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A 2020 season may change the definition of fandom

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Would you still be a fan if you can’t go to the game?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Remember The Basketball Tournament? And House of ‘Paign? And Mike Daum?

Of course you do! (Especially you, Mike, never going to forget about my favorite Illini.)

To be blunt, it was a lot of fun. Four months without any sports on television created a craving for fans everywhere, and to have just anything we can cheer for on ESPN was a welcome feeling.

Now think about the future (i.e. the next six months).

It’s going to be wonderful to have sports back in our lives. Hopefully the NBA, MLB and NHL — yet, all without fans, or with only a few in attendance.

That brings me to the elephant in the room: college football.

It’s a sport built on fandom, pride and colors, but we may be tasked with facing a question we’ve never had to answer before the sport’s history: If we’re not packing the stands, or they’re mostly empty, are we still fans? Or at least, what will fandom look like?

To make my point, let’s use basketball as an example.

Millions of people are fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, maybe because of Magic or Kobe or Shaq or LeBron. And many of those would consider themselves diehard fans, but how many people have really ever seen LeBron play in-person? Plenty of them yes, but a majority I’m guessing never.

It’s not the same though in a sport like college football.

The atmosphere is what makes the game — in college football, the fans make it exciting. For TBT (and likely the NBA restart), I think it works in an empty gym. It won’t in football, from a fan’s perspective.

Now, the University, who announced it will be going to 20% capacity for home football games this season, will think we will still be fans, of course. They’ll see the activity on Twitter skyrocket if the Illini do something good, and plummet when bad things happen — that’s no different than fans at a game.

But Twitter, social media and television in so many ways isn’t being at the game. It’s not the sights and sounds, it’s not the camaraderie of fans clad in orange and blue. Likes and retweets don’t elicit the same emotions as cheering and high-fiving with strangers around you.

Everything we do going forward must be done with the safety of the student-athletes, coaches and support staff in mind, and if that means no fans at games (which it does), then that’s the way we need to do it.

If — and that’s a big if — games are able to go on safely, we still need to function as fans, as well. I’m not really sure what that looks like at this point.

TBT worked because there was money at stake. There was a bubble. There were safety protocols. I think the biggest thing as a fan entering this season is do we even feel comfortable with the student-athletes going out there to play football. Me, I’m not so sure right now. And how am I supposed to cheer on the guys if I don’t even approve of what they’re doing?

Let’s say there’s a vaccine sometime in 2021. The vaccine works, millions upon millions of people are able to get vaccinated, and the 2021 fall season goes on as normal (maybe still with fewer fans in the stands for safety reasons, but it feels mostly normal). Can we just plop back to normal? Can we recover that fast?

Milo Eifler, Mike Epstein and so many of the other Illini chimed in on the topic of safety a few weeks ago. While they all want to play, they want to know there’s a plan in place. And while Illinois hasn’t had to put a pause on its practices over the past month like so many other schools — probably because the University’s plan was as thorough as any I saw — is playing a full season going to be safe.

And if the season gets canned halfway through, as I would potentially expect to happen, is it worth my time and investment?

Like so many Illini fans, I want to watch the payoff in the Lovie Smith era and see this thing through and watch the team get ranked and push the program forward into the future.

But how am I supposed to even cheer them on if they don’t feel safe in the first place? And does that make me a bad fan?