Crossing the Line: Exploring similarities between street gang and sports fan behaviors

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.

Violence

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) 

Believe me, I don’t mean to single out fans of San Francisco, tragedies of fan violence have occurred in many cities including Chicago,  Philadelphia, and my hometown of Detroit.

Why?

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.

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4 thoughts on “Crossing the Line: Exploring similarities between street gang and sports fan behaviors

  1. I found this post to be particularly interesting and was impressed by the way in which it is written. Often when individuals draw parallels between two very different things, they do so with little supporting evidence; however, you provide tons of evidence and point to a number of very legitimate, and frightening, similarities between some sports fans and street gangs. One large difference between the two does certainly exist though. The intentions of each are very different, as sports fans primary objective is inherently innocent (to cheer on their given team), though some individuals may have very destructive second objectives. The primary objective of many gangs, however, is inherently negative and often unlawful. Regardless, you do a great job establishing the parallels that do exist.

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  2. The connections you draw here are shocking but extremely accurate. When gangs are described right next to these crazy sports fan incidents, the connections between the two make themselves glaringly obvious. I found particularly interesting the definition you gave for a gang, and how sports fans fit directly under the subtitle. Your extensive evidence between the connections helps to further drive this point home. Such a startlingly disturbing comparison can hopefully have the power to influence sports fans to change some of their ways; to not be so violent, to not be so destructive. Both gangs and sports fans get caught up in this crazy ideal that they feel like they must defend through and through; your video evidence shows infamous examples of that. Overall, I found these parallels to be extremely captivating.

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  3. I found your blog about gangs and sports fans to be rather interesting. The parallels you made definitely are true and are ones that I didn’t really think about before. However, I do think it is important to put both groups’ actions into perspective. There are great differences in the context and extent to which gangs and sports fans destroy property and commit acts of violence. Gangs destroy property and vandalize for the sake of doing so in the sense that it is part of the nature of gangs to do so. It is part of the aim and purpose in gangs to commit such acts. Gangs go out with the intent to destroy property, and to vandalize it for the sake of doing so whether it be just destroying property in general or to send a message either to individuals or even to another gang. To the contrary, sports fans destroy property and vandalize usually as an immediate reaction to a sports games. Fans do not go to sports games with the intention of destroying property or vandalizing after the game. Fans destroy property and vandalize as an immediate reaction to the outcome of the game. For example, flipping cars after the game as in your example was a direct reaction to the Giants winning the World Series. I don’t think fans went to the game planning to flip the car afterwords. Whether their acts are right or wrong are another debate, but, the act of destroying property is not done so for the sake of doing so or as an aim of sports fans but rather as a gut reaction to the outcome of the game. In terms of violence, the context and intent in which it is done so by gangs is drastically different to that when it is done by sports fans. It again is in the nature and part of the aim of gangs to commit acts of violence. For example, it often is part of gang initiation to commit acts of violence, and it is often seen as the only way in which to solve problems with others when two or more individuals from different gangs are not getting along. Gangs have the intent to commit acts of violence and to hurt people. Sports fans do not go to games usually with the intent of hurting fans of opposing teams. It is something that is often a reaction to an extreme argument between fans of opposing teams. Fans do not consider it a part of their aim or nature to deal with losing or opposing fans by committing acts of violence. Also, the extent to which the gangs destroy and vandalize property is drastically different than the extent to which sports fans do so. As it is in the nature and part of the aim of gangs to do so it is a much more common practice that can happen at any time., and the issue of vandalism is something of great prevalence by gangs. It is much more rare to find a sports fan destroying and vandalizing property. Secondly, it is much more common for gangs to commit acts of violence as it is a part of their nature and intent. Gangs usually see violence as the way to deal with any issues, and resort to it for the sake of doing so more often than not. Gang-related deaths and injuries are much more common than those for sports fans. Furthermore, it is more common for gang-related incidents to result in serious injury or death than for fights between sports fans to do so as it is much more commonplace that when gangs fight it often becomes extreme. Sports fans committing acts of violence is far more rare and often less violent. Usually violence among sports-fans does not result in serious injury and it is something that doesn’t really occur often. For both destroying and vandalizing property as well as acts of violence, these issues usually only make news when dealing with sports-fans. This is because these acts are much less commonplace for sports-fans and are way more rare for them. It is so common and likely that gangs are committing these acts that they are not considered newsworthy. When sports fans turn to these acts it is seen almost as shocking as it is not how most sports-fans conduct themselves and it is considered to be much different than the norm for them to do so. However, this is definitely considered to be much more normal for these acts to occur with gangs. Overall, your comparisons are very much true and very relevant, but I think it is crucial to put the acts of both of these groups into perspective. While they are similar, they are rather different in notable and significant ways, and I think it’s important to point that out.

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  4. I think the angle you took in this blog post is extremely thought provoking and is a very important issue that must be address. I personally agree that the violence involved in sports fandom is a major problem. It has gotten to a point where sometimes you have to think twice about whether it is safe to attend a professional sports event. For example, I would not feel safe attending an Oakland Raiders game. The culture is unappealing and there have been issues of violence. I like that you address the mob mentality and the groupthink involved in sports fandom. Having said that, I think the comparison to street gangs is a bit of a reach. I get where you are going with it. The colors, the group of people, the violence but the relation is made through too many generalizations. What I mean is that, you can take these things you said about sports fans and applied it too and large groups of people of any institution. I think the mob mentality applies to almost any situation where a mob or group of people are bonded together. You could have easily made the same comparison with the same points in regards to political groups or religious groups. Overall, I think the blog is very well written and well thought out. But, I think the comparison made is not quite fully fleshed out and unique.

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