A vibrant NIRSA community has turned a simple hashtag—#SocksOfNIRSA—into a popular Association-wide tradition. We can confirm that #SocksOfNIRSA is very much a thing, and it is here to stay. So where did #SocksOfNIRSA—a fun addition to NIRSA Annual Conference tradition—begin?

In the face of a stressful packing adventure, heavy hitter socks became an important item on the NIRSA Annual Conference packing list. A simple retweet helped propel #SocksofNIRSA through the Twitterverse as it accompanied the #NIRSA2018 hashtag. #SocksOfNIRSA literally puts our best foot forward, showing off the socks that get us where we need to go. Retweets by enthusiastic NIRSA members kicked off the chain of “six degrees of NIRSA” that created a movement.

It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact beginning of #SocksOfNIRSA, but without a doubt or hesitation many of us had a part in the adventure that started in March 2018 during the NIRSA Annual Conference in Denver. The mystery will stay alive for years to come but we can enjoy the simple pleasures of seeing some swaggy socks battling for the title of Top Sock.

#SocksOfNIRSA in 2020

As the 2020 NIRSA Annual Conference drew closer, the #SocksOfNIRSA hashtag began to resurface and was seen more and more frequently. Again, #SocksOfNIRSA was simply a fun hashtag embraced by a group of individuals looking to connect through social media on a seemingly innocuous commonality. NIRSA members began snapping pictures of potential footie candidates and posting them, looking to measure their socks against the other contenders that would appear at the Annual Conference. These 2020 #SocksOfNIRSA tweets highlighted playful discussion. There was little difference when comparing these tweets to what had appeared in the previous two years.

Enter the beginning of the pandemic.

Numerous events began to be canceled due to safety considerations. The 2020 NIRSA Annual Conference was soon canceled to the dismay (and understanding) of the membership. Since #SocksOfNIRSA was an online phenomenon, it didn’t need to change—though it was perhaps presented to a more captive audience. An audience looking for ways to connect with fellow NIRSA members since the annual NIRSA family reunion wasn’t taking place as usual.

In this atmosphere, a #SocksOfNIRSA Twitter competition started, helmed by the #SocksOfNIRSA Committee—an unofficial NIRSA committee. This year’s stellar #SocksOfNIRSA Committee consisted of:

In early April—specifically, between April 6 and April 17—participants snapped photos of their socks and tweeted them along with the hashtag #SocksOfNIRSAEntry for tracking purposes. Once all the entries were received, they were seeded in a bracket. This bracket was made public, allowing individuals to submit bracket entries along with their predictions for who would win the year’s #SocksOfNIRSA contest. With the cancellation of the Annual Conference affecting the NIRSA Foundation and its opportunity to fundraise, submitters were encouraged to pair their entries with donations to the NIRSA Foundation.

The contest hype built as entries began to be submitted. The #SocksOfNIRSA Committee anticipated a jump from the high teens the year before to 25 or maybe 30 entries. Entries slowly began rolling in on April 6. A steady stream of entries continued throughout the submission window with people tagging their socks on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. A rough count was taken during the middle of this entry period, and it surpassed 50 entries. When the submission timeframe was over, the entries were counted and the committee couldn’t believe the number: 89 entries! And those were only the ones accompanied by the #SocksOfNIRSA hashtag. The committee knew it had missed some entries. It never anticipated this kind of response. An innocent hashtag became a massive undertaking, which was incredible.

The committee created a site for brackets, voting, and donations. It then seeded each entry, using a seeding algorithm created by #SocksOfNIRSA Senior Metric Analyst Jarrode Davis. After voting was completed and the data was crunched, the committee then presented the seeds and brackets on April 23, Selection Thursday. Two committee members, Hannah Roberts and Scott Flickinger, broke down each entry in a Zoom call topping out at around 50 viewers. Many of the entrants were on the call, and some even expressed opinions regarding their seeding as their entry was analyzed. “62?!?!?!?,” exclaimed 62-seed #SocksOfNIRSA entrant Stephanie Calhoun. “Am I being punished???”

After the selection show, the brackets were made available to the public for consumption. Many individuals donated directly to the NIRSA Foundation or sent Venmo donations to the committee to be forwarded to the Foundation. At a suggested $5 per bracket submission, many opened up and gave more than was suggested. A total of $170 was raised through Venmo, and more money was raised through direct donations to the Foundation. After all brackets were submitted, it was time for the biggest endeavor: the voting.

Voting took place over the next three to four weeks, and with anyone eligible to vote, the outcome was a huge unknown. Voting sites were posted for each matchup in the bracket, and voters were given a 24-hour window to vote before brackets were closed and tallied. The intensity of the voting was amazing; individuals posted on their own social media accounts to rally supporters for their entries. As pairs of socks marched through the brackets, the electricity only intensified. For many, this was an outlet for competition, especially since all sporting events had been cancelled due to COVID-19. There were rumors of performance enhancement—whether it be individuals voting multiple times, some using socks from previous years, etc. This all added to the excitement of the tournament.

When it was all said and done, Travis Lankford of The University of Texas at Arlington was the 2020 winner of the tournament with his prize-winning Elf-themed socks titled “Son of a Nutcracker.” It was a month of energetic entries, campaigning, and voting, and the committee congratulates everyone who entered, voted, and supported this endeavor!

Beyond the socks

The tournament has been over for one month, and we (of the #SocksOfNIRSA Committee) are still amazed at the response we received this year. We still have not fully counted the results from the numerous brackets submitted (life happens, but we are on it). We still message and laugh over what we saw this year. Not mockingly, but rather with a sense of wonder. Why did #SocksOfNIRSA have such a huge jump in numbers in 2020? The response from the membership was incredible. NIRSA all-stars and legends participated in this event this year when it had barely registered with those same individuals during the last two years. Why was there such a gigantic leap?

We’re sure the pandemic lent a hand here. People have been unsure, frustrated, and even afraid of the implications of COVID-19. Worry over health is common now. We worry about our loved ones, our jobs, our society, and ourselves. These uncertainties have moved from a background hum to a deafening buzz, and it takes a toll. In times of fear and darkness, we look for lights and beacons. We look for illumination and direction—an ultimate good. Maybe that’s what the 2020 #SocksOfNIRSA phenomenon represented: Something pure, innocent, and good, which was ridiculous and goofy by design.

Many of us have been exhausted trying to keep our programming going, or deducing what life is going to look like for ourselves professionally and personally moving forward. We sometimes forget that we need to reinvigorate ourselves in order to continue serving others. We hope that the 2020 #SocksOfNIRSA competition gave you all a little joy and served as a reminder regarding how what we do can positively affect others. We also that it reminds you to take it easy on yourself and enjoy the little moments.

We also hope to see you next year, with some even better socks.


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Director of Intramural Sports at Cornell University | NIRSA Profile

Scott Flickinger is currently the Director of Intramural Sports at Cornell University.

Sport & Youth Programs Specialist at East Carolina University | NIRSA Profile

Hannah Roberts is currently the Sport & Youth Programs Specialist at East Carolina University.