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While some fans can be psychotic, it is actually healthy to criticize your favorite team

Just because you have questions about your favorite team doesn’t mean that you don’t still love your favorite team.

Youngstown State v Ohio State Photo by Lauren Leigh Bacho/Getty Images

Following Ohio State’s Week 1 win over Indiana, former Buckeye and long-time ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit was a guest on “The Pat McAfee Show” and discussed what he believes to be a problem in his alma mater’s fan base.

Herbie believes that a vocal minority of fans have such unreasonable expectations for the team that when the goals aren’t met, the fan response can be detrimental to the long-term health of the program.

“There’s a standard and then there’s a psychotic standard,” Herbstreit said. “And I would say that the 15% that represent Ohio State on social media fall into that category of psychotic. They’re out of their minds, and what they do is they make high school players not want to play for that program because they’re just such jackasses. They drive me crazy with everything that they do.”

While I might be a bit biased, I am a fan of Kirk’s and think he is as good as there is in college football. Not only has he been a guest on the Land-Grant Podcast Network on three different occasions, but when I was a student at Ohio State, I was an intern for his radio show on 1460 The Fan in Columbus over 20 years ago. So, while I would never say that I know Kirk, I do feel like I generally understand where he is coming from on many major issues.

No matter the topic, no matter the fanbase, there will always be a lunatic fringe. That is why every National Signing Day, we — along with many other outlets — remind people never to tweet at teenagers, especially if they spurn your school of choice. I might be going out on a limb, but I believe that these types of folks — the people who verbally attack players and coaches, threaten them with violence, and hurl internet obscenities at them — are the people that Herbstreit is referring to.

So, if that assumption is correct, then I wholeheartedly agree with him. Those individuals, regardless of perspective or fanbase, do nothing but damage the experience and community for players, coaches, other fans, and, ultimately, themselves. Their toxic, bad behavior needs to be called out and held up as an example of how not to behave as a fan or as a human.

However, I have witnessed many people on social media through the first two weeks of the season — before and after Kirk’s comment — equating criticism of the Ohio State football team with something bordering on hate speech or outright blasphemy. While I understand the desire to immediately leap to the defense of a program that you love when someone is openly discussing its flaws and shortcomings, not all fault-finding is unwarranted, nor does it equate to personal attacks.

It is inarguable that the first two games of Ohio State’s season have not gone according to plan, the team’s own players and coaches have essentially said as much. Some of the problems thus far can be attributed to typical early-season bumps in the road that will naturally be smoothed out as the latest configuration of the team gets more snaps under its collective belt, but others are — in my opinion — the latest example of ongoing issues that the program and coaching staff inherently find themselves in.

From criticism of how the staff handled the quarterback battle to concerns over offensive playcalling to confusion with the lack of a pass rush to questions about the offensive line’s struggles in run blocking, there have been a lot of legitimate critiques to come out of OSU’s first two outings this season, and bringing them up is neither objectionable nor offensive.

Of course, while anyone is obviously welcome to disagree with the substance and veracity of those critiques, as long as they are not delivered with malice and venom, then there is nothing wrong with fans calling out faults in the teams that they love. While I think that in college sports criticism should be more often directed at coaches, if couched correctly, calling out onfield missteps by players is also perfectly acceptable. If it is admissible to point out issues with teams that you don’t actively root for, then why is it inherently bad to do so for a team that you build your entire weekend around?

In fact, I would say that being able to acknowledge the shortcomings of your favorite team is actually healthy. We all know people — sometimes it's ourselves — that make loving a specific team their entire personality, to the point where every win results in atmospheric highs and every loss leads to cavernous lows; and we don’t even need to get into the depression of back-to-back rivalry losses or coming up a field goal short of a national title.

Obviously, every fan is going to feel their favorite team’s wins and losses to some degree, but when the investment in the outcome of a team’s games becomes so all-encompassing that it consumes every available moment and emotion, that is not healthy. In the recent stages of social media, there has been a lot of discussion about the formation of parasocial relationships between fans and celebrities. Because of the exposure of — and access to — these famous figures, fans can feel like they know them and have a personal connection to them as if they were actual members of their circle of friends.

While it is not the exact same thing, an over-investment in a favorite team can lead to the same type of obsessive behavior that is so problematic in stan culture. That’s why keeping a bit of a critical distance between your heart and the teams that you follow can not only be good for your mental health but also your enjoyment of your team’s games. This extreme attachment can manifest itself in both positive and negative ways.

Some fans can get incredibly defensive about a team leading them to respond to every perceived slight with insults and accusations, no matter how valid the original statement might be. Of course, the converse can be true as well. Some people can get so caught up in the need for perfection that they almost instinctively hate-watch the teams that they claim to care about. This often leads to not seeing the forest through the trees and nit-picking every single little thing that doesn’t live up to their lofty expectations.

Both approaches are bad, both for the individual fans and the larger fandom. Now, I try to make it a rule not to tell other people how they should do anything (as long as it doesn’t harm anybody), especially how to be a fan. If you want to so intertwine your happiness with the on-field/court/ice success of a team that you willingly ride the wave between inconsolable and manic based solely on the bounce of the ball, go for it, but I think that there are better ways.

One of those ways is being realistic about your teams, their strengths and weaknesses, and what they need to do to improve. If we can acknowledge that our favorite team is not perfect, or that the head coach is not infallible, or that the players are not all future first-ballot Hall of Famers, I believe that this alleviates some of the pressure for them to perform flawlessly; it doesn’t remove the pressure from the players, of course, because they generally don’t have any insight to the thought processes of individual fans (aside from via social media) and they have plenty of their own internal and institutional pressure to contend with, but it does eliminate the pressure on you, the viewer, the fan.

This mindset can allow you to appreciate what the team does well without getting overwhelmed by the negativity of what they don’t. And here is where we get to the crux of the argument; once you no longer feel as if your personal identity and happiness are tied directly to the on-field results of your favorite teams, you are able to more objectively assess what is and isn’t working for them and what potentially should be done to address shortcomings.

Earlier this week, we asked our followers on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, what their expectations were for the OSU football team following the first two weeks of the season. Of course, the four options that we provided do not cover the entire spectrum of potential outcomings for the season, but they were chosen strategically.

If we had included “Lose 1-2 games, make NY6 bowl,” I think that would have been the safe answer in between the extremes of making the College Football Playoff and losing three or more games. The middle ground we went with was the far less likely scenario of winning the Big Ten, but not making the CFP, which would likely have to involve losing to Notre Dame on Sept. 23, losing one Big Ten game, but winning the conference title game as a two-loss team. We also threw in one never-gonna-happen, tongue-in-cheek option that was there mostly to give the extremely angry fans somewhere to vent.

As expected, the majority of fans were split across the two most realistic options, and to be honest, I think this is a fairly good distribution. About 40% are still riding with the glass-half-full option, while 45% are rocking the glass-half-empty choice; and practically nobody is going with the glass-completely-empty-and-broken-into-tiny-shards-on-the-floor-because-I-threw-it-against-the-wall alternative.

I personally don’t know that I am going to change my official, on-the-record predictions for the season following just two games, because I do think that the talent is there both on the field and amongst the coaching ranks to address the team’s issues large and small. But, I am far less confident about those predictions now than I was when I made them, and even then, I was admittedly typing through scarlet and gray-colored glasses.

I have serious concerns about Ryan Day retaining the offensive play-calling duties — as I have for nearly two years — I also am worried that on both offense and defense, the Buckeyes are struggling on third down. However, my biggest concern, as it was to start the season, is the still seemingly disjointed offensive line and how it will perform against the better defensive fronts it will face later in the season.

But you know what? Having these doubts about the team does nothing to lessen my love for Ohio State as an institution of higher education or the football team that I actively and passionately root for. While the Buckeyes are my favorite real-life football team, my favorite fictional team — the Dillon Panthers — had a saying that I think applies perfectly to this discussion, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” (are you already tearing up like I am?).

While, again, I’m not going to tell you how to be a fan, I fully believe that if you approach your fandom with the clear eyes necessary to accurately and objectively assess your favorite team, but still maintain the full heart of love and excitement that you feel for them, you can never lose. Yes, your team is going to lose from time to time, and that will suck, but keeping a tender distance will help save your heart and psyche from the full weight of the pain that you would otherwise feel, while still allowing you to fully experience the joys when they win.

When you are part of a fandom as large as Ohio State’s, you are bound to see both of the extreme approaches to watching football — the “Everything My Team Does Is Perfect and Brilliant” approach and the “Everything My Team Does Is Terrible and Stupid” approach; both should be avoided, in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean that pulling elements from each is inherently wrong. Both will be correct eventually, in the same way that a broken clock is, but by dispassionately maintaining the excitement of the former and the critical eye of the latter, I think this allows you to have the best football-watching experience.

People who criticize playcalling, player rotation, and even on-field play with thoughtfulness and objectivity are not trolls or idiots, nor are they psychotic. If that’s not how you approach watching your favorite team, that’s okay, but it doesn’t make you a better or worse fan; Buckeye Nation is wide enough for all types of level-headed supporters. So the next time that you see an OSU fan (or OSU fan blog) legitimately questioning the team and its coaches and it starts to make your blood boil, consider that being overly defensive of a team is not really all that different than being overly critical.

Ultimately, we all want to see the Buckeyes lifting large trophies at the end of the season, and whether you choose to focus primarily on the bright spots or dark spots along the way, as long as you are doing so in moderation, there’s no reason why we can’t all cheer the team on together.