The Thrall of Victory
Fans Have Taken Postgame Celebrations Too Far
By Frank Deford
Even though the last time you went to a game, the guy sitting next to you was crude and sloppy drunk, the United States generally has had better behaved crowds than most other countries. Our stadiums tend to be more comfortable, and nicer accommodations promote civility.
But I don't think there's anybody who doesn't feel that crowds everywhere are growing coarser and more obstreperous. Even worse, all of a sudden, postgame rioting has become downright common. This phenomenon has had a strictly American bent to it, too. In Europe, the infamous young soccer hooligans have, for years, used the mere fact of a game as an excuse to get drunk and pillage. In countries besides the U.S., terrible riots -- complete with fatalities -- have occurred after bitter losses, perhaps especially after a loss occasioned by a controversial referee's decision.
We don't do that in the United States. Oh, we might scream "kill the umpire," but we really do believe our game officials are honest. Incompetent, maybe. But not crooked. And until Sunday in Oakland, we've rarely rioted in defeat. We only do it when our team wins.
Maybe that's very American, to break the law in response to success -- not failure. And, until a few years ago, we could cite such hostile reactions as a rather cute American idiosyncrasy. But no more. Too often now, victory is taken as a justification for fans to run wild and break stuff. Usually it's football which unleashes the more beastly emotions, as was the case two Sundays ago in Oakland after the Raiders qualified for the Super Bowl. And now that the Oakland cretins have rioted after losing the Super Bowl, you have to wonder if we're not catching the European soccer disease. Any football game becomes an excuse for mayhem.
But rioting is not confined to football. Los Angeles fans went berserk a couple years ago when the Lakers won the NBA title. College hockey fans rampaged through St. Paul this past April after the University of Minnesota men's hockey team won the NCAA championship. Good grief, Purdue students even rioted last year after the women's basketball national title game. We suddenly have a problem here.
Naturally, booze fuels a lot of this whoopee. It may not surprise you to learn that research has found that sports fans binge drink more than folks who aren't fans. (In fact, in college, the two groups that drink the most are student-fans and student-athletes.) I don't think television helps the situation, either, by always featuring crowd shots of the loonies. To watch TV, you wouldn't think anybody was ever in the stadium except for drunken jackasses who paint their faces.
Maybe the protests against the possible war in Iraq will heat up and students will start devoting their more passionate energies toward politics instead of games, but in the meantime it does seem that colleges can simply ban one dubious tradition: tearing down goalposts. You know that's not just boys-will-be-boys. It's sanctioned vandalism. One weekend this fall, there were goalpost demolitions across the land, at Cal-Berkeley, Ohio State, North Carolina State and Clemson. It's possible that this practice somehow validates postgame destruction. Hey, if it's OK to tear down goalposts, it's OK to burn buildings.
Woody Hayes, the late Ohio State football coach, used to ring the gridiron with cops after a game. Somebody asked him once if that wasn't really mean, not to let the happy students celebrate on the gridiron. Woody replied: "They don't deserve to be on the field. They didn't make the team."
Coach Hayes is remembered as a crusty old martinet, but he makes sense. Too many people nowadays think they're playing a game, too, after the game is over.
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