rejection?

Would I have ended up at, say, Michigan, actively rooting against Northwestern—lamenting the moment in 1995 when the Rose Bowl-bound Wildcats shocked UM in Ann Arbor’s “Big House?” In reality, it is one of my greatest memories as a sports fan.

I can only imagine the path for today’s Oklahoma die-hard who, by the vagaries of the college selection process, ended up at Oklahoma State, hating the Sooners. Or the would-be Gator who ends up a Gainesville-loathing ‘Nole. Or the true-blue UNC fan who "reached" their way into Duke, now waving a foam finger in the face of Tar Heel fans who might have been classmates.

Or maybe I would have ended up at some small liberal arts college in the Northeast, without any affiliation to high-end college sports that defines so many of our experiences as fans. For those who went to a college with big-time athletics, try to picture life since then—Saturdays in the fall or the way you perennially spend March in a bracket-induced fever—without it.

These are entirely reasonable alternate universes, where a lifetime of fan allegiance is dictated by the serendipity of the weather the day of a campus tour (say, Maryland vs. Syracuse), by the bit of test anxiety that cost you those extra 30 points on the SATs (say, Cal vs. Stanford), by the fatigued college counselor who said “Yale? Hmm, have you thought about UConn?”

Because, snobby academic credentialing aside, that UConn fan is now reveling in an unexpectedly spectacular season from the men’s hoops team—not to mention the unprecedented dominance by the women’s team. Alums: Wear with pride that garish sweatshirt with the Husky printed on it. But consider the scenario where you end up an Eli instead, and you realize how mortal your “die-hard” affiliation really is.

This isn’t like growing up in a city and finding your rooting interest regionally or having your parent pass on their fan allegiance to you, something close to biologically. This is a combination of serendipity, your GPA as a 16-year-old and the cogency of your answer to an application essay question or two — perhaps where your parents or older siblings went to college, thrown in for good measure. No condition in sports fandom is as awkwardly constructed. (As if the college admissions process could get any more pressure-packed, without decades of sports allegiance also on the line.)

Ironically, a year ago, I took my then-3-year-old kid to his first-ever college basketball game, at our neighborhood college… St. Francis. He now sports the team shirts and says hi to the coaches in the local diner.

I know who he will be cheering for at the Garden tonight. Despite daddy’s prompts, he couldn’t care less about Northwestern. Oh, well: Maybe when it comes time to apply to college.

Dan Shanoff is the founder of Quickish, launching early next year. He previously wrote here about being a terrible goalie.

Photo by bradleypjohnson, from Flickr.

16 Comments / Post A Comment

KarenUhOh (#19)

I have a good friend who grew up in Evanston, went to Michigan as an undergrad, and was a classmate of mine at Illinois for law school. She screams her guts out for all three, no matter who's playing whom. It's quite entertaining to watch; albeit infuriating every second or third score.

hockeymom (#143)


Astigmatism (#1,950)

As a Stanford alum, my own experience doesn't line up with this entirely. I was a passionate basketball fan in college, and watched every football game this season with increasing levels of delirium and disbelief, but I also root for Cal in Stanford's down seasons, and am thrilled when one of the Ivies I might otherwise have gone to do well, because, quite simply, as a nerd I'm happy to see nerd schools win. Really, my sporting life may as well be an extended matinee of _Ice Princess_.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

College Gameday did a broadcast from Williamstown, Massachusetts a few years ago for the big Williams v. Amherst tilt. It was pretty amazing to watch, and even more amazing to think about how much I'd changed since I was 17 years, getting rejected by all my top choice schools (including those two), and winding up at a BCS school in a big city. Who knows if I would have ended up better or worse, but boy, would things have been different.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

College sports make me feel like an ex-pat cab driver — far from home, alternately mystified and bored by the habits of the locals, and resigned to ripping off the occasional tourist.

iantenna (#5,160)

i thought the only difference between a cal alum and a stanford alum was the income tax bracket of their parents.
- bitter cal alum who scored just fine on the sats, thank you very much

liznieve (#7,691)

See, the thing about being a Northwestern fan is that you begin most seasons (whether basketball or football… or sailing, even) full of hope and passion, yet end up watching our once-undefeated (ok, even if it was in the beginning of the conference season) team, so full of promise, in the Ticket City ( / Toilet?) Bowl. Thanks Dan Persa's Achilles' tendon.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

This is a very creative way to make an excuse for being Tim Tebow's #1 fan.

semiserious (#2,430)

I was admitted to UF and think long and hard about whether or not I could have brought my self to be a Tim Tebow fan had I gone there.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

How fucking huge is your head?

Abe Sauer (#148)

In some cases, ACT scores make this determination.

mjfrombuffalo (#2,561)

Actually, I'm pretty sure financial aid is the largest determiner. My SATs would make me an ivy-league fan, but finances turned me into a Buffalo State Bengals fan instead.

kneetoe (#1,881)

As I may have mentioned before, the real trick to enjoyng collge football (and many other sports) is to have lots of teams that you HATE.

Bittersweet (#765)

UConn has a pretty good honors program, has invested $hundreds of millions in its academics and physical plant in the last 15 years, and is a good $30-40K a year cheaper than Yale. Plus it's not in New Haven.

- Not a UConn alum

bml (#9,124)

What the fuck? How did this story not inspire a massive megastorm of reactionary faux-populist snottiness? I feel like I don't even know the Internet anymore.

That said, I feel like you're underestimating the importance of graphic design. This lifelong Michigan fan is not a lifelong Michigan State fan, so far as I and my parents remember, because when I was 5 or 6 I decided I liked maize and blue more than green and white. (The parents both moved from out of state and never cared enough about college sports to try and influence my opinion, and/or it was the '80s and it wasn't quite as easy to fill your household with online-ordered gear from whatever far-flung state you grew up in.)

bml (#9,124)

Oh and: Dan, it really was nicer to just beat you guys 4 out of 5 years than it was to have that one year of victory. I much preferred the Cooper era to [many, many losses + a single victory over Tressel that awaits like the Messiah at some indeterminate point in the future].

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