The chilling reality is that spectator violence in the U.S. could conceivably yield a sporting disaster to compare with the one in Belgium. "We have all the ingredients," says social psychologist Gordon Russell, a Canadian who has studied fan aggression in North America. "Frankly, I think we've been a little bit lucky."
Americans may not be quite as fanatical as European soccer fans, but some among them harbor the same frustrations, grow similarly aggressive at sports events, drink excessively before and during games and succumb to what psychologists call "deindividualization"—the loss of inhibition and a sense of accountability when part of a large group.
Consider some recent examples of fan rowdiness in the U.S. After Detroit's victory in the final game of the World Series last October, celebrants outside Tiger Stadium hurled rocks and bottles, fought with police and burned and overturned cars. One man was shot; at least 80 were injured. Kent State sociology professor Jerry Lewis refers to such incidents as "automatic riots." Your team wins a championship, you riot. It's as natural as the seventh-inning stretch.
After Florida's 13-10 football victory at Florida State in Tallahassee in 1982, Gator fans rushed onto the field to tear down the goalposts. Seminole supporters charged out to stop them. The ensuing brawl involved an estimated 800 people and sent 25 policemen to the hospital. Isolated fights in the stands are now commonplace, as are obscene chanting and the throwing by spectators of batteries, bolts, coins, ice, dead fish and other items at opposing players. Studies by Dr. Irving Goldaber, head of Miami's Center for the Study of Crowd and Spectator Behavior, suggest that Americans—not unlike British soccer hooligans—attend sporting events in search of vicarious power. "If the team is No. 1, they feel they're No. 1," says Goldaber. "In this world, being significant—counting—is hard to come by. It's much easier to do it by paying $10.50 to get into a ball park." Sports psychologist Bruce Ogilvie of San Jose State says. "People carry around a lot of built-up frustrations. Those feelings of helplessness inevitably bring about rage.... [Sports] can be the catalyst. You have an 'enemy.' real or imagined—the visiting fans."
June 9, 1985
Fortunately, economics and geography serve to reduce much of the potential for sports violence in the U.S. The high cost of tickets and the distance between most rival teams' cities discourage great numbers of fans from traveling. While Britons could go to Brussels and get a ticket to the European Cup soccer final for a total of about ¬£100 (about $130). Tiger fans who wanted to go to San Diego last fall for a World Series game would have had to pay much more in airfare alone.
Economic class differences in the U.S. have caused problems—frequently racial ones—at cheap or free-admission high school events. In 1962 a Washington, D.C. championship football game between predominantly black Eastern High and all-white Catholic St. John's, played before a crowd of 50,000 in D.C. Stadium, provoked a riot in which 340 people were injured and hundreds of cars damaged. In Detroit in 1965, eight people were stabbed following a high school regional tournament basketball game. Two subsequent games were played without spectators. Last December, fights among fans of rival high school basketball teams in Rochester, N.Y. prompted a ban of spectators from games for a month.
It is clear that drinking is a major accelerant of sports violence in the U.S. On Nickel Beer Night in Cleveland in 1974, scores of fights erupted among the 23,134 Indian fans, and hundreds charged the field and attacked Texas Ranger rightfielder Jeff Burroughs. Many arenas have begun banning the sale of beer. Tiger Stadium, which has closed off 11,500 bleacher seats since May 5 because of rowdyism, now sells only low-alcohol beer. "When operators of stadiums and arenas allow uncontrolled drinking, anything can happen." says Ralph Snyder, director of operations for Tiger Stadium.
Sports violence is most likely to occur at team events involving traditional rivals, say researchers. Aggression tends to increase the bigger the crowd and the hotter the weather, and is worse at night than during the day. According to a 1979 study of 39 professional baseball games, 77% of the fights in the stands occurred in the least expensive seats; 69% happened at night; and 70% in the last four innings, when alcohol had taken hold.
Open seating (or, as in Brussels, open standing) also contributes to fan violence. At a 1979 concert by the rock band The Who in Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum, 11 fans were killed in a stampede for seats. While open seating is common in European stadiums, it is rare in stadiums and major arenas in the U.S. On the other hand, some older U.S. arenas (e.g., the L.A. Coliseum, Chicago Stadium) are in depressed neighborhoods, which, the experts say. are potential flashpoints for violence. An "automatic riot" spilling from one of them could turn especially ugly. And even a small fight in a ball park or stadium could become a catastrophe if a wall or upper-deck railing gave way under the weight of leaning or jostling bodies.
With luck, American sport will suffer nothing worse than random knifings, shootings, fistfights and "celebration" riots. But, sadly, nobody can flatly rule out tragedies of the magnitude of the Brussels riot.