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The loss of hope; The loss of fandom

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

I have dedicated way more time in my life to the New York Jets than any normal person would.

I started watching their games every week when I was seven years old. It was how my father spent his Sundays, and I wanted to spend that time with him. It was the team we could share together.

I have continued to watch and think about the Jets since then. For the past twelve seasons, it has been my pleasure to present you with this website. Here I spend countless hours each week discussing, analyzing, and thinking about the Jets. It’s kind of funny (or maybe sad) to think about how many hours I spend each week taking screenshots and using editing software to provide visual breakdowns of plays.

It’s silly to invest any emotional energy in a football team. I know it. You know it. It is only a game. There are far more important things in the world to worry about.

But when you invest this much time into anything, an emotional investment naturally forms. You know it’s dumb to care this much, but you do it anyway.

You celebrate the great victories. You cherish the moment when the team makes a smart signing or coaching hire. Conversely, you mourn the bitter losses and when the team does something dumb.

Over the past few days, we have seen a pair of events that would be monumental for the Jets under normal circumstances. They beat the crosstown Giants. They also announced a failing coach will return next season.

My reaction to both was the same. I shrugged my shoulders. These things didn’t get me excited or angry. I felt ambivalence.

In the last calendar year, I was enraged by a number of the team’s decisions. Whether it was keeping Mike Maccagnan, hiring Adam Gase, neglecting the cornerstone positions in free agency, or finally firing Maccagnan after the point where it could have done any good, these things upset me.

The events of the last week didn’t impact me the same way. I’ve become resigned to what the team is.

On some level it was nice to beat the Giants, but that victory doesn’t fix the glaring structural flaws of the organization. And keeping Gase was not a huge shocker in the context of the team’s erratic management style.

I always used to get a chuckle when somebody would come onto this website and leave a comment in response to a random free agent signing saying, “I’m done with this team.” I’d always wonder how somebody could stick with the team through the misery of terrible seasons and heartbreaking losses but not withstand a bad transaction.

I have come to realize that it isn’t an either/or type deal. Fan frustration is more akin to a bucket holding water. Drop by drop the bucket fills up. Eventually a minuscule drop might be what makes it finally overflow.

You might call somebody who walks away a disloyal fan, but that isn’t really fair. Sports are supposed to bring us joy. Most of us lead busy lives. If following a team isn’t bringing you satisfaction, why not spend your time on something that will?

I have a bit of experience in this department.

I studied at Boston College in my undergraduate days. At BC you are never going to compete for a National Championship every year in football like Alabama or basketball like Duke. It just isn’t a realistic goal with the school’s resources.

But it is possible to have quality teams.

More importantly, you can have hope. You know that being in the top five every year probably won’t happen. But once in a while it is possible to have it all come together. The right coach runs the right system. The five star recruits typically choose the bigger schools, but you might be able to unearth and develop enough under the radar talent to punch above your weight class. And maybe this all comes together when the normal powers are in a transitional year.

BC never won big when I was a student, but there were some fun rides. Our basketball team started my freshman year 20-0 and won the regular season conference championship. A year later they came within one defensive stop of going to the Elite Eight. My senior year, the football team was ranked second in the nation in November with an unheralded quarterback who became a future NFL MVP.

These teams all ultimately fell short. I remember the losses that ended those seasons, but I also remember how much fun the journeys were. Those are cherished memories.

I was always there. It didn’t matter if it was a nonconference basketball game against some cream puff school. The arena might have been empty, but I went to the games to support the team.

I don’t watch BC sports anymore. I think I’ve watched one football game in its entirety in the last five years. It was when they played Clemson last year. I only watched that game because I was visiting my parents, and they wanted to watch. I can’t tell you the last time I watched my school play a basketball game.

There was no real defining moment that made me stop watching. I just lost interest little by little.

The starting point came in early 2009 when the athletic director fired a successful football coach because that coach interviewed for an NFL job (ironically enough with the Jets). An overmatched defensive coordinator was promoted, and the football program sunk to the bottom of the conference.

He was eventually replaced with current coach Steve Addazio. Addazio has been an improvement, but he is a .500 coach. That is his record at the school. His record this season is 5-5. His best single season record is 7-5. This is his seventh year on the job. He is what he is, a .500 coach. There isn’t much reason to expect that to change. The football program’s ceiling is around .500. His job hasn’t been in any jeopardy.

On the basketball side, Jim Christian is the head coach. Christian is in his sixth season and never had a winning record in conference during his tenure. He has also enjoyed great job security in spite of the mediocre results.

You might call me a bad fan for abandoning my team. It wasn’t really a conscious decision, though. I used to watch every game. Then I’d skip games here and there. Then I might put a game on in the background. At this point I just have things in my life that interest me more. Even if I’m not doing anything, there is probably a game that I find more compelling to watch than BC.

It comes down to hope. There isn’t any. Football is going to be .500. Basketball is going to be bad. I know these things.

Being an NFL fan is mostly about hope. There are only sixteen games each year over seventeen weeks. For some lucky fans the season extends a little bit longer, but most of the year is offseason. That is a time to dream.

Fans should be dreaming about their coaching staff being great, their player acquisitions shining, and everything coming together. Most dreams will eventually be dashed. Only one team can win the Super Bowl, but the ride is supposed to be fun. And there should at least be a stretch after the games actually start where those dreams still feel in reach.

The Jets have taken away the ability to dream from their fans. Instead Jets fans have been left to spend their year rationalizing. Maybe the bad fifth year GM will suddenly develop a vision for building a team. Maybe the failed coach of a division rival will learn how to coach. Maybe the team can figure out how to make things work without smart offensive line investments.

Heck, a lot of people knew in their hearts these things wouldn’t work, but what else could they do but rationalize? What else can you do when hope doesn’t exist?

There have been plenty of straw man arguments in defense of Adam Gase over the last few weeks. The most popular refutes the notion that all of the Jets’ problems are Gase’s fault. As with all straw men, nobody is actually arguing all of the issues are due to Gase.

A second straw man started picking up steam yesterday. This argument was that the Jets needed to send a message that fans don’t run the team. Once again, nobody is suggesting the team should base all of its moves on fan reaction.

The backlash to Christopher Johnson’s announcement wasn’t born out of some idea that fans should have veto power over major team decisions. It is from a lack of faith in ownership to make the correct decisions.

The Jets have been unsuccessful under Chris Johnson’s stewardship. Almost all of the major decisions the team has made have proven to be wrong. Many of them have shown a lack of long-term planning.

Johnson, an unsuccessful owner, is demanding the fanbase trust him that an objectively unsuccessful coach, Gase, will get better. We just went through this, though. Johnson repeatedly in the past claimed that Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles had the team moving in the right direction. The record wasn’t indicative of the true progress made. Fans just needed to have faith. What is different now?

It is easy for ownership and the media to portray the backlash as the reaction of disgruntled and impatient fans who want to fly airplanes to fire people. There is no doubt a large portion of the fanbase is angry. Why shouldn’t they be? The team will miss the postseason for a ninth straight year. A record-setting offseason spending spree has produced little in the way of improvement. The coach touted as an offensive guru has run the worst offense in the NFL and overseen the regression of the young franchise quarterback. Why wouldn’t fans be outraged?

But if you look a little bit deeper, there are also fans who aren’t quite as vocal. The few words they do speak are telling, however. These are fans who talk about giving up their season tickets and watching games on TV instead. There are the fans like me who used to care a ton but now are apathetic.

Five years from now I wonder whether those fans who traded their tickets for TV will be watching at all. I wonder whether now apathetic fans like me will even pay the team any attention.

And I wonder whether the fans who paid for the airplane might take that journey to apathy and eventually eliminate the Jets from their lives.

That’s what a lack of hope does. The Jets haven’t won the Super Bowl in my lifetime, but they have still given me some tremendous memories. The two Rex Ryan AFC Championship Game losses sting, but I’ll always cherish the Divisional victory in Foxborough and the Week 17 blowout of the Bengals. The 2002 Jets losing in Oakland will always haunt me, but the memories of beating Brady, Favre, and Manning the previous three weeks to get there remain just as strong. Seasons with high hopes like 1999 and 2005 failed to launch, but there were amazing dreams in the spring and summer of those years of what might be. Only one team gets to lift the Lombardi Trophy each year. Hope is what sustains us in the meantime.

Hope doesn’t currently work for the Jets. While writing this article I went back and forth unsure as to whether it was a good idea to publish it. I chose to do so because these reflect my true feelings, and I don’t think I’m the only fan feeling them.

Based on the media reports of the last week and his own statements, it sounds like Chris Johnson would be much happier if members of his fanbase weren’t passionate enough to pay for that airplane.

Be careful what you wish for, Chris. You might just get it. If you continue on your current path, in due time your team might not have many passionate supporters left.