Why have Tennessee Vols fans turned against Jarrett Guarantano? Here's the psychology behind it

Mike Wilson
Knoxville News Sentinel

Adam Earnheardt has tried to find a position in team sports more heavily criticized than a quarterback in football.

The professor of communication at Youngstown State University has failed every time.

“It is hard for me to find or identify another position that is more celebrated or vilified,” said Earnheardt, who has studied and written books about sports fandom. “I can’t think of another position in a team sport. There is all this unnecessary scrutiny of the position in some ways. In other ways, it is justified.”

As is the life of Jarrett Guarantano, the polarizing Tennessee Vols quarterback. He has made a tumultuous 31 starts in 40 games, was relegated to backup duty for part of his junior season and is the main remaining face of the Butch Jones era.

Earnheardt, whose books include “Sports Fans, Identity and Socialization” and “Sports Mania: Essays on Fandom and the Media in the 21st Century,” said it is normal for a fan base to turn against the quarterback when a team is losing, even when a better option has not emerged.

“There is no one else to blame,” Earnheardt said. “If there is no one else to blame, he is it. He is left. They have made changes in coaching and everything else, so fans have no one else to blame but the one guy who is left.”

Loud voices rise

Guarantano is in the midst of an up-and-down senior season. He played well in the first two games, then was a turnover machine for two games before performing well against Alabama. He left UT’s game against Arkansas with an apparent head injury and coach Jeremy Pruitt has not publicly named a starter for UT (2-4) against No. 21 Auburn (4-2) on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Tennessee could turn to either Harrison Bailey or one of the sophomore duo of Brian Maurer or J.T. Shrout.

As Tennessee has struggled, the calls to start any of the backups seem to have increased but might not be as prominent as it appears.

“As the voices of change kind of grow and grow, even if they are not in the majority, the voices become so loud and so prolific that it kind of drowns out the majority,” Earnheardt said.

Earnheardt cited a 1974 article from Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann called “The Spiral of Silence” to explain the balance. The theory suggests that a vocal minority overwhelms a less-passionate majority, squashing the general opinion.

“Maybe everybody else looks at it more objectively, sees the stats and says, ‘I don’t know. Do we really have a better option? This might be it,’” Earnheardt said. “But they think maybe their opinion is not in the majority so they keep their mouths shut even though they might be the majority.”

Social identity 

Earnheardt, who grew up in Pittsburgh, is a longtime Steelers and Pirates fan — although he is more likely to claim the Steelers than the Pirates lately.

There’s a reason for that. There’s a sports fan identity phenomena labeled by psychologists as BIRGing (basking in reflective glow) and CORFing (cutting off reflective failure). BIRGing shows itself after wins, with collective pronouns and general pride. CORFing is when fans suggest distance from a team for a lack of success.

Tennessee fans have existed mainly in the latter after having five head coaches in a decade and finishing in the Associated Press Top 25 twice since 2008.

“A lot of it is wrapped up in the motivation for self-achievements and living vicariously through other human beings that you cheer on,” Earnheardt said. ”This idea of self-identity and self-worth that are built around that, too. …

“Whenever losses happen, you look for excuses for why your identity has taken a hit. You start to look for solutions and place blame.”

Guarantano has shouldered much of the blame in Tennessee fan’s CORFing phase. Last year he said he had received death threats and his sister received “mean messages.”

“Fans, especially super fans who have their identity wrapped up around a team, want changes,” Earnheardt said. “A lot of it revolves around fans wanting to be able to celebrate the success of something they feel deeply connected to.”

Not the experts

Pruitt has stuck with Guarantano while many fans want to see a change despite none of the backups establishing themselves as a viable option.

Earnheardt said it is important to remember that “fans are not the experts” because of a lack of insider knowledge.

“You really don’t know what is happening behind the scenes,” Earnheardt said. “Unless you have statistical evidence behind you to make a factual statement or opinion, in many cases, then it is really impossible to know what is really going on behind the scenes.”

So as UT has continued to play Guarantano, Earnheardt recalled the advice he often gives his friends when they find their sports teams frustrating.

“Let the experts handle it,” Earnheardt said. “If they can’t handle it, they will be replaced.”

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.