Though not a traditional "sports school," Virginia is well worth the investment
Though apparently never scribbled on the cultural cave wall of Youtube, I swear the following commercial aired in the primitive times of the early 2000s.
A keg-bellied, body-painted, hirsute parody of a fan at a college football game declares he’d forfeit his soul for a championship. When his team falters, he nonetheless finds himself in Hell. Perplexed, he reminds the Devil that his team failed to capture the championship, hoping to void the transaction.
“Oh, but you did,” cackles Satan. “In women’s field hockey!”
After a beat, this facsimile of a younger Rex Ryan celebrates with unbridled elation.
I pondered that commercial for the first time in nearly a decade last weekend, when I began grappling with the daunting task of characterizing my school’s relationship to sports. Virginia boasts a fantastic field hockey program, after all, a mainstay in NCAA postseason competition. In fact, the University features one of the most holistically impressive athletic programs in the country, finishing in the top 20 in each of the last seven NACSA Director’s Cup Standings and claiming three more national championships in the last three years. With those three, they have more championships than Virginia Tech has had since the Big Bang. Several programs contend perennially for ACC and national championships, including the swimming squads, women’s rowing and the reigning NCAA champion men’s tennis team.
Alas, society perceives importance through fun house mirrors, which means thriving in the right sports trumps thriving in the most. Powerhouse programs in sports like swimming, women’s rowing and men’s tennis are like terrific chips and queso at a Mexican restaurant. They earn our respect and admiration; we appreciate the strenuous effort involved in making them; a smattering of diehards even considers them sufficient to their happiness; and the people responsible for those chips should relish their accomplishments.
But the entrée reigns supreme in our minds, and a lukewarm enchilada — in this case, our uneven football and promising but not yet elite men’s basketball programs — will always damper the excitement even the most scrumptious of appetizers can generate. In this scenario, Virginia Tech plays the role of Taco Bell: weaker overall, they nevertheless flaunt their Frank Beamer-constructed Doritos Locos Tacos in our faces with ersatz superiority, even though that Taco is losing its luster and will probably lose to Boston College or something inexplicable this year.
It all conspires to prevent us from enjoying or even caring enough about Virginia sports as we probably should. While our lagging football attendance numbers may mimic a broader, economically-driven national trend — average attendance across FBS schools dipped below 46,000 for the first time since 2004 last year — the empty seats and early exits common to Scott Stadium in my three years here hardly evoke images of a faithfully suffering fan base. Our 2012-13 men’s basketball team, a charismatic group that finished 20-2 in John Paul Jones Arena, drew just 9,403 patrons per game, the lowest mark in the stadium’s seven-year history. And though prestigious programs in men’s lacrosse and baseball enjoy staunch support, neither they nor any other program enrapture the University community like football does at an SEC school.
The median Virginia fan, this thinking goes, would not be celebrating field hockey championships in the Devil’s lair. He never would have cared enough to wager his soul in the first place.
On an ostensible level, then, Virginia athletics mimic the negative stereotypes which dog the University community itself. The athletic department is plenty rich — the athletic program lapped the rest of the ACC in profit for the 2011-12 cycle despite finishing 9th and 10th in football and men’s basketball revenue, respectively — and an athletic scholarship here carries as much prestige as one at nearly any other school. Yet our fans seem too aloof, our history in the populist sports of football and men’s basketball too underwhelming, our preoccupation with academics too prominent for its athletic program to be particularly relatable.
Virginia is very, very good at many sports. But is it really a sports school?
My answer that question stems from the origins of my relationship with Virginia. I arrived here from Louisiana, a hotbed of football rabidity where the lines between football and religious fanaticism are the type Robin Thicke hates. My sentiments, woven together from three years of the kind of sneering disdain for patchwork Scott Stadium crowds film critics reserve for people who frequent Adam Sandler movies and the need to at least playact at objectivity as a journalist, will naturally differ from those of the lifelong Commonwealth resident who was bellowing “Wahoo-Wa” in the heydays of Matt Schaub and Sean Singletary.
Besides, I just like watching professional sports more. My fondest sports memories from childhood are of Saints games with my dad, Horn-um, Pelicans games with my dad and leaving Tulane games at halftime with my dad donning the same look of shocked horror that Hank Schrader wore when he picked up “Leaves of Grass” on the john.
Truthfully, I believe I’ve opted for detached fascination over full-fledged emotional investment at Virginia primarily out of fear. Sports fanaticism constitutes, above all, an irrational, reckless gamble in hopes of an unlikely reward with arbitrary value. It’s like putting all your chips on green at the roulette table, with your only potential reward a fleeting sense of elation before you’re back on the table. Burned so often by my hometown teams, I’m more comfortable standing aside and remarking smugly on the futility of such actions here.
But as far wiser people have said much more eloquently, the most worthwhile endeavors in this life require sacrifice in defiance of rationality. Without enduring everything that makes sports a stupid, miserable exercise in self-hatred — the despair of watching the 2012 football team’s self-mutilating ineptitude, the stomach-punch of seeing the baseball team’s masterpiece season screech to a halt before the College World Series, the frustration of devoting all your time to excelling in a sport such as rowing or field hockey when male sports hog the limelight — sports would lose its force as an exercise in self-fulfillment.
Ultimately, life without true heartbreak is a life without true triumph. And even in my cocoon of feigned stoicism, moments such as the closing seconds of the victory against Duke last year make me proud to be at this school, just as I imagine the ecstasy of winning a title feels like Heaven no matter how many people are paying attention.
My answer, therefore, is yes. Many fans will never embrace athletics here, and that’s fine — there are plenty of avenues to exploring life’s lessons and paradoxes without obsessing over how Tony Bennett is going to juggle the 10-15 point guards on his roster. And it’s true that a football team with remote chances of national title contention will always overshadow marquee programs in other sports simply because most of us like watching football more. But in the end, Virginia does qualify as a sports school because it affords fans and athletes the chance to throw their chips on the table, a gamble I wish I’m noble enough to make. In sports, winning on green is the only victory you can celebrate in Hell.