I’m told there was a widely watched sporting event on Sunday and that Philly won. Despite February weather, Eagles fans celebrated in the streets of Philadelphia by rioting in grand tradition.
There are many psychological and sociological studies on the causes of riots, but most frequently the simple fact is that rioters are having fun. Their reasons are the same as those of 13-year-olds who kick over neighbors’ mailboxes. Even when participants in a riot are angry about some event or some issue of social justice, pleasure in cutting loose remains mixed with anger. In sports riots there often isn’t anger at all. As we all know, not all human impulses are admirable; destruction can be an adrenaline rush, which is why violent video games are so popular. Amid the anonymity of a crowd fear of consequences for participating in the real thing diminishes. Alcohol is likely to be involved, too.
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American sports riots are fairly tame by world standards. (We make up for it with our other types of riots.) Fans of opposing teams in this country almost never fight each other. Instead, fans of the winning team wreak high-spirited wreckage of property. They don’t target people. Their joyous vandalism is directed against cars, windows, and street poles. Though rare, deaths do sometimes happen, as in Boston after a victory by the Red Sox or in Chicago after the Bulls, but they are accidents such as falls or unintended trampling. This is because there is nothing more than hometown pride at stake. You need a “just” cause and a desire for payback really to turn things mean. Fortunately, politics, nationalism, class warfare, and such have stayed divorced from American sports team fandom so far.
We see what can happen when those factors are involved. The deadliest sports riot of all time, the so-called Nika riot, was as long ago as 532 CE. Chariot races in the hippodrome in Constantinople were organized into teams, rather like formula race car teams today. The teams were White, Red, Green, and Blue; each team had its own fan association. The Green and Blue associations were the most hardcore, for they had grown political with the Blues favoring pro-aristocratic positions and the Greens favoring the common folk. Unsurprisingly, they fought a lot when one team or the other lost an important race. Trouble came when city guards arrested several Blue and Green fans for murder after street fights following a race. Two of the prisoners (a Blue and a Green) escaped and took refuge in a church. For once the associations banded together and demanded that charges against the men be dropped. In January 532 the disturbances developed into a full-blown riot. The rioters ran amok for days, burned half of the city, and (with the connivance of ambitious Senators) turned their riot into an uprising against the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. Justinian, a well-known Blue fan, recovered the situation by turning the Blues against their old enemies the Greens through cajolery and bribery. He then sent in the troops. According to the historian Procopius, 30,000 people were killed. No other sports riot even comes close.
If there is a lesson there, it is that putting politics into team identities turns vandals into brawlers – sometimes murderous ones. So far we’ve been spared that. It wasn’t actually unsafe for Patriots fans in Philadelphia, and that at least counts for something. We are willing to hate each other for the silliest of reasons. Football fandom needn’t be one more reason to keep us separated.
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