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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 3)

"Players are so passionate because every city has its own team," says Michael Jacobs, the men's soccer coach at Evansville. "It's like township versus township. They are blue collar-type fans. They justify their workweek and save their pent-up aggravation for Wednesday mornings and Wednesday nights and Saturdays, August to May. When the Glasgow Celtics play the Glasgow Rangers, one Protestant and the other Catholic, these are teams whose fans are almost inbred from birth."

With such high spirits among its fandom, soccer may be the most popular sport on the planet. It is also the most deadly. Crowd violence is not restricted to a single continent; rather, it is a global problem. Those of us who love sports can be thankful that few sporting events in North America even approach the ugliness and dire consequences of soccer matches on other continents.

An April 2001 headline from South Africa read, "Families identify victims of Johannesburg stadium disaster." In this incident 43 died after a stampede at a soccer match in South Africa. Another headline from Ghana announced, "120 feared dead after soccer stampede." According to witnesses, the tragedy began when, with five minutes left and the home team, the Accra Hearts, up 2-1 against Asante Kotoko, Asante supporters began throwing bottles and chairs onto the field at Accra Stadium, the city's main playing field. Police responded by firing tear gas, creating panic in the stands. As spectators rushed to escape, a stampede resulted.

Antiracism activist groups like FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) often single out Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe as the worst bastions of racist crowd behavior. In March 2005, Spain's soccer federation fined Spain's coach, Luis Aragones, 4,000 euros ($3,850) for exhorting one of his own players that he was better than a black member of the other team, whom he disparaged with a racial epithet. In November 2005, Spanish fans mocked black English players with racist "monkey" chants during a match, prompting British Prime Minister Tony Blair to protest the treatment to Spanish officials. In the Netherlands, anti-Semitic chants by a group of Dutch fans targeting referee Rene Temmick led to the cancellation of a game in progress between club teams PSV Eindhoven and Den Haag. With hundreds of other such incidents over the past 20 years alone, FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is now taking steps to combat racism in its sport.

All of this behavior does damage to the catharsis theory, which maintains that spectators at sporting events "purge" themselves of hostile emotions at the stadium and then carry on peacefully with their lives. With soccer, some fans are made more aggressive by a sporting event.

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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