In Praise of BYU’s CougarBoard commiserators

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

The men in my life are BYU sports fans, and as such, they are well acquainted with grief.

Some time ago we exiled my dad, husband, and brother-in-law from our general family group text for all their doom, gloom, and general rabidity about BYU sports to their own separate group text that they named “Cougar Commiserators.”

Unless you’re a fan of only a handful of sports teams in the world, woes and fandom go hand in hand with those woes only occasionally paid in recompense by the exceptional play, game, or season.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, loss to loss, fans commiserate to very rarely celebrate.

But where does a lone Cougar commiserator go when they have no group chat to turn to? Where does one go when their loved ones have stopped pretending to care about BYU football’s losses? (How many times can one feign, “Oh, man,” in a sad-sounding voice?)

Where does one go when their friends and family shun them for talking all too often about the 1984 college football national championship or where they were when Jimmer dropped 43 points on Kawhi Leonard? (Go to bed, Grandpa.)

They head to the only place that will take them in — the mothership of online BYU sports fandom:

“CougarBoard” is an internet message board — or, for the high-minded, a forum — about BYU sports that has existed roughly since 2005. Upon first glance, CougarBoard appears to be a portal to the internet of yore. The interface is dated. I can always tell when my husband is checking CougarBoard because his browser looks like it’s still battling Y2K.

With its simple color scheme of — what else? — navy blue, gray, and white and busy graphics, CougarBoard’s whole aesthetic conjures up a simpler time on the internet when “you got mail” was ubiquitous as you got malware.

Message boards were popularized in the 90s and 2000s, long before social media, as a means of communicating about specific topics anonymously. Over time, the popularity of niche discussion sites were replaced with the likes of Reddit, Twitter, Facebook groups and other social media communities.

For college sports, “Rivals” is a popular online forum with subforums for topics like football recruiting, basketball recruiting, and specific college programs like BYU sports’ page called, “CougarNation.” Part of what makes CougarBoard stand apart from today’s internet fan culture, like that on Rivals, is that it subsists as an independently operated message board rather than a subforum on another larger platform. Deseret News owns COUGARFAN, which aggregates news about BYU and its fandom and hosts a forum.

Independence is a through line when talking about BYU, its sports, and its community of fans. Since 2011, the football team has competed independently, divorced from conference affiliation. It left the Mountain West Conference behind 11 years ago and has been a single lady since then, playing (and often losing to) powerful programs, but trying really hard, guys! Next season it will be wifed up once again, this time with the bigger, bolder, much richer Big 12 conference.

This last decade of football independence feels like a very obvious metaphor for BYU fans’ insistence on creating their own community on their own platform. CougarBoard is a reflection of that independence in all of its quirks, for all of its quirks, for better and for worse.

CougarBoard’s avatar on its official Twitter page is an illustration of Brigham Young looking at a smartphone. CougarBoard and its users inhibit some traits of Brother Brigham himself as they carve out a place to call home in the vast, unsettled, and oftentimes unruly terrain of the internet. It is The Place for BYU sports fans to commune, to congregate, to communicate, and to commiserate.

On a morning in late November, it was a BYU men’s basketball game day and the message board was active with hundreds of lively discussion threads about who should own a pet, how much it costs to own a pet, various topics related to the U.S. World Cup match, the ethics of taking advantage of Costco’s generous return policy, and obviously, multiple threads about personal rankings of Star Wars films.

The topics vigorously debated and discussed on CougarBoard are certainly not limited to BYU sports — often acutely so — and the responses to those topics reveal the full range of human emotion like the pure joy expressed by user conetah: “ARBYS WAYGU IS BACK BABY!!!! MERRY CHRYSLER TO ALL!!!!!” to another acrimonious message about the BYU football team’s defensive coordinator search by user chilawcoug: “Pretty much everything you said was wrong there.”

Each user has a unique username which allows the freedom to post all the hot takes, dunks, and trolling that come with anonymous online forums. On CougarBoard, posts can be as innocuous as this line in the sand from user vagabonder: “Hot take: prime rib is awful. It has no redeeming qualities.” (Yet another meat take.) Or as abrasive as this comment from user moknowssports, in response to BYU’s hiring search for a defensive coordinator: “If true, it solidifies something I’ve thought: our staff is a low IQ group.”

To borrow the verbiage I use for my preschooler’s meltdowns, clearly there’s some “big feelings” about BYU football.

The real people behind the colorful, kinda weird, anonymous usernames who are contributing to CougarBoard’s robust online community are protected and fueled by their anonymity. Perhaps the most defining feature of message boards is pseudonymity, which means a user is consistently using a pseudonym or username.

A New York Times article from earlier this year reconsiders pseudonymity and what it means to be oneself online. It says: “. . . Anonymity has also been shown to encourage participation; by promoting a greater sense of community identity, users don’t have to worry about standing out individually. Anonymity can also boost a certain kind of creative thinking and lead to improvements in problem-solving.”

Indeed there is a je ne sais quoi or, a “certain kind of creative thinking,” exhibited on CougarBoard from the out-there takes to the usernames themselves. Anybody who has tried to merge on I-15, has stood in line to get a free hot dog from an RC Willey on a Saturday, or has watched Cosmo the Cougar avert DEATH during a frivolous BYU halftime show can attest to the creativity that exists at the heart of Utah County.

The creativity of CougarBoard has led to more altruistic ends like the financial contributions to BYU players’ Name Image and Likeness (NIL) deals, and not just the men’s basketball and football players, but also the women who play less profitable sports at BYU like women’s basketball and volleyball. To date, CougarBoard has supported the players they talk about by participating in “201 NIL deals sending money to 139 individual players.”

What allows anonymous communities to thrive in positive, community-building ways instead of descending into full-fledged cannibalism and hate speech — as is the reputation of many message boards — is strong-handed moderation. Moderation is how online message boards are monitored; moderators are paid or unpaid positions that ensure users are keeping community rules about who posts and what they can post about.

Users who don’t keep the board rules can be suspended or banned from the site by moderators although they can appeal the decision. But CougarBoard (CB) user, Ted Lasso, suggests a more democratic approach: “We need a tool to vote people off CB. Ban them for a week, a month, a year, whatever. Let the people decide!!”

The community board rules for CougarBoard would be recognizable to church members who attended youth activities or went to BYU — “stay positive and . . . supportive;” “keep it clean;” “don’t be a jerk;’’ don’t break the law.” “Keep it clean” is further clarified as no profanity or taking the Lord’s name in vain and prohibiting sexual innuendo or sex as a topic in general. As an attendee of one youth church dance where Usher’s “Yeah!” was accidentally played and the cultural hall descended into chaos, this checks out.

Being familiar with or fond of these standards can add to the feeling of camaraderie and cohesiveness that exists on CougarBoard for its thousands of frequent users. CougarBoard aspires to be a sort of holy place on the internet where users can stand while connecting with others who believe and live like them. A thriving online community reflects the values of its users and then builds upon that usership, inviting others to join the platform and add to the conversation. This is referred to as “network effect,” and that’s the internet, babe.

Users congregate to CougarBoard because they feel safe to be an online version of their truest, bluest selves. In this environment, protected by a username and strict, agreed-upon community rules, users can feel comfortable to talk about so much more than BYU sports. It’s a place where primarily men can talk about job loss, parenting questions, car issues, financial advice, apparently meat — where they can build friendships and be themselves under the pretext of BYU sports.

One frequent CougarBoard “lurker”— someone who reads a message board, but doesn’t post — told me this: “I’ve heard it said that the BYU-Utah rivalry is so toxic because it’s a rivalry that has nothing to do with sports pretending to be about sports. CougarBoard is not really about sports, but it’s about sports. Everyone on CougarBoard is using sports and discussions as a means to really think about how they identify themselves as a person.”

However, not everyone feels so expansively about CougarBoard. Sportscaster and sportswriter, Dave McCann, says, “I think it’s more about sports . . . It is a lot like the other social media outlets, a place for people to vent under an alias — sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s not.”

For many users, that may be true. CougarBoard can be just a tab in a browser; a place to click for mindless distraction and casual fandom. But the success of the board indicates a desire for further connection beyond just hiring rumors and despairing through losses.

What is fandom anyway, besides an excuse to collectively feel something together?

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