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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 2)

They recall fondly the lobby of the old Garden at 49th and Eighth and how fans spilled out onto the sidewalk under the marquee. When Klein and Asofsky were kids, the Knicks were playing the defending-champion Minneapolis Lakers and the marquee read, "Knicks vs. Mikan tonight, 7 p.m." For the 1959—60 season front-row seats cost $2.50. If you wanted better seats, you gave the guy at the window an extra buck and he'd find them.

"We liked to get on the players," Asofsky recalls. "One night [in 1968] there was a doubleheader at the new Garden. San Francisco was playing Philadelphia and the Knicks were playing the Lakers. I used to get on Chamberlain and yell, 'Nor-man, Nor-man.'" His name was Wilton Norman Chamberlain. "So there's a power failure and there's very little light and someone says, 'Stan be careful; he's coming at you.' So Wilt comes up, looms over me, puts his arm around me and says, 'You seem to be in control here. I want to get out of here. Will you get the lights put on? Why don't you pay your electric bills?'" No harm, no threat, no chance that the unflappable Wilt was about to clean Stan's clock—just a warm memory involving an immortal NBA giant.

These days, Klein and Asofsky are sitting further back and paying $240 a night. Both the 1960 Knicks and the 2006 edition had something in common: both finished last. Celebrities sitting courtside now pay $1,900 a seat. (In 1970, the greatest year in franchise history, a playoff ticket was $14.) Klein and Asofsky have been through seven presidents and 33 straight years without a title. "Well, they were in the playoffs 14 or 15 straight years," Klein said. "I was fine with that. Somebody's gotta win." Just not New York.

With Jack Nicholson, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington and other celebs showing up regularly at games, we're reminded of a concept that unites spectators of sports and theater. The Greek philosopher Aristotle maintained that spectators at a tragedy undergo a peculiar tragic pleasure and emerge from the drama feeling cleansed. This "catharsis" can be seen as something that happens in sports, since spectators often experience a profound emotional release while attending games.

The ebb and flow of action in sports also allows spectators to experience a rise and fall in emotion that they don't get to experience in other areas in life. These swings in emotion, which account for much of the appeal of games, are sometimes likened to a "safety valve," since viewers are able to "drain off" hostile and aggressive sentiments while watching a game. But do people really leave behind their hostile sentiments at the ballpark? If so, what accounts for all the violence before, during and after games?

Consider the most infamous night in NBA history, which started when John Green of West Bloomfield, Michigan, threw a cup of beer at Indiana's Ron Artest and hit him. The 6-7, 260-pound Artest bounded into the front row, where he had no business, to confront a man he mistakenly thought was responsible and a brawl erupted between Detroit fans and the Pacers. Artest then had words with and punched A. J. Shackelford, a college student from Michigan who had entered the court. Shackelford and his friend Charlie Haddad were cited for stepping on the court, which is an illegal act in the United States.

People recall Artest's year-long suspension (several other Pacers were also suspended). Artest missed 73 games plus the playoffs, which turned out to be the longest non-drug or betting-related suspension in league history. But it mustn't be forgotten that fans precipitated the dustup and then kept it alive: first by throwing things and then by entering the court.

And just how does this "safety valve" notion explain why fans riot after games have ended? Denver's worst sports riot occurred in 1998, after Denver won its first Super Bowl and 20,000 fans hit the streets. What followed was a night of looting, overturned cars and damage to dozens of buildings. The Broncos' 1999 victory also led to riots, as did the Colorado Avalanche's 1996 Stanley Cup victory. After the Avalanche won again in 2001, "just" 63 people were arrested on charges of vandalism and disturbing the peace. Some 50 were hauled off to detoxification centers. "It becomes a mob mentality and fans feel invincible because there is safety in numbers," says Wilson, the University of Evansville professor. "Alcohol emboldens people to act unruly and there is all this built-up tension and anxiety that gets released."

La Salle's Gardner believes that "a few" fans are all it takes to ignite a mob. "There is always going to be a small number of people; it doesn't take many before you have a tragedy or looting, or burnings. It's not unique to sports. My guess is it's a social phenomenon, not just a sports phenomenon."

European soccer is certainly much, much more than a sports phenomenon and it is a difficult thing for Americans to understand. When two clubs clash, issues of class, race, socioeconomics and religion clash too. The result is something like the intersection of sport and Stanley Kubrick's futuristic vision of gang behavior in A Clockwork Orange. Roving gangs of fans travel from city to city, using the matches as an excuse to engage in open warfare in the streets. They take up clubs and knives and bust each other up. Hooliganism was once called a "British disease," but has proved contagious throughout Europe. Greece, Poland, Holland, England, Italy, Turkey, France, Sweden, Switzerland—these nations and others have all spawned soccer fans who take over the streets and rain mayhem on one another.

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