When the Western Kentucky football team arrives at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 8 to take on the University of Alabama, neither history nor psychology will be on their side. Like every other team that has visited Tuscaloosa over the course of the past three seasons, the Hilltoppers will be up against an imposing Nick Saban-led football team, as well as the psychological challenge of being labeled a failure. In December 2008, the visitors’ locker room at Alabama’s home field was christened “The Fail Room” (in honor of benefactor James M. Fail), and Crimson Tide opponents have experienced precious little success in the years since.
In fact, visiting teams lost 19 of 21 games between 2009 and 2011, the only victories authored by Auburn (in which soon-to-be NFL #1 draft pick Cam Newton brought the Tigers back from a 24-0 deficit), and a #1-ranked Louisiana State team (which escaped Tuscaloosa with a 9-6 win thanks to Alabama’s four missed field goals).
In the nineteen losses, the visitors have been outscored by an average of 28.7 points a game, outcomes that were likely influenced by the Fail Room, says California native Dr. Rosanna E. Guadagno, a social psychologist who became a Crimson Tide fan after landing a job at the university and experiencing the excitement generated by the team. “There is some psychological theory that suggests we should see a difference in home games as a result of the Fail Room,” she contends.
Guadagno is referring to labeling theory, which posits that if you label somebody — by calling them shy or geeky, for instance — it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the help of graduate students at Alabama, she is currently working on an archival study of the psychological impact of the Fail Room; in other words, an applied demonstration of labeling theory.
“We’re going to examine whether we have better home games as a result of the Fail Room, which I think we do,” she concludes, noting that she still roots for the Crimson Tide, despite having moved on to a job with the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia.
“We are calling our visitors failures and suggesting that they are going to fail. I think it is detrimental to the psychological mindset of those who come to play at Alabama,” continues Guadagno, who argues this has more impact than, say, painting the visitors’ locker room pink, as the University of Iowa has done at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.
A quick comparison of home and road results suggests Guadagno may be correct. From 2009-2011, Alabama won its road and neutral site games by an average margin of 23.2 points (5.5 points fewer than at home), and that figure discounts a pair of road losses, a 14-point defeat at South Carolina and a three-point loss at LSU.
No doubt Fail — who graduated from the university in the late 1940s and passed away in early 2010 after a long career in the financial industry — would have been delighted to learn of his contribution to Alabama’s home field success. At the dedication of the Fail Room, Fail confessed that he didn’t expect to live to see anything named in his honor. “After all,” he said, “who would want anything with the name ‘fail’ on it?”
But when the Athletic Department asked if he was interested in purchasing the naming rights to the locker room, he didn’t hesitate to make a “generous gift” to the Crimson Tide Foundation, a non-profit that serves as the charitable arm of the school’s Athletic Department. He said: “I figured it was the most appropriate opportunity I would ever have to use my name.”