Thursday, September 28, 2023

Same Old Gophers

 Same old Gophers, right?

I don’t know how long I’ve been on the Gopher boards – probably 15 years or so – but this week has been one of the most depressing. It may be the most depressing, recognizing there’s a lot of recency bias at play. Fleck has peaked, our OC/QB coach is an unmitigated disaster, our QB can’t pass gas, our superstar true-freshman running back is alternatively/both having the treads worn off of his tires and likely to leave for USC for one billion dollars in the offseason, and we’re never going to be able to compete in the new CFB world so we may as well accept our fate and start cheering for our MIAC schools of choice.

Such are message board narratives in the world of Gopher sports. What strikes me is how comfortably everyone slides back into old thought patters of “ah, shit, here we go again.” That we’re in the midst of the best Gopher football run in the last 60 years is immediately cast aside when we experience an event that reminds us of our collective trauma on October 10th, 2003. The despair sets in, shields go up, we burn any optimism with hellfire, and begin the rites of eating our young.

Last year I wrote about my experiences with a brain that is pretty rad most of the time, but, when left to its own devices, is like turning a relativistic jet on my mental and physical health. I found the healthiest thing for me is to – at least a little - separate my personal identity from the performance of Gopher sports: I am not shit because Gopher football is shit.

That’s served me really well for the last four years; but, frankly it’s never been pressure tested because we’ve been really good! Sure, we’ve had some stinkers, but nothing that felt like October 10, 2003. During the 4th quarter on Saturday, I felt that fist of rats beginning to consume me from the inside. I recall two things from when that sensation hit: “aw, shit, here we go again” and “oh, hello, old friend.” There’s a recognition that the demons persist with a brain that still has a tendency make negative associations with things that are not inherently associated and…a comfort that the old ruts still take the wheels?

For those of us who have been around since, say, the early 90s (and certainly those who remember the 70s and 80s), we experienced a lot more pain than joy. There was the odd game or two; but the years, they were lean. And the calluses, they grew thick. While there was hope – there is always hope – there was this tacit, collective recognition that disaster was inevitable. Any time something good happened, we could be sure fate would manifest lawn darts from the ether to pierce our eyes for the next three seasons. We went through the seasons with a perpetual smiling wince, trying to enjoy the moment but encumbered by the damage of the past and what it would inexplicably portend for the future.

On October 9th, 2003 we, for the first time for my generation of fans, no longer bore that burden. We had hit the bottom and were now claiming rights to respectability and what lay beyond. We could go toe to toe with Iowa and Wisconsin and, at the least, punch the helmet schools in the face a few times before losing. And for the first three quarters of the game on October 10th, we knew that things were different, better. The proof was on the field. It was all the evidence we needed and, to quote Coack Fleck, we were never going back.

Then, Same old Gophers.

That the wound from that game still festers is evident following Saturday’s loss to Northwestern. But the speed with which the narrative spun to tropes of hopelessness, that we would be unable to effectively compete in the new CFB world, that Fortune 500 companies were wronging us by not contributing to NIL, that Fleck needed to change or should be replaced was shocking. Good teams (which I don’t think we are this season, fwiw) lose to bad programs sometimes. Good programs have bad years sometimes. But we went from cautious optimism to apocalyptic despair in the course of two minutes of game time. That says something about us. There is safety and comfort in not believing we can accomplish great things. Without the hope, we can’t be hurt. Same old Gophers is a barrier against the blinding lawn darts of fate.

There’s a hypothesis that suggests depression and anxiety are problems of attention. Essentially, people with those maladies are more inclined to pay attention to and fixate on thoughts that are negative or induce a stress reaction. Everyone has negative or stress-inducing thoughts, but most people just ignore them; those with depression and anxiety obsess over them. While the fixation is an active process – it requires effort on the part of the thinker to think about something – the person fixating doesn’t know they are engaged in maladaptive behavior because they don’t have the benefit of knowing anything differently. The only subjective experience they’ve had is their own. Consequently, diverting attention away from the negative thoughts becomes an exercise in awareness that one need not actively engage with those thoughts. There is a choice to divert attention elsewhere. It’s easier said than done, but that’s the idea.

I think the protection we get from Same old Gophers is a helpful tool to manage disappointment in the short term. It’s a way to commiserate with like-minded people around a set of shared experiences or rage against those with a sliver of optimism. It’s a glass of booze after a hard day at work. But, if applied as a constant state, it becomes a problem of attention. It focuses on a few data points while ignoring a host of others: the full student sections we’ve had for the last few years; the Millennial and Gen-Z engagement at Dinkytown Athletes events; the players we’ve put into the NFL recently; that we now are generating NIL funds by selling beer and vodka. These are things that will potentially pay dividends for a generation, irrespective of who our coach is.

Depression and anxiety are challenging conditions to overcome. Speaking from experience, I have a lot more good days than bad; but the bad days still really fucking suck. I think Same old Gophers is a far less intractable state of being. We can choose to fixate on Saturday, draw a line from 20 years ago to today, and probably convince ourselves that our window is closed and hope is lost. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. But it’s a choice we don’t have to make. We don’t have to be the same old Gophers.

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