As the scandal in Chapel Hill involving the athletic department and the football program drags on many reports suggest that the university will need to win back supporters it has lost.
I am one of the lost. For the record: I’m an alum (Class of ‘74). I am an adjunct faculty member of The Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill. I could also be classified as a supporter and longtime fan for 40+ years. I’m a member of the Educational Foundation (The Ram’s Club); on the day of my first marriage, September 19, 1981, my bride and I strolled through Kenan Stadium wearing tux and wedding gown (a victory over Ohio University); the final weekend of my second honeymoon was spent attending the Carolina/Clemson football game in 1996; a few years ago I was featured as the Carolina fan in a spread in the News and Observer about ACC fans; I have a very large Ram’s Head Tattoo on my left shoulder; and I served eight years as the president of my fraternity alumni association at UNC-Chapel Hill.
While the media has done a great job of chronicling every little detail in the series of events creating the situation few have noted the process fans, alumni and supporters have gone through in order to be lost.
In his books, Transitions and The Way of Transition, author William Bridges explains the process people move through when significant change happens in their lives. The process can certainly be applied to what has happened in Chapel Hill since Summer, 2010 when the athletic department revelations began to surface.
To say things have changed for many Carolina supporters would be a gross understatement. But, the changes aren’t the issues, it’s the transitions that create stress and problems. Changes—the revelations about various ethical and legal transgressions, Head Coach Butch Davis’ firing, Athletic Director Dick Badour’s resignation—are all external. Transitions are internal. Transitions are what people go through in their minds and hearts when some part of their lives end. Being lost is part of a transition.
A transition begins with an Ending (Bridges’ term) that redefines reality. In many cases the ending is the end of a fantasy. The ending for thousands of Carolina fans, alumni and supporters has been in how they see Carolina in their lives and, in some cases, how they see themselves. Unfortunately, many of us are realizing that what we believed was a fantasy.
Bridges notes six Dis’s we move through in times of transition. All six, and one more, are starkly evident for many Carolina fans.
Disorientation: When stories appeared about possible misconduct among athletes and coaches first appeared many folks thought, “What the heck is going on?” As the revelations became allegations, the NCAA stepped in, lawyers are being quoted and university officials are bobbing and weaving the questions changed to, “What the hell is going on in Chapel Hill?!”
Disenchantment: “This is not the Carolina I know,” was the comment I heard from a fellow-alum. That thought was the mantra of disenchantment and the end of the fantasy for many of us. The raw feeling of disenchantment is disappointment. We had always thought we, Carolina, were above the sort of thing we thought about when hearing about USC, Oklahoma, SMU, Miami and the other universities that have permanent files at NCAA headquarters. I’ve seen the process of transition, and the loss of the fantasy, played out with friends who have been members of the military, executives with well-known corporations, professionals in a range of specialties and who have had their spiritual faith shaken.
Disrespect: This is my addition to Bridges’ six Dis’s. The disappointment of disenchantment has led to disrespect. Athletes we admired showed they were not worthy of our admiration. Officials we trusted were not overseeing an agency funded by our tax dollars and contributions, and supported by our faith.
Disidentification: Why would you want to be identified with something you disrespect and in which you are disenchanted? Like many Carolina fans and supporters I was heavily invested in the fantasy that we were special. Our file, if there was one, was never in the same drawer at NCAA headquarters with those other scoundrels. Now, we’re one of the scoundrels. This may be the most damaging area of transition. When one very important life area is questioned, an issue that has been part of the foundation of who you are, it’s a quick jump to start looking around at other areas and wondering how solid they are.
Disengagement: Empty seats in Kenan Stadium, fewer dollars contributed. This is the first fall in over 40 years that I haven’t cared whether or not I was in Kenan Stadium on a gorgeous, Carolina Blue sky, fall afternoon. And I while I understand that much of the Carolina Nation is simply saying, “Let’s just get to basketball season and everything will be alright,” I’m ambivalent. We’ll have a great season, go to the NCAAs and maybe win it all. I hope we do. But, while no allegations have been leveled against the basketball program, it’s all part of Carolina and there’s some luster that just isn’t there.
Disloyalty: Some Carolina fans see the simple act of questioning what is going on in Chapel Hill as disloyalty. Obviously, it isn’t. Most of us have not lost the love we have for Carolina but the fantasy is over, the curtain has been pulled back and the Great Oz of the commercialization of college sports and its effects are clearly in the open now… and we don’t like having our dreams taken from us. The feelings are not disloyalty, they are part of the grief process due to the loss of the fantasy. It is less an issue of the university having to win back lost supporters; it is very much an issue that, as supporters, we have lost part of the fantasy, part of ourselves, of what Carolina was about in our lives.
Discovery: The most difficult time of transition is, according to Bridges, the Neutral Zone. Moving through the disorientation, disenchantment, disidentification, disengagement and possible disloyalty cause anger, anxiety, denial; all the stages of grief. However, sooner or later the transition ends and we arrive at a New Beginning (Bridges’ term). Thousands of Carolina fans are still sitting in Kenan Stadium at football games while others have discovered new ways to use their Saturday afternoons and tens of thousands will be glued to televised games when basketball season starts in a few weeks. However, the greatest discovery many people are making is something most of us have known all along. Watching an athlete perform while wearing Carolina Blue is a very small part of what Carolina is really all about.
A key to moving through transitions is looking for what is not, or has not, changed. What hasn’t changed is that The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is about helping young people create lives they could not have imagined when they arrived in Chapel Hill. It’s about smart people doing smart things that improve the lives of Tar Heels, Americans and people around the world.
The final step of a transition, the New Beginning, is simply the Ending of the previous reality. Let’s hope this New Beginning helps us understand what is truly important about Carolina and what is an attractive and entertaining sideshow.