Flames shoot high into the crisp October night. Downtown businesses fall victim to countless incidents of smash-and-grab theft. Over 150 people, including several law enforcement officers, are injured and dozens of arrests are made. Was this mayhem the result of a violent turf war in the gang-ridden city of Los Angeles? Chicago? Philadelphia? Not even close. This scene played out on the streets of Vancouver, B.C. when disappointed fans took to the streets after the Vancouver Canucks folded to the Boston Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals.
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While typical sports fan behavior resides within the boundaries of social norms, there are unfortunate incidents where fans cross the lines of sportsmanship, decency, and at times, the law. There is no shortage of examples illustrating that too often fan behavior mimics that of street gangs.
I learned through research for my American Culture class (focused on Counter Culture) that gangs are defined in many ways, but most definitions have similar components. The FBI’s National Crime Information Center defines a gang as “a group of 3 or more persons, with a common interest, bond, or activity characterized by criminal or delinquent conduct.” Regrettably, sports fans meet all 3 components of this definition more often than I, a sports fan myself, would like to admit.
Colors and colorful language
Some similarities in gang and fan behavior seem relatively harmless. For example, both gangs and sports fans dress in clothing and “colors” to represent their affiliation and show loyalty. For both groups, wearing similar clothing promotes a sense of belonging.
To claim superiority, rival street gangs may flash signs or verbally taunt each other. Likewise, sports fans often join together to chant, jeer or boo rival fans, players and coaches. Although probably not what our forefathers envisioned when authoring the First Amendment, we all have the right to express ourselves in these ways. But when language turns threatening, as it does with gangs and sometimes sports fans, a line is crossed. The words are no longer considered part of our protections and may even constitute a criminal act.
Sometimes, for both gangs and sports fans, the battle of words escalates into much more troubling behaviors.
Destruction of property
It is a common occurrence (some would say tradition) for fans to storm the field after a college football victory and proceed to take down the goal posts. Such was the case early last month, when Ole Miss pulled off an amazing upset over top-ranked Alabama.
While goal post tear-downs are often celebrated, other forms of property destruction harm unwilling victims. Soon after I began writing this post, the San Francisco Giants won the 2014 MLB World Series. As if on cue to provide me additional content, the fan celebration turned ugly. Unruly fans smashed out storefront windows, littering the streets with broken glass. Cars were overturned and set ablaze. A crowd of people danced on top of, then torched and destroyed a $700,000 city bus.
It is sad that post-game vandalism and destruction have become so commonplace that any city hosting a major sports championship would be irresponsible to not prepare with additional law enforcement resources and riot gear.
The worst of the similarities between street gang and sports fan behavior is the use of violence.
Violence is an established norm in gang culture and is used to gain status, turf or retribution. Although not an accepted norm in mainstream culture, violent fan incidents seem to be increasingly common.
With its large and zealous fan base, professional soccer experiences more than its share of violence. Some countries, including Brazil, have hard-core fan clubs that are actually considered criminal gangs by their governments. The number of victims of “football hooliganism” (unlawful acts by fans) often reaches into the hundreds annually. But U.S. sports are not immune to violent fan behavior. During the previously mentioned World Series chaos, two people were stabbed and two were shot. Only a month earlier, a violent fan brawl occurred in the stands at a NFL game between the 49ers and the Cardinals. (WARNING: video is graphic)
The examples presented are not meant to sensationalize these tragic incidents but to provoke readers to question why they occur.
There are several factors known to contribute:
- Gang-mentality – A psychological phenomenon described as “courage to act in ways that one would not individually”. Fans may get caught up in the emotions and behaviors of the crowd which provides anonymity rather than accountability for one’s own actions.
- Over-identification – Team affiliation that plays an over-sized part in a fan’s self-identity. Giamatti points out in “Take Time For Paradise: Americans and Their Games”, that winning is not just about outscoring the other team, but a way of defining ourselves, our team, our city as better . If my team is a champion, then I am a champion. Fans placing too much importance on this part of their identity may take wins and losses (or bad calls, or name calling) personally and become easily provoked.
- Excessive alcohol consumption – A common activity that lowers inhibitions and blurs the boundaries of sportsmanship and decency.
I also wonder if the nature of sporting events, each a “mini-war” with one side victorious, the other defeated, elicits a (primal?) violent instinct in some fans.
So is the answer to ban alcohol? Although it may be more realistic than changing human nature on a grand scale, a ban is unlikely to be supported due to the astronomical amount of sponsorship money provided by purveyors of your favorite fermented beverage.
Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions to this complex problem, but we can control our own behavior. To support the continued enjoyment of the sports we love, let’s hold ourselves accountable and not cross the line.