Crises in the sports world usually revolve around player scandals and exploitive league policies, issues that are interesting to, but far removed from, the general observer. Recently, however, a story about civil unrest in the sports section caught my eye. I started to wonder, how could sports be dangerous for spectators? Fans commitment to their teams is half the fun of watching sports, but they can't let that commitment become damaging to their community. Just as athletes are responsible for representing the sporting world, so are spectators.
On April 4th in Lexington, Kentucky, police arrested 31 people during riots sparked by Wisconsin’s upset of Kentucky in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. This is not the first time Lexington has seen riots as a result of the NCAA tournament: even Kentucky’s 2012 championship created unrest of its own.
It is a tradition for students to become unruly after significant wins and losses for their teams, but these disturbances are by no means confined to the NCAA, or even the United States. In fact, documented cases of sports related rioting go as far back as 6th-century Constantinople, when riots broke out after a chariot race. Northwestern is no exception. From 1982 to 1995, Northwestern students at football home games tore down the field goal posts and tossed them into Lake Michigan at the end of notable defeats or any victory. This tradition started in 1981 after a 61-14 loss against Michigan, contributing to a 34 game losing streak that led students to chant “We’re the worst!”
I am the most casual of casual sports fans, and didn’t even start watching college basketball until I was introduced to bracketology in high school and the prospect of making money off of being a spectator. There are all sorts of avenues to becoming a sports fan. Before children can hold up a conversation, one of their earliest bonding experiences with their parents is through sport and physical play. Similarly, an investment in sports teams seems to be one of the few interests that is shared across nearly all age groups.
Athletes and athletic prowess are idolized in advertisements and media. Caring and being knowledgeable about of sports is socially admirable, and is often coalesced with patriotism, masculinity (both for men and women) and intelligence. Sports fandom can act as a pathway to community engagement, providing a connection between a team’s followers or other general fans of the sport that can transcend other social obstacles.
The popularity of sports is unmatched by other forms of entertainment. Last year’s March Madness tournament drew 1.15 billion in revenue and averaged 10.7 million viewers across the tournament. Additionally, with cable channels, magazines and websites devoted entirely to sports analysis and discussion (as well as sports gambling, both legal and illegal), there is not only incentive to become invested in sports, but also opportunity to become immersed in it.
But do some people take their spectator’s enthusiasm too far? Why has sports zealotry become associated with destruction and violence? No doubt, some sports fans might find this question immediately insulting. After all, most die-hard enthusiasts would never engage in such behavior, and the media logically focuses on stories about enthusiasts acting destructively rather than civilly.
Still, could there be something about spectators’ relationship to a sport or team that fosters an appetite for destruction? Observing intense physical activity, especially at such a high level or performance, would likely create a sort of restlessness in a sedentary observer. Fans are usually encouraged by facilitators to get as rowdy and involved as possible to show their support for a team as long as it stops short of any form of harm. Still, some forms of socially divisive insults have been deemed acceptable for the sake of team spirit (the key jingle at Northwestern football games).
At the end of the day, it is simply up to individuals to not let themselves get out of hand, even in the face of so much stimuli being applied to spectators. I am hardly even involved, but I know I would enjoy games a lot less if spectators were constantly being checked to curb their enthusiasm.
Perhaps the biggest draw of sports spectating is the scale that it reaches: the stadiums, sponsors, merchandise and fans that are more than willing to literally fight for their teams (not that they should). Going wild over a game is fun, but people must set limit for themselves. If spectators don’t restrict themselves from allowing their enthusiasm to be harmful to others, they are only providing ammunition for non-fans arguments that they should tone it down.