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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

(continued from page 1)

As bad as incidents from decades ago were, there is a heightened intensity to the emotions these days. In fact, one baseball game seemed to have it all: drunkenness, a disturbing turn of fortune, civic passion and pent-up frustrations of historic proportions.

Consider the tempers that boiled over on the cool night of October 14, 2003, in Chicago. Fans screamed bloody murder during and long after Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field when a spectator, Steve Bartman, deflected a foul ball off the bat of the Florida Marlins' Luis Castillo. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou missed the ball and was apoplectic, slamming his glove down in frustration and pleading his case. But replays showed that umpires got the call right. Interference was not called because Bartman had not reached out onto the field of play.

A rally ensued, and the bases simulated a merry-go-round as Florida scored seven runs to bury Chicago. Fans hurled garbage at Bartman as he was led away from the park under escort for his own safety. Although few of these fans were alive in 1908 when the Cubs won their last World Series, the Wrigley faithful were venting nearly a century of bad karma and they had located a short, bespectacled scapegoat for their latest debacle.

Some in the media cautioned restraint and forgiveness for Bartman, but The Wall Street Journal made the situation more combustible by reporting Bartman's name, and personal information about him appeared on Major League Baseball's online message boards minutes after the game ended. The next day the Chicago Sun-Times released his name, address and place of business. Reporters hounded him. He disconnected his phone and did not go to work. His neighbors came to his defense, describing him as a good person, a youth league coach and a lifelong Cubs fan.

So what makes a fan burst like a pipe under pressure when his team loses? "Instead of living their own lives, many fans live vicariously through a team," says John Gallucci, head trainer for the New York Red Bulls, who is writing a book about parents and child athletes. "People live their lives through their idols. They get so absorbed psychologically that they allow the wins and losses of their team to make their day good or bad."

In addition, a loss makes some fans feel as if a special relationship has been violated. "Everyone is looking for a group to be affiliated with. Whether it is a fraternity or sorority in college, people need a social affiliation that becomes a deeply ingrained personal affiliation. They interpret the loss as personal, as 'against me,'" says Gregory Wilson, a professor in the department of human kinetics and sports studies at the University of Evansville in Indiana and co-author of Applying Sports Psychology (Human Kinetics Publishers, 2005).

Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe observes that fandom in America was different decades ago. Now, Ryan believes a subsection of the fans in "Red Sox Nation" have become the most "narcissistic in North America." These fans "have made the shifting fortunes of the team all about them." So when the ground ball went through Bill Buckner's wickets in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, their take was, "How can he do that to me?"

When first base umpire Don Denkinger blew a ninth-inning call in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series that would have given the St. Louis Cardinals the series over Kansas City, Denkinger got hate mail—several containing death threats—from Cardinal fans for two years. A St. Louis disc jockey went so far as to give out Denkinger's telephone number and the address to his Waterloo, Iowa, home on the air. Denkinger finally went on the offensive and contacted the FBI when he received a letter with no return address stating that if the writer saw Denkinger in person, he would "blow him away" with a .357 magnum.

Most fans don't go that far. For every person who runs onto the field or turns an object into a missile or makes a death threat, there are thousands who don't. A vast majority of fans root passionately without turning into public nuisances.

Long-suffering but loyal fans are one type. Chicago Cubs and New York Jets supporters face the possibility that their beloved teams won't raise a flag in their lifetimes. Yet they root year in and year out. It's the same with New York Knicks fans like Fred Klein and Stan Asofsky, two Brooklyn natives who have been regulars at Madison Square Garden for half a century.

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