Athletics have been called the “front porch” of our universities — in many ways, they’re also the front porch of our state. That is, they’re something we use to attract visitors so they feel welcome. So why did some University of Tennessee Volunteers fans trash their own front porch? 

On Oct. 16, the UT football team faced Ole Miss in what should’ve been a great game. It was an exciting game, but now, all that’s being talked about is the way a number of fans threw trash and debris on the field as Ole Miss closed in on taking the win. It added a 20-minute delay to the game, and Ole Miss still won. Whatever happened to sportsmanship? Though a minority of attendees participated in this unacceptable behavior, it made the majority a laughingstock. It made Vols fans look like sore losers. As a donor, longtime UT football fan and season ticket holder, I was outraged — and I would imagine many others were too.

OK, I understand that Tennessee fans were angered because they thought Ole Miss players were faking injuries to “catch their breath” while UT was trying to score. Even if that’s true, hurling things from the stands doesn’t change anything — well, except to make UT’s fans and team look bad. 

Think of the recruits who were on the sidelines. They were hearing the roar of UT fans, seeing a sea of orange and white — hearts pounding, UT band playing, just an incredible atmosphere, experiencing everything they’d hoped for. It’s an environment any university would be envious of. Then those recruits witness the fans throwing things — one fan even hit Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin with a golf ball

I’m guessing these events did not generate a positive impact. 

Now other universities have fodder to use against the Vols in stealing away recruits. They might remind young athletes that playing for the Vols could be risky, because fans will throw trash at them or onto the field no matter how well they play. And are the parents of recruits — current and future — going to be pushing them toward UT now? 

I find it concerning that so many people seem to feel that throwing a tantrum if they don’t get their own way has become acceptable — even at the risk of harming others. Does this ill-mannered, self-serving behavior stem from our nation’s political and cultural discourse? Does it stem somehow from the January insurrection? Do some people simply think, “Hey, if we stormed the U.S. Capitol and got away with it, then why worry about trashing Neyland Stadium?” How far will we take this attitude? 

It has to stop. We cannot become so divided that we aren’t able to come together to enjoy the things that please us — like a great, competitive football game. It is supposed to be fun! Competitive, yes! But safe and fun. Football games should be a place to take the kids for a night out, for them to enjoy all the same things we did when we were growing up: The sound of the crowd, the food that’s bad for you, getting to wear your favorite team shirt. Why risk ruining that experience? 

I realize the majority of Vols supporters were not part of this behavior, and that many fans were as taken aback as I was. Nobody likes to lose, but as adults we still realize that’s life — sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And when we lose, we stand up, brush ourselves off and move on (and get back to practice, I hope). At least that’s the way it used to be. If folks now think that if we don’t like something we can throw things or hurt people, I hope that doesn’t last too long. This kind of behavior doesn’t help our community, our state or our sense of unity. UT’s program was fined $250,000 because of the behavior of their fans. This event not only tarnishes the image of UT football — it tarnishes the image of everyone in the school and in our state.

And speaking of our state, in his usual fashion, Gov. Bill Lee has remained quiet once again. As chief executive of Tennessee, Lee should have something to say about this and how it reflects poorly on our state and its residents. If athletics are the front porch of our universities, by trashing Neyland Stadium, the fans were not only turning the rocking chairs upside-down — they were also pulling up the welcome mat and slamming the front door. 

The real cost of that behavior, and the governor’s silence, remains to be seen. 

Bill Freeman

Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.

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