Man up, Vol Nation

Photo Credit: Brad Matthews / Orange & White Report

The game the Tennessee Volunteers played Saturday against UMass was, indisputably, a terrible game. I don’t think there was anyone, whether in the stadium or watching at home, who liked what they saw on the field. I’ll admit it — I got totally ticked off and spoke up about it on Twitter, which is something I try really hard not to do. Then, me being me, I degenerated into using memes from The Waterboy to distract me from what I was seeing on the field.

But I have to say that what I saw off the field was, for me, more disturbing.

The exodus of people from the stadium as the game progressed bothered me. Last year, I took aim at a couple of guys who left Neyland at halftime of the Florida game, thereby insuring they missed the comeback and the victory. I think at the time I said they should turn in their Vols cards and throw them in the Tennessee River.

But that was nothing compared to the total embarrassment I felt on Saturday as the stands emptied, so that I could listen to Andre Ware (of all people) making snide comments. And the saddest part? Watching the team and the band sing the alma mater to an empty student section.

After watching the explosion on Vol social media, the growing progression of black avatars on Vol Twitter and the dumpster fire posts in UT fan groups on Facebook, I was shaken out of my own anger at the coaching and the game. So I took a step back, stepped away from social media, and thought.

This is a 3–1 team! This isn’t the University of Miami team from a couple of years ago, hiring planes to fly over the stadium with banners about firing their coach. This isn’t 0–12, for crying out loud. Four games into the season, and this was happening? Just didn’t make sense.

About 4 a.m. this morning, I couldn’t sleep so I replayed the game. I usually do that if I’m looking for something to break down for an article. After a while, though, I wasn’t watching the field. I was watching the stands. And as I did, I was replaying in my head the week-long swelling of anger and hatred and downright nastiness I’d seen from Vol Nation, and for the first time realized that yeah, the team saw that too.

This morning, I was scrolling through my timeline on Facebook, and I came across a post from a friend of mine, Travis Sweat. Travis is one of those laid-back kind of guys online, but he is unquestionably a VOL FOR LIFE. All caps. What Travis had to say resonated with me.

Sitting fifteen feet behind the bench in the fourth quarter and our defense needing stop after stop as the team turned to the stands for support and noise you could see dissatisfaction in them as they realized only a few of us was left. We as one of the Nation’s largest fan bases fight, dig, and scratch to support recruiting, and getting talent here yet can’t give them support for three hours on Saturday — however can devote twenty-five hours a week on social media with displeasure of the team.

Travis has a significant point. UT has one of the largest fan bases in college football. Vol Twitter is still undefeated. And none of them were there, supporting the team, on Saturday. They were too busy trying to get the coach fired to pay attention to the game on the field.

After the game, Travis met thirty-four Tennessee players, who all expressed their appreciation for the fans that stayed through the end of the game. They made a special effort to talk to those few people who were left and thanked them for their support.

You know, I think it’s safe to say that everyone is off-balance right now, angry with the loss to a dreadful Florida team and a half-hearted victory over an 0–5 UMass squad. I get that. I’m mad too. But that anger is against the coaches, right? Not the players? And when these young men open up their social media and see black avatars, or “fans” calling them out for a bad play, or sports media trashing the entire program and Tweeting gleefully about boos in Neyland Stadium— how does that affect them? How exactly do the boos in Neyland Stadium impact their play?

And why in the world would they want to put everything they are out on the field in one of the most physically brutal sports out there for a fan base that walks out on them in the middle of a game?

Everyone can be angry and criticize the coaches all they want; that’s pretty much what fan bases do. It’s definitely what the media does — and has to do in order to accurately cover the program. And the good Lord knows, it’s what I do too.

But once that anger starts to affect the players, it also affects the way the team plays. A stadium draining of fans absolutely does. And sure, I’ve seen so many black avatar sporting folks on Twitter say, “I’m just boycotting the coaches. I still support the team. I love these players.”

But that’s not the way it looks. An emptied Neyland Stadium doesn’t say “I love these players.” When I see my black-spotted timeline, I don’t see any support for the team or the players on first glance and I can guarantee you they don’t either.

At the end of the day, you walked out on your team. In the moment, that anger looks like petulance, children throwing temper tantrums, and no matter how you spin it or what your agenda is that’s just not a good look for any school.

And now, it’s Georgia week.

The Tennessee fan base is at a crisis point. Everything that happens this week — in real life or in the la-la land that is social media — can and will impact this game. The Georgia game is the pivot point (again) upon which the entire season can turn. This game will either kill the season…or redeem it. And that all depends entirely upon what the players feel heading into the game. If they feel defeated before they’re running through the T, the game’s not going to go well. But if they’re fired up, if they believe in themselves and if they believe their fans are behind them, Team 121 might just surprise you.

Why? Because unlike their fan base, apparently, these players…our team… refuses to give up. This group of young men wear Tennessee colors because they believed in Tennessee. This team represents UT extremely well — some of the best young men to be found in college athletics. They do not give up during games — not for themselves, but for you.

Seems odd, doesn’t it? That the fans can’t do the same for them.

Man up, Vol Nation. Try doing something in support of your team and its players. Instead of endless debates over pipe dream coaching prospects, why not send a positive tweet to a few players?

And yes. That includes me too. Sure, I could have jumped on the media bandwagon with everyone else and come up with a scathing article about the UMass game. There’s plenty there to be said. But this is important too, albeit in a different way. As Travis Sweat put it so well:

It’s unfortunate but for me as a fan of the young men that suited up Saturday this was the biggest disappointment. Sitting on a row behind the Tennessee bench and watching the team that closely was sad as they watched fans file out out of the stadium.

Maybe it’s time for Vol Nation to think about those young men instead of agendas for a change. Instead of focusing on getting the coaches fired, try giving the team a shot in the arm and belief in themselves.

Oh, and if you don’t think you’ll be capable of staying through an entire sixty minutes of football on Saturday, drop me a line. I’ll be more than happy to drive down from Ohio and take your seat. And believe me — if I endure a painful eight hours in the car sporting my mostly metal back brace, I will darn well sit in Neyland until the bitter end of any game. Win or lose, rain or shine, I will stay to sing the alma mater.

Because on Saturdays in the autumn, that’s my job. As a fan.

As a VFL.

It’s your job too.