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Fans Behaving Badly

Misbehavior and violent incidents are nothing new at sporting events, but what is it that turns a fan into a fanatic, and where does it stop?
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

It was a football game with a bone-crunching hit. Nothing new for the National Football League. Fans enjoy hits that rearrange the skeletal system. But this was a player leveling a fan. The fan, dressed in the luminous orange and brown of the Cleveland Browns' faithful, ran onto the field and headed in the direction of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Verron Haynes before veering toward the sideline. Steelers linebacker James Harrison honed in on the unwelcome intruder like a raptor finding its prey and sent him ass over tea kettle before slamming him to the ground and pinning him until a security official cuffed him and led him away.

Weeks prior to this interrupted sprint, a Cincinnati man ran onto the field and stole the ball from Brett Favre as he took a snap from the center and dropped back to pass. In another incident, a Philadelphia Eagles fan spread his mother's ashes on Lincoln Field.

Ah, fans. Short for "fanatics," the word covers a wide spectrum, from genteel observers to unruly, inebriated louts. But why are so many of them in such adventurous and foul moods these days? Is it because stadium ticket and parking prices have gone through the roof? Or is it that fans resent being forced to shoulder the tax burden for stadiums that cost hundreds of millions? Is it getting gouged for memorabilia—like $500 to $1,000 for a Derek Jeter signed baseball or $2,500 for one of his cleats? Players once labeled role models now cheat by using steroids and human growth hormones; they break contracts, are late reporting to camp and get into high-speed police chases with guns in their cars. With abuse and misbehavior so rampant, do fans feel justified in acting out too?

"We focus on sports fans, but these people don't have control over their behavior in other situations and do the same things at places other than athletic events," says Frank Gardner, a professor of psychology at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "So at restaurants there are people who are incredibly loud and difficult and rude and excessive. A very small group of people are just at a whole different level of need for attention and need to feel special. It's a higher level of psychopathology."

It sounds reasonable enough. Running onto the field—and more egregious antisocial behavior—occurs a lot these days. Just one more act of extreme vanity in an exhibitionist society. How bad does it get? Some fans—most fueled by alcohol and courage born of anonymity—hurl ice or batteries onto fields of play. A drunk woman at Wrigley Field threw a baseball that just missed hitting right fielder Jacques Jones in the head. Security questioned the woman but let her go.

Others go further still. Consider soccer fans in Europe who, caught up in the nationalistic, anti-immigrant fervor sweeping the continent, hurl bananas on the field and make monkey chants when a black player touches the ball. These nut jobs find safety in numbers and stake out entire sections of the grandstands. Some of us may want to reconsider the view that soccer is some shining example of an international sport. Fan violence and hooliganism resulting in deaths is greater at soccer matches than in all other sports.

But many fans are "fanatics" in a good way. Without fans, what would happen to undying, all-universe rivalries like Duke versus North Carolina, Ohio State versus Michigan, and the Red Sox versus the Yankees? Each new generation of screaming, body-painted maniacs stokes the embers of these competitions, keeping the rivalries forever passionate.

The spectators behaving miserably are the ones who steal the headlines. Fans are more active these days, but the truth is they've been making their presence felt—and intruding on the games themselves—for more than 100 years.

For the 1896-97 pro basketball season, about five years after the game's invention in December 1891, backboards were affixed to baskets. But they were not installed to give shooters the option of making bank shots. Rather, backboards were necessary because partisan spectators hanging over from gallery seats often deflected the shots of opponents with a hand, umbrella or cane. Or they used the same methods to help guide the shots of the home team into the hoop. New rules called for the attachment of a 4-by-6-foot wire screen behind each basket to stop the interference. Since wire screens suffered dents from repeated caroms, wood seemed the best replacement. With no acknowledged world championships in basketball until the 1930s, the stakes for fan interference were not high in the sport's early years.

The stakes were plenty high in the 1934 World Series, which included a legendary outburst on the part of Detroit fans. It was the sixth inning of Game 7, with the Cardinals trouncing the Tigers, 7-0. Then Joe "Ducky" Medwick slid hard into Detroit third baseman Marv Owen. Owen took offense, the two wrestled, and it appeared to be over. But Detroit fans, already fed up with the score, pelted Medwick with vegetables, soda bottles, fruit and any garbage they could get hold of when he went to left field in the bottom of the sixth inning. Medwick tried to take his position three times, but each time had to retreat to the dugout. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had to force Medwick from the game. The Cardinals won, 11-0.

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