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Opinion Week: Shelve the Elitism and Stop Shunning Sidewalk Fans

Attending Tech doesn’t make someone special, and it shouldn’t be a requirement for being a fan of this team

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Boston College Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s indoctrinated into every Tech student from the very beginning, from the day they all settle in for freshman convocation. The specific flavor differs from year to year, from generation to generation, but the gist is always roughly the same:

Look at you. You’re at one of the best public schools in America. You’re among the elite of the elite. You could have settled, but you chose to challenge yourself. And if you can make it through the grind here, you’ll be set for life.

Some form of that message probably happens with every incoming class at every college in the country. It’s a marketing message as much as anything.

But at Tech, there’s a subtext that really shines through:

Now look at all those students at all these other schools around here. They all think they’re special. But they aren’t in this room listening to this speech. They took the easy route.

You know what that means?

You’re better than them.

That part is never verbalized, of course. But somehow the message always gets conveyed, and for so very many people, it plants the seeds of arrogance. Of elitism.

It’s a bunch of [Black Sabbath]. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve never felt special simply because I went there. Fortunate, perhaps, that I was surrounded by some wonderful people who helped me stay afloat during what ended up being some very trying years. But never special. And certainly not superior.

I’m not about to ask people to stop whining about Tech. Naga knows I’m as guilty as anyone in that regard. Give me a full hour to outline all my complaints about the AE program, and I’ll still be going full steam at the end of that hour.

But my ultimate point is this: the fact that we went to a school with a good reputation doesn’t make the school inherently good, and it doesn’t make us inherently better than people who didn’t go there.

Maybe that all sounds obvious. But is it really?

None of this has anything to do with football on the surface... except that the entire reason I’m bringing this up is that many of those toxic attitudes about Tech life end up spilling into how the Tech football fanbase conducts itself.

Look at what happens every time a recruit has Tech on his final list of schools and then commits elsewhere—especially if he has the gall to choose a school that isn’t ahead of Tech in the US News rankings. Inevitably, certain phrases get thrown around: “not serious about his future,” “making a mistake,” and so on. The people making those statements just know this kid has made an irrevocably stupid decision.

We never know the full story. Maybe that running back from east Atlanta who wants to study engineering ultimately chose NC State because they happen to have the best program or professor in the country for his particular area of interest. Maybe the free safety with a 4.2 GPA chose Kentucky over Tech because his parents are sick and he wants to stay close to home to make sure his younger sister can finish high school and earn a scholarship of her own.

We never know the full story, and it’s the height of arrogance to assume that a teenager choosing to attend one college over another means that he’s short-sighted and hopeless.

Sure, most of this sort of sentiment is typically quarantined on message boards and the like. But it’s still often out there in public view, and it still forms part of the bigger picture.

What’s more prominent, and more problematic, is the interactions with other fans.

Every school likes to accuse their rival of having legions of sidewalk fans. Auburn fans, ironically enough, get good mileage out of it while ragging on Alabama. UCLA fans like to slam USC fans for it. It’s virtually universal. And of course Tech fans hurl the “you didn’t even go there” comments at UGA fans on a daily basis.

The thing is, there’s just... something more hostile, more deeply rooted about the Tech version of this particular insult. Once again, it’s all in the subtext:

I’ve spent years toiling away to earn this degree. I’ve earned the right to cheer for this team. What did you do? Just walk into Walmart and pick the cheapest shirt off the rack out front? What a disgrace. You don’t deserve to enjoy their success.

I used to believe this sort of thing wholeheartedly. But honestly, the more I’ve thought about it... why should there be such a thing as a “right” to cheer for a team? If someone went to a college with a D-III team or no football team (or they didn’t go to college at all), but they really enjoy the traditions and atmospheres of big-time college football, how is it at all fair to lock them out of the sport just on principle?

When someone likes the sport, they’re gonna dive in somehow. There’s no way around it. So the options are to be inviting or to cast them aside, at which point they’re guaranteed to pick another team.

For years upon years, the Tech approach has been to say: no, you’re not welcome here unless you’ve been in the trenches with us. Maybe I’m just too young to remember a time when Tech routinely sold out every single game. But in my limited experience of the past 10+ years, the reality has seemed to be that Tech’s alumni base is too small and too geographically spread out to frequently sell out games without embracing a larger segment of the local population.

The source of this exchange is a years-old EDSBS comment thread that I’ll probably never be able to find again, but I once read a brief but interesting argument over the idea of sidewalk fans. One person made a typical snide comment about how a rival team’s fanbase was largely non-alumni fans. The second person sarcastically said that it must be nice to be in a position to mock a rival for having a much more effective and engaging brand than them.

The most visible point of the Geoff Collins era is to rejuvenate the program’s image*. The idea of branding Tech as Atlanta’s Team isn’t only to sell it to recruits. It’s also a sales pitch to Atlanta as a whole. And the only way that that part of it succeeds is if the people already on board—namely, current students and alumni—are willing to welcome some new folks who don’t have the traditional qualifications for the job.

There’s always the issue that larger programs run into with sidewalk fans often being the most unruly members of the fanbase, largely because they don’t have solid ties to the school and don’t feel as much of an obligation to represent it well. To this I offer two rather snarky responses:

  1. Collins seems to be following the Miami model for remolding Tech’s program by embracing the city. And hey, being unruly worked out pretty well for them in the 1980’s.
  2. If anyone is concerned about non-alumni fans being less intelligent, just know that I watched Tech go for it on fourth down at home dozens of times over the course of the Paul Johnson era, and every single time I watched the entire west section of the stands stand up and clap and cheer loudly AT THE ONE TIME EVERYONE WAS SUPPOSED TO SHUT THE [METALLICA] UP SERIOUSLY IF THERE IS ONE SAVING GRACE ABOUT US GOING FOR IT ON FOURTH DOWN FAR LESS OFTEN IT IS THAT I WILL NOT HAVE TO WATCH THAT PARTICULAR BIT OF STUPIDITY IN ACTION NEARLY AS OFTEN ANYMORE.

Anyway. There are tradeoffs with embracing sidewalk fans over the short term and long term. But Collins seems committed to a strategy that aligns with it, and if enough of the alumni can get on board, it would pay dividends in the long run in terms of the team’s presence within Atlanta. And if it means routinely filling up Bobby Dodd Stadium, or at least having fewer games with comically huge open areas in the stands, then it’s well worth the price.

** Probably not the most unpopular opinion, but I could do without the utterly exhausting social media presence. I don’t even have a Twitter account and I’m already worn out by the SUDDEN ALL CAPS and the HASHTAG SPAM and the GRATUTIOUS BEE EMOJI and yeah okay this is probably the football blog equivalent of an old man yelling at a cloud at this point.