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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?

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Sometimes the press depicts fan rowdiness as being vaguely amusing. Consider the story of Philadelphia Eagles fans hurling snowballs at Santa Claus. It was December 15, 1968, and the Eagles were a miserable 2-11. When the decade started, Eagles fans found themselves rooting for the NFL champions, but one boneheaded decision by management after another—like trading beloved quarterback and future Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen to Washington for Norm Snead—had Philly fans in a foul mood. That 54,535 people showed up at Franklin Field to catch the utterly meaningless last game of the 1968 season was a testament to the loyalty of Eagles fans.
At halftime they decided to take out their frustrations on a 19-year-old fan named Frank Olivo, who had been asked to run down the field in his Santa Claus outfit. The first snowball had some force, having been fired from the upper deck. By the time Santa's trek downfield and betwixt the cheerleaders neared the end zone, more than 100 icy balls had been thrown, dozens of them hitting a lean, ill-protected Santa. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that "Santa made his tour of the stadium, waving cheerfully in the best holiday tradition. The fans responded, pelting him with snowballs, in the worst Philadelphia tradition."
The year 2006 gave us one of the best examples of fan disobedience—civil disobedience. There's a long tradition in American life and elsewhere that teaches us that disobedience can be very effective when it's nonviolent. Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are shining examples of this idea. When Barry Bonds came to Philadelphia last May, still in quest of Babe Ruth's No. 2 spot on the all-time home run list, clever fans in the left field bleachers didn't throw things at him, but held up enormous posters emblazoned with asterisks. The message of these protests was clear enough: Bonds's home run total was tainted because of steroid use. One college student had a sign taken away by stadium officials that pointedly asked "Got Roids?" But another's "Got Juice?" sign was permitted. Bonds was booed every time he stepped to the plate and the fans in left field rained a nonstop torrent of riotous language on the slugger. Some chanted "Just inject me" while others serenaded him with pleas to "Just retire."
What do you do if fans around you get out of hand? Take heart, there are remedies. Spectators now have a way to protect themselves from ill-mannered fans. At least Bengals fans at Paul Brown Stadium do. They can call a hotline—513-381-JERK—to report unruly fans to security. Alas, fans can even fight back against fans.
Kenneth Shouler, from Harrison, New York, was managing editor and a writer for Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia (Toronto: Sports Media Group, 2004).
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