By Dan Shanoff
Page 2

I'm rooting against George Mason.

I'll be wearing an official Florida Gators warm-up top and an official pair of Florida Gators basketball shorts.

My apartment will have blue and orange M&Ms. My wife will be wearing a T-shirt that says, "It's a Gator" with a Florida logo stretched over her 8-month-pregnant belly.

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Noah has exploded into the minds of NBA scouts with his March rampage.

I know how many blocks Joakim Noah has in the tournament. I know when Billy Donovan will change defenses. I know the players' back stories by heart. Put me on a Gainesville talk-radio show and I could pass for a lifelong fan.

However, my devotion to the Florida Gators started fairly recently -- in 2001, when I met my wife, who is the lifelong fan.

How did this happen? How did I end up in the universally unenviable position of rooting for Florida Saturday? Or, more accurately, rooting against the greatest Cinderella in the history of the NCAA Tournament?

More fundamentally: Does my late onset of becoming a Florida die-hard make me a fraudulent fan?

The situation cuts at the heart of one of the most substantial struggles between sports fans: Who qualifies as a die-hard? And what external forces are at work on a fan who might want to change die-hard allegiances?

As I plot out a Marinovich-esque destiny for my child as a sports fan, I reject the traditional notion of "die-hard" as qualified by some sort of lifetime service.

I'll argue that there are no less than six seismic moments in a fan's life when their allegiances may, can (and perhaps should) dramatically shift -- without fear of being labeled "fair-weather" or recriminations as some kind of "traitor" or "polygamist."

In an analysis of those moments, maybe you will realize that you've adopted one (or more) of them on your own. That "die-hard" is how you feel in the moment, not necessarily about your history.

1. Birth
Scientists and connoisseurs of the movie "Trading Places" may debate the impact of "nature versus nurture" on human development. It is no less of an issue for sports fans.

Unfortunately for the infant sports fan, they have no say in which allegiance their parents thrust on them. What does it really mean when you say you've been a "fan since birth"?

Nature: Should you automatically inherit your parents' sports allegiances, simply by the accident of birth, like you would their receding hairline or chunky rear?

While I'm sure geneticists could one day isolate a fan gene that makes a Red Sox fan smug or a Dodgers fan disinterested or a Knicks fans stupid enough to overpay for tickets to watch a bad team, the reality is that your first sports fan-ness is nurture, the environment your parents (and often your location) expose you to:

• "I am a Bills fan. My kid will be a Bills fan."
• "You live in Detroit. No, you may not be a Heat fan."
• "I'm naming my child Gator Shanoff."

No choice. No option to shop around. It's "fanifest destiny": You will be the fan your environment dictates. And if your parents want you to be a Redskins fan or an Alabama fan or a Chelsea fan, you will be.

Who is a parent to dictate their child's sports allegiance? Are you any less of a Marinovich-style monster to force your love of the Pittsburgh Pirates on your child than you are to force them into mastering a sport, musical instrument or any other force-fed activity?

Except the kid can stop playing the sport or musical instrument; the psychological baggage you saddle your kid with as a sports fan has the potential to mess them up in a far more intense and long-lasting way. So blame your parents when you cry as an adult when Kansas loses in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

You might be able to claim a certain moral high ground by dating your fandom back to your early childhood. You may have a memory of never being anything but a fan of your team.

But I'd argue that kind of boast reflects an implicit insecurity about your fan-ness, perhaps because you didn't become a fan by choice.

That's why I favor an interpretation of fan loyalty as an active process that isn't necessarily based on time served, but what you do with the multiple opportunities to make a choice about who you support -- even if that means switching allegiances.

You're not being "fair-weather." You are no less of a sincere fan. In fact, you may even be more of a fan for entering into the loyalty willingly and with full awareness of what you're doing.

After the force-fed fan experience of early childhood, the sports fan's next opportunity to switch their die-hard fan loyalty doesn't come until they reach an age to understand the options.

2. Dramatic sports moment (age 10-12)

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When Albert dances, my wife dances.

Let's stipulate that a sports fan's formative years are anywhere from 10 to 12; old enough to follow sports news independently, old enough to synthesize the dramatic moments happening on TV, and old enough to register the enthusiasm of adults around them. Yet not too old to begin developing the cynicism that often crushes adult fans.

During this formative age, dramatic sports moments -- even if they don't involve your designated "birth team" -- can trigger a moment of independence that can spin your fan passions in entirely new directions, ones that can last a lifetime.

How many fans born in the mid- to late 1960s have an affinity for the Steelers? How many fans born in the mid-1970s can never hate Villanova, because the 1985 NCAA title game was one of their earliest childhood sports memories? How many fans born in the '80s adopted the Chicago Bulls as their favorite team, no matter where they lived?

You may drop your "birth team." You may simply add this new team to your budding collection of allegiances. Consider it sports-fan puberty. But as long as your devotion as a fan is sincere and long-term, no one can ever accuse you of being a fair-weather supporter.

3. College choice
You may have grown up not knowing or caring about Duke basketball; but as soon as you walk on that campus as a student, you're a die-hard lifer.

Why? Is it simply because you wear a sweatshirt or live in the dorms or sit in the Cameron Crazies section? Or because you cut a tuition check to the institution?

Regardless, as soon as you arrive on campus -- or even as early as the moment you are accepted and decide to go there -- you are given an immediate and unquestioned pass into the fandom.

There's no exam to test your knowledge; the presumption is that you'll master the rites, history and devotion soon enough.

But like it or not, you're in for life -- one of the most substantial judgments other fans will ever make about you will come directly from the college you went to. Not for the value of its degree, but for the value of its football and basketball teams.

I've struggled with the question of which college fan has more authenticity: The one who grew up a fan or the one who went to the school.

For example, my wife grew up in Gainesville. Yet, when she mentions to people that she's a Gators fan, there's a presumption that she went to Florida.

That makes me think alumni have an edge. Living and breathing a school for four years from 18 to 22 as part of its subculture of fandom trumps the games you attended from 3 to 18.

On the other hand, there's a bragging right that comes with longevity. A Florida student from New Jersey may love the Gators in a way my wife can never know, but my wife has memories of going to Gators games for 25 years that no mere alumni can match.

It's important to add that this opportunity to adopt a team when you get to college applies to college fandom exclusively; no self-respecting Bears fan goes to Wisconsin and decides to adopt the Packers.

4. Relocation
Beyond college, there are three different kinds of relocation that might happen to a fan during their lifetime that offer more opportunities to change, adopt or modify allegiances.

Childhood: The trauma of a move on a child can be hard enough -- what happens when you layer in the mixed signals of fandom?

On the one hand, you might want to keep your ties to your old team; it's a connection to your past. When everything else in your life is upended, you can bank on your old favorite team. There's a unique cachet to being the only kid in your school in Connecticut rooting for the Rockies.

On the other hand, there is another reasonable option: Drop the old team and pick up the team of the kid's new home. It will help the kid construct a new identity. It will help the kid find friends; nothing gets you assimilated faster than flashing the colors that everyone else is wearing. And it sure beats the isolation of being the only one who cares about the Jets when your parents have moved to Dallas.

I'm not trying to make a judgment about which one is more correct; I'm simply arguing that the window of opportunity is open for a kid to experiment with a new team without being saddled with a label like "fair-weather." (And by the time they're an adult, they'll have been a "lifelong" fan anyway.)

Adult: By the time you're an adult, your sports allegiances are pretty well marked out. Attempting to switch teams -- even thinking about it -- can be difficult. But like kids, adults are given their own opportunity to adopt when they relocate to a new city.

Like a kid, any adult might be looking for a sense of connection and community. And so when you're suddenly moved from, say, Orlando to Omaha, it's a natural and understandable instinct to throw on the red and root for the Huskers.

It doesn't even have to be a lifetime commitment. I spent a semester in college working in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and -- arriving just at the start of football season -- I adopted the Gamecocks for the year. (They weren't even very good!) I left the allegiance behind when I left town that winter, but I always maintained a soft spot for them. (Until I met my wife. See Section 5.)

One other example is a fan like Bill Simmons. He relocated to L.A. from Boston. Even though he was a lifetime and die-hard Celtics fan, he adopted the Clippers as his "new hometown" team and has been a prominent presence at games ever since. No one is saying that he doesn't still love his Celtics, but I found his passion for a more local team something to admire.

Franchise: A final, widely excepted exemption to the restraints of the definition of "die-hard" is if your city gets or loses a sports team.

I'd argue the fans of the year in sports are in Oklahoma City. They offered a home to the NBA's displaced Hornets and immediately overwhelmed them with support.

Were these fans Hornets fans a year ago? Unlikely. (Even New Orleans fans weren't Hornets fans. Almost no one was a Hornets fan.)

But the OKCers turned their arena into one of the loudest, rowdiest places to play in the NBA. (The team responded with a playoff berth run that only recently began to falter.) Are these fans in Oklahoma City "fair-weather" for spontaneously becoming die-hard Hornets fans? Hardly. (Although the real test will be if they maintain their allegiance when the team returns to New Orleans.)

And that's the mirror image: Where your allegiances lie when your team leaves town. Were Colts fans expected to cheer for the team in Indianapolis? Were Browns fans expected to cheer for the Ravens?

When a franchise moves, I'd argue its fan base earns automatic fan free agency. They can opt to hold out for a team's return to the city or, if that looks unlikely, they can shop around to find a new team to root for.

Any fan that goes through the shock of losing a franchise shouldn't be subjected to the added torture of having their loyalties questioned when they finally settle down with their new team -- even if they have to try out several teams over several years to find a fit.

5. Marriage

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Go Gators! I'm not about to argue with the wife.

As long as you're going to share everything else with your spouse, why not share their sports allegiances? It represents another opportunity in adulthood to change your fan loyalty without repercussion.

It helps to not have a built-in conflict. My childhood college football team, Maryland, was a non-factor. My college team offered me one disappointing year after another. Like a directionless college freshman just ripe to be pulled into a mind-control cult, I was vulnerable.

I leapt in blindly, but willfully: I started dating my wife in July and by September was addicted to Florida football. Basketball soon followed, helped by a December trip to Gainesville to meet her parents and become indoctrinated into the Gator Cult at the source.

It was addictive to root for a team that would expect to win every game -- that would compete for national championships year in and year out. After a lifetime of Washington Bullets (nature), Chicago Cubs (nurture), Chicago Bears (dramatic moment) and Northwestern Wildcats (college), it was like my first taste of sports power -- and I liked it.

Certainly, it made things go more smoothly as my relationship developed with my wife and her extended clan. Family gatherings in Gainesville were geared around the Gators; being fluent in the latest game analysis and gossip was serious currency for a suitor.

I was not a son-in-law. I was a "Fan-in-Law."

But a funny thing happened along the way: Almost immediately, I developed a fanatical devotion to the school's sports program. I never thought that, at age 28, I could adopt an allegiance and feel so strongly about it.

From an outsider's perspective, it might seem that I am the worst kind of fair-weather fan, particularly now that the basketball team is in the Final Four and the football team poised for a decade of domination.

But the losses bother me as much as they ever did for the teams of my childhood or college years. And the enthusiasm over victories feels even more authentic. I can claim this marriage exemption as legitimate because I'm living through it right now.

6. Kid's college choice
When you watch college basketball or football games on TV and see the parents of the players wearing their kids' jersey or other school paraphernalia, you have to wonder: Were they always a fan of that school? Or maybe only since their kids showed up on campus?

It works the same way for sports fans. You see it on freshman "move-in" day.

While the new student is meeting the cute girls across the hall, at least one parent has hustled over to the bookstore to buy $500 worth of T-shirts, hats, jerseys, car stickers, pennants, blankets and more.

Maybe it's an attempt to bond with the kid at a moment when the kid breaks away from home. But maybe it's just taking advantage of the chance to pick up a new team without fear of the dreaded "fair-weather" tag.

After all, who's going to argue with a new fan who is shelling out up to $50,000 a year to have their kid be a part of the school. Damn right the school becomes a rooting interest!

While it's not mandatory that a fan adopt a child's college as a rooting interest, it is an option that deserves to be treated with respect by other fans.

Certainly, you can imagine the moment when a Maryland fan's child enrolls at Duke. Consider the pride of accomplishment tempered by the realization your child will be at Duke. Could you bring yourself to root for Duke?

My wife and I had this very discussion last week as we gleefully watched LSU dismantle Duke. She knows I'm an avid Duke hater; would I discourage my kid from even applying to Duke out of a sense of loathing that they might get in and go there? I was able to swallow my issues and pledge that if the kid got into Duke and wanted to go, I'd support it.

Yes, but would I wear the sweatshirt? Would I put the sticker on my car? Would I suddenly transform into a Duke fan, betraying everything I've ever rooted for as a fan?

That's the upshot of these six moments, these six windows of opportunity: It is the sincerity of your interest, not the longevity or intensity, that qualifies you as either admirable die-hard or detestable fair-weather.

You're no less of a fan if you picked a team because you were an impressionable 11-year-old; or it's where you went to college; or if you got a job in Phoenix and started rooting for the Suns.

I claimed the "marriage exemption." If my devotion wasn't pure, I might feel a tug toward donning green and gold and rooting for George Mason. I'd certainly be justified; GMU has picked up arguably the largest bandwagon in NCAA Tournament history.

But that would shatter the agreement you make whenever you take advantage of one of these six windows to pick up a team as a favorite. If I suddenly decided that the greatest Cinderella story ever is worth more than my allegiance to Florida, then that -- not when I decided to become a fan -- would be the real indicator of fair-weather flim-flam.

So, with all sincerity, I say: Go Gators!

Dan Shanoff is a columnist for Page 2. His "Daily Quickie" commentary appears every weekday morning.