Sports Fanatics

My last two pieces, on fan violence and dyed hair, between them spurred more discussion than anything I’ve yet written in this newsletter. With the permission of the authors, I will quote some of their very thoughtful replies, with further thoughts of my own.

American readers are baffled by the need for the safety measures at soccer games, and, as John Francini says, “look upon the tribal behavior of European soccer fans with an unalloyed mixture of dismay, confusion, and stark blinking incomprehension. While there are rare occasions where Americans will do stupid things in the aftermath of a football game (like the idiots who rampaged through the streets of Oakland after the Raiders got thoroughly trounced in last month’s Superbowl), by and large fans of two opposing teams do not go around taunting one another en masse with songs, chants, et cetera. Nor do they beat each other up, even if the Raiders fans do dress themselves up in the most outrageous getups. And they certainly don’t need to be separated by team, as soccer fans seem to.”

John asked: “Just what are the common sports in Europe besides soccer, and how popular are they in comparison to it? Here, we have several different sports to pay attention to during the year, so American football is just one of many: baseball in the spring and summer, football in the autumn, basketball and hockey in the late fall and winter.”

He’s got a point. The sports that John mentions are pretty much equally important in America, and all of them are played in major national leagues. Many Americans are knowledgeable and passionate about more than one sport. Europeans don’t have so many to choose from. Aside from soccer, there’s cricket and rugby (in the UK); I don’t know much about these, but suspect that their fan bases are not nearly as large as for soccer. In Italy, we have a basketball league, but its fan base is very, very small. Perhaps having more sports to think about keeps Americans from becoming dangerously obsessed with one sport and one team.

Rich Levin raised an interesting point: “The US is usually criticized for a more violent culture: movies, TV, etc. and the higher crime rates. But you never see anything equivalent at sporting events. Maybe we take our violence more seriously in the US.”

Some American sports, e.g. football and hockey, seem to be inherently more violent than soccer, although this is to some extent the ritualized violence that I mentioned before (wrestling is even more ritualized, apparently). Perhaps these sports are therefore more effective at venting fan violence vicariously than is soccer.

In “Bowling for Columbine,” his documentary film about American gun culture, Michael Moore ponders the opposite phenomenon: why is it that America’s neighbor, Canada, has similar gun ownership rates, yet a far lower incidence of gun murders than the US?

Several readers made the explicit link (which I had not) between ardent sports fandom and religious belief (John Sanders reminds me that ‘fan’ derives from ‘fanatic’). Rick Freeman points out that both seem to be a mystery to me. He’s right about that; I am profoundly atheistic about sports and religion. Though I feel no need for either in my own life, I appreciate that sports and/or religion contribute a great deal to others’ lives. But I find it sad and baffling that something which is beautiful and inspiring for many, in the hands of a few fan(atic)s is used, often brutally, against non-believers or members of opposing faiths.

Stadium violence is once again on the collective mind in Italy. A newscast quantified the problem apallingly: maintaining order in the stadiums costs 32 million Euros per major match. A new law has been passed making it possible to arrest hooligans on the basis of photo or TV evidence – if they can be caught within 36 hours of the incident. The law also provides for changing schedules, or completely suspending games for up to a month, in response to anything unusually horrible.

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