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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?
| By Kenneth Shouler | From 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.

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.

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.

"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).