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July 22, 2008

A real fan supports his team through thick and thin, even after a 5-7 season and a long winter with no bowl game. So on the surface, you've got to give Nebraska football fan James Conradt a little credit, but it evaporates quickly in the heat of his internet crimes.

Conradt got caught up in an argument in one of those internet blogs where football fans celebrate victories, agonize over defeats, criticize coaches and speculate on how their teams are doing in the recruiting wars. He was defending the honor of the Cornhuskers in a verbal sparring match with some Oklahoma fans when things started to go bad.

His problem is a common one: not knowing when to shut up. But Conradt went well beyond the range of most common blowhards.

In fact, things got so far out of hand that he falsely reported the arrest of two University of Oklahoma players — quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Landry Jones — for distribution of cocaine. Conradt copied the template from the Daily Oklahoman's Web site and used the byline of a real sportswriter — Jake Trotter — to report his "story" to the world.

This is something that a drunken college student would do. I wonder how the 36-year-old Conradt thought he was going to get away with his little stunt. For example, unless he has connections in the Oklahoma legal system, how was he going to persuade Bradford and Jones to show up for their arraignment? Very quickly, this house of cards had to collapse. It's like trying to convince the pretty girl you just met that you're a rock star. At some point, you have to show her your fancy sports car and your 50-room mansion or she loses interest. But in that case, at least you wouldn't get sued by the Oklahoma Publishing Co., as Conradt has been. The overzealous fellow also will have to answer to a couple sets of angry parents.

Conradt's name is not a popular one these days, especially in Norman, Oklahoma. Conradt took team loyalty a little too far, and in so doing, he further strained the rivalry between the Huskers and the Sooners. That rivalry, which for years was one of the classiest in sports, has foundered lately. It was just starting to heal from Bill Callahan's "f---ing hillbillies" remark of 2004 and his infamous throat slash gesture the following year, plus a lawsuit filed by a member of the OU Ruf-Neks spirit organization against a Husker player who injured him in an incident during pregame warmups (the Husker player was acquitted).

Many reasonable people might wonder why Conradt was getting so passionate about football when it's not even football season. Alas, that's one of the problems. Many Nebraska fans are anxious for the season to start — tomorrow, if possible. They want the Huskers team to resume their winning ways. Many would give their right arm to make it happen. They want it in the worst way. But this is a case study of what happens when a Husker fan goes about it in the worst way.

He drags the names of innocent players through the mud, he gets sued by a major newspaper, and he makes Nebraska fans around the nation look bad. All because he starts talking smack online with a fan of a rival team and lets things get out of hand.

The fact that Conradt is a Husker fan living behind enemy lines as a manager in the Information Technology Department at the University of Texas in Austin doesn't help his case in Oklahoma. The fact that a few Texas radio stations picked up the "story" and eagerly reported it as fact doesn't help matters, either. Maybe the Sooners think they're getting double-teamed from the north and south.

How in the name of common sense did Conradt arrive at this point? Based on what he said later in his apology, it was simply a desire to one-up an audacious statement that a Sooner fan had posted online.

Of course, the best answer is simply that Conradt didn't think much at all. That's not really a problem when you're making stupid statements in a bar while surrounded by your buddies, but it becomes a big problem when you're making bogus claims online for the whole world to see. Having passion for your team is a good thing, but when your passion starts to leave your brain in the dust, it's time to tone down the rhetoric.

Conradt is not alone when it comes to making foolhardy posts in sports blogs. Idiotic rants will continue to surface online for as long as the technology exists. Part of the internet's charm is its untamed populism — almost anyone can figure out how to post his comments on a blog, or even start his own Web site. Thankfully, there is no prior restraint, no official government censorship, when it comes to the internet. But Conradt, and hopefully a lot more like him, are finding out that there can be consequences for what you post, and that, too, is a good thing.

Nebraska football fans are the greatest in college football. But the best place to prove what a great fan you are is on Saturdays in the stadium, not in the electronic world of the blogosphere. Keep this in mind: Nebraska has to earn back its national respect the old-fashioned way. Its fans can't make the Huskers look good online until the Huskers look good on the field.

Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He was sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin from 2003-2007, when he wrote "Around the Husker Nation," a commentary on NU football. He was a writer and columnist for the North Platte Telegraph from 1984-2002. He started writing for this website in 2008.