I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as much talk about moral victories in any context as I did on Twitter in the wake of Florida’s loss to Alabama on Saturday.
It was as if every vaguely Florida-connected former player, pundit, or fan needed to clarify to the world that an unexpected close loss to the consensus No. 1 team of the last decade in college football — not coincidentally the great program in the history of college football, which is at or near its dynastic peak under the consensus greatest coach in the modern era of college football — was not something that anyone was allowed to extract joy from.
This is, I think, a masochistic reaction that fans who are convinced that they, too, are playing some sort of game in relation to the perception of the teams they root for — many wrapped up in idiotic ideas about machismo — turn to reflexively, and as a guard against future schadenfreude from other fans. If you tweet something about being vaguely happy with a loss, you might end up having your “take” “exposed” down the line — and in a world in which far too many people are inexplicably concerned about the hysterically minimal repercussions of a hypothetical quote tweet with “This you?” and the laughing/crying emoji should the players they don’t personally know from Adam one day perform at a lower level than they did on whatever day prompted the original observation.
The best recent example for this is Florida State fans being made to answer for taking pride and heart from FSU giving Notre Dame a scare in a primetime game back in Week 1. That game and that performance, it turns out, has not portended great things for the Seminoles, who have been rather shockingly bad since that night; FSU fans who proclaimed that their team was back to being a good one or similar based on that night have been proven wrong by subsequent results and made to answer for them.
Or, well, folks have tried to make FSU fans answer for them. I think most FSU fans have simply admitted that what they once thought turned out to be erroneous based on more information. Certainly, that’s what I have done with my thoughts on FSU — I, too, thought that was a rather impressive performance against the Irish, but as I have since learned more about both teams that played that game, my opinion has changed.
This is, to be crystal clear, how life should work.
Humanity has, throughout its relatively brief existence as a species, often believed one thing and then come to believe something else after further discovery and learning. Folks thought the sun revolved around Earth prior to Copernicus; many, many explorers thought sailing west from Europe was going to be the quickest route to Asia; sadly, women are still being put to death because of suspicions of witchcraft (see page six) in some parts of the world.
Why college football fans — or sports fans of any stripe — think that it is more fun to make fun of people who believe one thing before eventually believing another is not lost on me. It’s partially about hubris and seeing pride go before a fall, and there is no shortage of fans who leap to conclusions and make outlandish claims that it is genuinely funny to see revealed by time as boasts about naked emperors.
Plus, fandom as it exists for most Americans is a delicate balance of true joy with sadomasochism — if you’re not happy about your team, there’s at least a good chance that there’s someone less happy with their team that you can laugh at, and if you’re the one being laughed at, it’s incumbent upon you to be performatively upset (“down bad” would be the current slang) so that the cycle may continue.
I think this is stupid.
I think Florida fans who have working brains should be heartened tremendously by their team coming very close to upsetting Alabama last Saturday, because Florida being on nearly equal footing with Alabama has not been true until very recently. I think Florida fans who were at this game will mostly be in that cadre...
At most college football games after a loss, the home crowd leaves quietly, a bit deflated, grumbling about what could have been. A lot of this group left chanting “It’s great to be a Florida Gator” yesterday. Think I’m going to like this fan base. @UF @UFJSchool pic.twitter.com/b1Tvk51Omi— Dean Hub Brown (@DeanHubBrown) September 19, 2021
...even if the Florida fans who were only able to take it in from some outpost in the diasporic Gator Nation did not get to feel the emotions that “I Won’t Back Down” sung by nearly 90,000 fans in unison can conjure.
And I think, more generally, that you should feel whatever and however you feel with your whole heart, unless or until that feeling hurts others — which pride in your own damn football team only very, very rarely can.
If you want to declare that a loss is a loss is a loss is a loss, you’re obviously not wrong to do so: Facts are facts. But if you want to reject the concept of moral victory itself — the Merriam-Webster definition of it is “the achievement of something that is important and good,” mind — and decry a loss as something that cannot be learned from or built on, or cannot be an inspiration for pride, I think you’re at risk of letting your fealty to a game of perception that you emphatically do not have to play rob you of happiness.
The Florida Gators achieved something that is important and good on Saturday, by showing resolve after faltering early, working hard to obtain a result that both puts them just shy of a universally esteemed rival and clarifies that still more work is needed, and inspiring joy in themselves and others.
That was, definitionally, a moral victory. Rejecting that framework and focusing on the immutable fact that Florida lost the game seems to me like a practice for those who would trade or wallow in despair even on a sunny day with azure skies — and I’m going to fight for my whole life to not be that person, no matter how gloomy my brain and my world can get.
It is quite funny that someone edited the Wikipedia page for moral victory to include the Gators at some point this weekend, though.
That’s a better joke than most.