Not all hot dogs and dance cams: Hooliganism in US sport
Behind the face of cheerleaders, proposals and bobbleheads there can be a darker side
Two fans fight during a Chargers and Raiders game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Photograph: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Loud, violent, armed. If you polled the world on what Americans are like, all three of those descriptors would surely merit frequent mentions. But when it comes to rabid support of sports teams, it’s Europeans who have long had the reputation for mayhem and violence.
Football hooliganism dates back all the way to the Middle Ages in England, when King Edward III banned football in 1349 because he felt the disorder and violence that accompanied matches led to social unrest and distracted his subjects from practicing archery. Another decree 14 years later doubled down on football as undesirable: “We ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood and iron throwing; handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cockfighting, or other such idle games.”
Modern hooliganism cropped up in the late 1800s, when players for Aston Villa and Preston North End were attacked with sticks and stones, which presumably led to broken bones, after playing in a ‘friendly’. Things have continued mostly unabated since, earning a worldwide reputation that took hold even in the soccer-agnostic States to the point that Saturday Night Live had a recurring sketch titled Scottish Soccer Hooligans during the Mike Myers era.
Meanwhile, the tenor of American crowds is very different. While the country might be viewed as the Wild West outside of its sports venues, the perception of the behaviour inside stadiums is that of a family-friendly affair with mascots and cheerleaders, sweetness and light, hot dogs and waves, Kiss Cams and marriage proposals, and luxury boxes full of glad-handing corporate types barely watching the game.
That is not the case. Just as not everyone in the US walks around clinking their boot spurs while twirling their six-shooter, it’s also not true that American stadiums don’t have their share of hooligans. Or, as they’re called in the States: violent assholes.
At last Thursday night’s Eagles-Panthers game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina – deep in the heart of the genteel South – a Panthers fan was caught on film repeatedly punching a seated, 62-year-old man in the face. The incident didn’t shock and outrage the nation. In fact, it barely registered beyond the local news and sports blogs. Because fights – or simple assaults, as the Charlotte police called it – are frequent occurrences at US stadiums and arenas, especially in the drunken upper decks.
In the lower levels where tickets are pricier, behaviour is thought to be better. But Cincinnati has seen a rise in incidents in one particular corner of an end zone. Former Bengal Brandon Tate had a beer tossed at him earlier this month, prompting the Enquirer to document the new end zone trend at games:
“Many items were thrown at Ben Roethlisberger during the Bengals-Steelers playoff game. A hat was thrown at Andy Dalton running into the tunnel following the opener against Baltimore and now this beverage is tossed at Brandon Tate.”
But Charlotte has have never had a reputation for bad fan behaviour and neither has Cincinnati – even though former coach Sam Wyche once had to angrily remind Bengals fans that they “don’t live in Cleveland” during another incident of throwing things on the field back in 1989.
The honor of having America’s most unruly sports fans? That was long-considered to go to the city of Philadelphia, which is still trying to shake the decades-old tales of booing Santa Claus and having an ad hoc courtroom and jail underneath Veterans Stadium on Eagles game days to more easily process all those arrested. But the city that produces the most unchecked fan debauchery today might be Buffalo, home of the NFL’s Bills. YouTube is full of videos of Buffalo fans jumping through folding tables during pregame tailgates – presumably after eating all the platters of wings off of said tables. Here’s one where a Bills fan caught fire. And here’s another where a fan, a grown man one might think would know better, blew out his knee while jumping off an SUV through a folding table. But Bills fans aren’t all about destroying things. They are also willing to make things. Babies, for example, as two Bills fans were spotted having sex in the stadium parking lot two seasons ago. And when partners aren’t available, Buffalo fans have been willing to share sex aids with the players on the field.
Stateside sports fans don’t confine their mayhem just to the NFL or pro sports, though. Down at the lowest levels of competition, where young children are supposedly learning the values of fair play and sportsmanship, adults are throwing haymakers, too. A player’s father punched the equipment manager at a youth football practice in northeast Pennsylvania last month, while youth football in the state of Florida has long had a problem with players and coaches gambling on games featuring players as young as five.
American games may indeed try to be more about wholesome fan engagement on their face. There are cheerleaders and bobblehead giveaways. And you can get your kid some cotton candy (if you think it will help him forget the passed-out drunk man laying in a pile of vomit that he just saw in the stadium bathroom). And there are mascots, too, some of which may give you the finger. But stop thinking American sporting events are all family-friendly affairs. Break that perception like a Bills fan through a folding table.