I thought my mother was a quintessentially maternal woman. But at one of my college’s football games, just before the last crucial goal line play, she yelled out her wish for the rival fullback: “Kill him! Kill him!” she shouted.
My father, always much more contained, leaned toward her and said quietly, “Pauline, that’s somebody’s son.”
Many years later, as a psychoanalyst and sports fan, I continue to wonder about this dichotomy among fans: we view our team's athletic rivals as the enemy, but they are also us. Consider our reaction to the friendly chat between the first baseman and the new base runner whose single just knocked in a crucial run; the hug between two spent heavyweights who’ve been pounding one another for 15 rounds; the lingering chat at midfield between two opposing football players after the last play. Did they go to high school together? Were they teammates on a youth team? Are they perchance cousins?
When my kids were young, I coached their youth soccer teams. After every game the teams would line up to shake hands. Depending on the players’ age and maturity, this gesture was empty at worst and enforced proto-sportsmanship at best. I’d have to check to make sure the younger boys weren’t spitting on their hands to spite their opponents.
The handshakes are a ritual acknowledgement that, fundamentally, opponents are necessary for the game to take place and to make the play transcendent.
George Orwell notably observed, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in violence. In other words, it is war without shooting.”
If that sounds hyperbolic, we must acknowledge how easy it is for us to excuse the professional foul by our team. A bean ball by an opposing pitcher we call a headhunter. But when our guy throws it it's just a “brush-back,” a time-honored warning. We see our linebacker as a hard player; but last year, when he played for our rival, he was a thug. Did he have a criminal record then? Maybe, but now we imagine him redeemed.
Studies have shown that violence in the game, particularly if perceived as unfair, increases the likelihood of violent acts by spectators. Fan violence is further magnified by strong identification with the team, underlying racial and ethnic tensions, social alienation, alcohol consumption, and predominance of young men in the crowd. The 2011 savage beating of Bryan Stow, a Giants fan, by two Dodger fans is a recent and egregious example.
Most of us seek the spectacle of the game to escape the struggles and banality of everyday life: we want to see exceptional displays of skill, strategy, teamwork, character, and yes, aggression, but within the rules of the game, what researcher Jennings Bryant termed “sanctioned violence.” And that’s the purpose of penalties: to keep aggression in check.
Spectators recognize a spectrum for permissible vs. unacceptable aggression in sport, and we’re gripped by the tension between them. To disavow our interest in the varied displays of aggression would be hypocritical, denying a core aspect of our complex humanity. Experimental evidence in mice supports Freud’s hypothesis that aggression is rewarding in itself, akin to sex; and it’s mediated by the same brain neurochemistry.
As the president of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Dana White, tells CNN: “Everyone loves a fight. It's in our DNA ... if you're in an intersection and there's a basketball game on one corner, a soccer game on another, a baseball game on the third, and a fight on the fourth, everyone will go watch the fight.”
But we want to see that aggression channeled, contained, ‘sublimated’ as we analysts say, on artful but safe display. Jennings Bryant concludes that the fans’ moral judgment of the lawfulness of their team’s violent actions mitigates the satisfaction felt even at the defeat of a hated rival team.
Since we seek organized displays of aggression, we cannot deny our complicity when players are routinely hurt in the service of our entertainment. Can we convince ourselves that the brain injury that so often and predictably comes from playing in the NFL is a side matter, separate from our enjoyment of big hits? Do we pretend that the New Orleans Saints’ bounty system for disabling opponents was an aberration? Don’t we feel queasy at the promotion of games as wars between enemies? Are we devoid of responsibility for uncritically supporting the NFL, which dangles enormous sums in front of players some of whom have little more to market than their capacity to inflict or bear life-altering injury?
We need to balance our appetite to watch aggressive sports action with the other side of our natures, the part that wants to affirm our identification with the humanity and vulnerability of the players on both sides. When players genuinely recognize and acknowledge one another, it marks the game for us as a humane competition. That exchange at first base tempers our sense of blood rivalry and reminds us that it is actually a game. We can indulge in the fantasy of do-or-die because we’re reassured that those are not really the stakes.
There’s a growing perception fan violence is getting worse. Author Justine Gubar describes a “depressing dark side where people do seemingly inexplicable things.’’
Former junior hockey player Jeff Fancy remembers swinging away with his stick at the angry mob of fans attacking his teammates on their own bench.
It was March 24, 1990 and Fancy’s Tri-City Americans were in a Western Hockey League playoff game with the Seattle Thunderbirds at Seattle Center Coliseum when unruly fans got into it with the visiting players. A portion of the WHL playoff record crowd of 12,075 had surged menacingly toward the bench, hurling obscenities and beer at Tri-City players, prompting stick-swinging retaliation and an all-out melee on live television.
Four fans were arrested, five more ejected from the arena, one police officer was injured and Fancy — then age 17 — received an unprecedented five-game playoff suspension for his stick swinging role in one of our city’s ugliest sports incidents.
“It was definitely drunken fans that were the biggest problem,’’ said Fancy, now 42 and a business owner and minor hockey coach in his native British Columbia. “They were coming at us and we went back at them. It was a hostile environment to be in.’’
But as hostile as that seemed, there’s a growing perception sports fan violence has only gotten worse. From the vicious beating of San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow outside Dodger Stadium, the rioting by Vancouver Canucks fans after a Stanley Cup loss to the Boston Bruins, weekly grandstand brawls at NFL games and a seemingly unchecked stream of fan invective online, the idea of “root, root, root for the home team” seems lost.
In her new book, “Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan,” Justine Gubar, an ESPN Outside the Lines producer, examines unruly fan behavior worldwide. She questions whether the Internet and rising ticket prices have created fan “entitlement” where violence — toward opposing teams, players, media, referees and fellow fans — flourishes.
“Our games can be enthralling and entertaining and inspire people,’’ San Francisco-based Gubar said during a recent Seattle stopover to promote her book. “But at the same time, there’s also this depressing dark side where people do seemingly inexplicable things.’’
Her exploration of fandom’s darker side began after Gubar received telephone and Internet threats in 2011 while covering violations by Ohio State football players. She’d gone to Columbus during the controversy over Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor, a former Seahawks backup, and others selling their memorabilia.
Eventually, a Buckeyes-boosting radio host gave out her name and hotel information to listeners. Gubar was harassed and threatened to the point of contacting police, but also became “obsessed” about learning why people behave that way in the name of team colors.
“I touch on so many different things in ‘Fanaticus,’ be it verbal harassment, Internet trolling, violent fans in all parks and stadiums,’’ she said. “I spent time looking at American fans, at international fans.’’
She found American fans more passionate and confrontational about nonprofessional sports — college football and basketball primarily — than those internationally. The book looks at organized student “fan groups” that target opposing players for harassment.
“I think because college sports don’t really exist in other countries — the professional-amateur setup is very different and our college sports environment is very unique — and that sort of breeds incredible passion and tribes among people,’’ she said.
She also says American “helicopter parents” hurling abuse on sidelines during youth games helps foster a perception among children that unruly behavior is acceptable.
Former Tri-City player Fancy says for all the passion Canadians show for junior hockey, they had nothing on American fans.
“I think Americans are just more passionate about all sports to begin with,” he said. “No matter where we went, they had that passion — sometimes good and sometimes not so good.’’
But Gubar, who doesn’t discuss the Seattle game in her book, adds that other nations have their unique fan problems. Her trips to European countries unveiled forms of racism — like organized taunting of black players on the soccer pitch — that would not be tolerated here.
Rioting in Vancouver following 2011 Stanley Cup lossAfter the Vancouver Canucks' 4-0 loss to Boston in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, crowds of fans rioted in Vancouver, setting cars ablaze, smashing windows and dancing atop overturned vehicles.
The book traces the history of unruly fans to ancient Greeks and Romans in amphitheatres.
It examines the mob mentality of crowds and the sense of belonging European soccer “hooligans” garnered from street brawling. The book looks at whether violent behavior results from being in a mob — the excuse some Vancouver hockey rioters used — or whether predisposed tendencies of a few problematic individuals within the crowd are mostly to blame.
Alcohol consumption is also discussed at length, examining links between beer companies and the marketing of sports to fans. Former hockey player Fancy feels alcohol and “a few drunken crazies’’ helped things spiral out of control at that 1990 game in Seattle.
“I don’t think you’d see something like that happen today,’’ he said. “You don’t see fans getting overserved the way they used to be and they protect the bench a lot better today as well. You can’t get near the players now.’’
But the book describes how the alcohol battleground for teams has largely shifted from inside the building to outside. It explores whether recent American football tailgating culture gives fans an excuse to consume to excess and become more aggressive than in other public settings.
Some college teams, the book says, now sell alcohol inside stadiums for the first time. Their reasoning is, fans will partake less in parking lot “binge-drinking” if they can buy alcohol at the game.
One higher-profile incident of fan unruliness in Seattle, not mentioned in the book, saw two off-duty Bellevue police officers ejected from a Seahawks game at CenturyLink Field for “rude and obnoxious behavior” in 2012. Subsequent investigation found officers Andrew Hanke and Dion Robertson began drinking at home at 9 a.m. and then partook in additional tailgating before entering the stadium.
Beyond alcohol, Gubar describes the Internet as “a bully pulpit for a new age” that fuels fan anger. She interviewed NFL replacement referee Lance Easley, who worked the “Fail Mary” game here in 2012 in which Seahawks receiver Golden Tate was awarded a last-second touchdown catch despite an apparent Green Bay Packers interception.
Easley later became depressed and overwhelmed by the ridiculing of him on social media. He blames the Internet for keeping him in the public eye and says “people are not getting better as human beings.’’
Gubar writes about online insults Ohio State fans sent her. “On Facebook, I got messages from people I didn’t know ripping my profile picture and complaining about my work,’’ she writes. “Many pointedly told me I wasn’t welcome in Ohio. Degrading my appearance was integral to most of the messages.’’
She tells of returning to Columbus and confronting one of her biggest Facebook tormentors, who’d told her she was “not even on the same level as a prostitute.’’ The man, claiming to be a journalism student named “Tommy”, ordered her off his porch in an expletive-laden tirade.
She writes that “Tommy” then blogged about the incident the next day.
“Funny how he was so forthcoming on Facebook and the blog with his opinion but fled from an in-person conversation,’’ she writes.
Gubar suggests such online “depersonalization’’ can lead to fans taking things too far.
But she also lists other contributors, like the “entitlement” fans feel to behave how they want at games after paying big dollars for personal seat licenses, tickets and overpriced concessions. She looks at “narcissistic” personality traits of fans and whether it stems from a 1970s parenting shift toward encouraging child individuality and self esteem.
Even fantasy sports, she adds, help depersonalize sports.
“You’re not rooting for people in a community,’’ she said. “You’re rooting for random numbers.’’
Handling those issues might prove tougher than grappling with unruly Seattle hockey fans a quarter century ago. The solution then was banning beer sales at local junior games and, as Fancy noted, upgrading security to separate fans from players.
But keeping fans off each other is another story. Gubar writes that teams won’t halt big-time alcohol sponsorships and sales, yet remain troubled their fans are increasingly fearful of bringing children to games.
Increased technological surveillance is one measure Gubar says some sports have implemented to screen for problematic fans ahead of them entering venues. But doing that while respecting individual privacy rights is something she predicts the sports world could spend the next 25 years grappling with.
“There’s a lot at stake,’’ she says. “This isn’t going away.’’