- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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One of the most fascinating side stories during this summer of UNC discontent -- from P.J. Hairston's rental car paper trail to the ongoing scrutiny over an academics scandal that was supposed to be long past the university by now -- is the intense involvement of opposing fans.
NC State die-hards, most notably those at the PackPride message board forums, have been all over it. They started a crowdsourced dig for incriminating evidence in the Hairston case long before receipts linking other rentals with the address of convicted felon Haydn "Fats" Thomas surfaced in the USA Today. Some of what they found was easily dismissed, but some of it genuinely deserved wider scrutiny, and now here we are.
Of course, North Carolina fans have been just as strident in their program's defense. Where Wolfpack fans see a massive conspiratorial cover-up that reaches the upper limits of state government (specifically as it pertains to the academic case, but I saw this argument made when charges against Hairston were dropped), North Carolina fans see a witchhunt conducted by "haters" and "little brothers" that at best exaggerates some otherwise very concerning issues, and at worst invents them from whole cloth, because "they're jealous."
On a personal level, I can't remember the last time I got as many emails about a team from fans who openly root for a rival. My inbox is not a perfect sample, and that is always true of the Internet in general. Many reasonable UNC fans are willing to acknowledge their embarrassment while pointing out what they see as flaws in some accusations. And many NC State fans who take pleasure in the furor would nonetheless prefer their investigatorial comrades didn't make the whole group look so crazy. Alas, the reasonable folks are always drowned out by the vocal minority, and so the inbox keeps filling up, the comment sections keep looking like political news sites, and the White House petitions keep going from silly ideas to genuine realities.
Wait ... White House petition? Huh? Oh yes, dear reader. That actually happened. Titled "Investigate the fraud and misuse of federal funds involving athletics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill," the petition asserts that because UNC has received federal funding for research while also battling an academics scandal in its Afro- and African-American studies department, that a "comprehensive investigation is required to ensure that federal funds are not being misused."
Thus far, the petition has 86 signatures. To receive an official response from the White House, it must accumulate at least 100,000 signees. Only 99,914 to go!
This is all quite hilarious and silly, of course, so silly that you don't need me to explain why. Sports fans never cease to amaze, though. We're always good for a laugh.
That said, I also find the context inspiring. When I visited the forum thread the petition initially grew out of, I expected to read a chorus of approval. Fight the power, go get 'em, all that.
Instead, most posters hated it. "This is a joke, right," asked one. "What the [heck] is wrong with you people? You've finally let [them] push you over the edge," said another. "This is either a very nice troll by the cheats or we have some delusional fans. Please delete. It's embarrassing," pleaded a third. Probably the best response came from a poster who merely left the words "You people" and a little animation of an adorable red-faced smiley banging its head against a tiny wall.
Hope for humanity lives on in these responses. Even among the small sliver of folks who might be most obviously supportive of something like this, there is widespread derision. No one wants to be painted as a bunch of crazies, and everyone recognizes there are limits. Likewise, some of the best comments I've read from North Carolina fans have admitted that the academic scandal was embarrassing, that the Hairston stuff is troubling, and that too-strenuous defenses of any of it risk making the whole fan base look dismissive and blinkered -- a pasting over of flaws with a giant sticker that reads "haters."
In this spirit, I'd like to submit a humble proposal: Everyone take a deep breath. We've now officially reached peak insanity with this White House petition. There's nowhere positive to go from here. Maybe some NC State fans can acknowledge that their relationship with UNC is not exactly the most healthy, even by the typically dissociated fandom standards. Maybe UNC fans can go beyond admitting the program's issues but also recognize that, after so imperiously dominating the local basketball culture in recent years, and so thoroughly scoffing at the Wolfpack at every turn, it is only natural that rival fans would seek to hasten their downfall. Maybe everyone can come together and, instead of arguing about old emails from a faculty report about a years-old academic scandal, agree that this whole pattern is insane. Maybe everyone needs to go to their rooms and count to 100.
Honestly, I'm worried about you guys. I just want to help.