Maybe it’s because of the transfer portal or the new Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rules, but if you’re a fan of college basketball you’ve probably noticed the offseason has become a little more…heated…over the past couple of years. With the near-instant transfer decisions coming after the season ends, there is no shortage of prognostication almost immediately. The past couple of weeks have been no different, as is tradition.
If you spent any time on Illini Twitter yesterday, you probably came across this tweet from Nathan Kalman-Lamb, a Professor of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada:
Comin’ in hot! Damn!
If you noticed that, then you may have also noticed a reply. Or two. Or three. Or 1,000. Some were pretty tame and reasonable, even!
Many others were not. As a warning, some of the screenshots below feature slurs and violent language. Please use discretion when reading them:
Those are just some screencaps gathered after 10 minutes of searching. Just 10 minutes! Didn’t even look at the quote tweets!
The tweets above are just one survey of the most extreme examples of how Illini fans reacted to this professor, including homophobic slurs and tweets encouraging violence. Just so we’re clear, they reacted this way because someone posted something they disagreed with about their sports team. In a vacuum it is objectively absurd. It’s the dark side of fandom. It’s like a non-ironic version of Three Year Letterman.
The back-and-forth of social media is part of the attraction, especially about sports. It’s largely trivial, and fun to argue about things with relatively little consequence. It’s fun to roast graphic design, and find unique and creative ways to smear our rivals who we dislike for no reason other than them being geographically adjacent to us. Who doesn’t love that!
But what happened on Illini Twitter yesterday wasn’t discourse. It wasn’t a thoughtful discussion. It wasn’t good-hearted fun. It wasn’t even spirited disagreement. It was embarrassing.
Fandom should be a big and welcoming tent. I can’t believe I even have to type this sentence in the year 2023, but: Illini fandom shouldn’t exclude groups targeted by these slurs and threats. Unfortunately, these attacks make it clear, incredibly publicly, who is and isn’t welcome to be an Illini fan. Not standing up against that gives these voices more power than they should have.
Even now, hours later, there is relatively little condemnation about what happened in the replies. Kalman-Lamb has become a punching bag for nearly everyone, including those who take it too far. Perhaps we can ignore this darker underside of a college sports fan base, but it’s hard to when it’s right out there on full display. Is this really what we want our fanbase to be known for?
Illini Twitter is a space that many of us have come to enjoy. It’s a place to watch games with a community, a place to sarcastically vent or cheer, a place to explore the absurd parts of fandom (and let me tell ya, there are more-than-a-few). But this is not that. This is not what I, and many others, have come to love. This is base-level irate tribalism. It’s seventh grade gym class-level discussion.
And as far as the original tweet goes – who cares? It could have been executed better, but I also hold the same opinion, to a lesser extent. I’m not sure that it’s a censure-able offense, but I think it’s pretty funny when the coach, a top five-compensated state employee, gets irate at the players on national television. Maybe if he keeps screaming at them it’ll flip whatever switch he’s looking for. Maybe if he yells more, players will transfer less. Maybe! It seems like a pretty stubborn strategy to me, but I’m just a commenter like everyone else.
The author of the original tweet, Nathan Kalman-Lamb, is an internationally-renowned scholar of athletics and labor. He has studied the intersection of sociology and college sports ad nauseum, and has published more research on the topic than every single Twitter commenter combined. It doesn’t mean that he is right, but it does mean that he is entitled to his opinion, and that his opinion is almost certainly reasonably informed.
You’re also allowed to disagree with him, though! That’s the beauty of the discourse. That’s where it gets fun, within reason.
But fans who lob slurs at people they disagree with do not deserve a voice in the Illini fan base. Fans who encourage violence against people they disagree with do not deserve a voice in the Illini fan base. Instead, they should be called out. When it becomes as ubiquitous as it was in this case, being silent is bad for all of us. Turning a blind eye to it is worse, for all of us.
It’s a pretty low bar.