Congratulations! Your team has won the Super Bowl. Or perhaps the World Series. Or the national championship game. Hell, maybe you just beat your archrival in a meaningless regular-season game. It doesn’t matter if your team is long-suffering or a perennial champion. As a fan, you deserve to celebrate the big win.
So you crack open another beer on top of the dozen or so you consumed during the game. You give your bros nonstop high-fives and fist-bumps. You shout “We’re No. 1!” to anyone who is listening and plenty more who aren’t. You rooted for this team all season; you deserve this. So you fight with a cop, you set a few couches on fire, you tip over a police car, you choke down a mouthful of pepper spray, and, for good measure, you fire a gun into a crowd.
Wait . . . what?
At what point in the course of our nation’s great history did this become a common practice?
Before the University of Kentucky won its first NCAA tournament since 1998 on Monday night, the university’s president had a simple message for students: “Don’t be stupid.”
In what’s become an unfortunate tradition in American sports, fans of the winning team took to the streets of Lexington just as the Wildcats were cutting down the nets in New Orleans. The game had only been over a few minutes when Lexington police had already arrested several dozen reveler-rioters. Firefighters were called to more than 50 fires in the area near campus, and a man was wounded by a gunshot around 2 a.m. Doctors had to amputate his foot Tuesday as a result.
Whatever happened to a nice ticker-tape parade?
“In America the rioting is typically with young white males, and it’s always after championship play or an important playoff game,” said Jerry M. Lewis, a professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State University and the author of the book, “Sports Fan Violence in North America.” “Why do they do it? It’s a way they identify with the victory. Fan violence becomes an act of sporting success. They can’t dunk a basketball, but they can be violent, which is a metaphor for athletic success.”
But let’s forget metaphors for a moment. Let’s focus on the reality here: If you riot after your team has just won a title, you are a complete idiot and an unabashed fool.
There is a time and a place for a good, old-fashioned riot. Say, when the British are unfairly taxing your tea (Boston, 1773). Or when the Union government starts drafting people into the Civil War (New York, 1863). Or when the greatest civil rights leader in American history is assassinated (all over the country, 1968). Yes, it’s always unfortunate when political discord erupts into violence in the streets, and when that violence causes innocent people to die. But at least there’s a vital political reason behind these riots. Look up “list of riots” on Wikipedia and you’ll find hundreds of them, from the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC to the politically motivated riots around the Middle East over the past year, and in many cases the spark is understandable.
But John Calipari winning his first national championship? Really? When did that become a reason to swarm the streets in defiance of authority?
I can understand what Lewis calls the “punishing riot,” common in English soccer, when fans of the losing team beat up fans of the winning team. Yes, it’s dumb, but at least there’s logic there. I can even understand when your team loses because of a bad call by a ref, and you storm the streets in anger. The worst sporting riot in history happened in an Olympic qualifier soccer match in Peru in 1964, when a referee disallowed a late Peru goal and the home team lost. Fans stampeded, hundreds were trampled, and riots erupted all over Lima that killed 318 people. Tragic? Of course. But do I understand how that type of fan anger can slide into violence? Absolutely.
But I cannot get my brain around the concept of releasing the euphoria of victory by tipping over a police car or two.
Yet it keeps happening. After the Detroit Tigers won the 1984 World Series, more than 40 fans were arrested, many more were injured, three rapes were reported and one man was murdered. About 10,000 Denver Broncos fans caused millions of dollars in damage after their team won the Super Bowl after the 1998 season. Los Angeles had riots after the Lakers won NBA titles in 2000, 2009 and 2010. And Boston seems America’s capital of violent sports rioting: one death after the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2004, another after the Red Sox won the 2004 American League pennant, another after the Celtics won the NBA title in 2008.
“You got the anonymity of the mob — what’s the chance anybody can pick you out of a crowd of 15,000 people who are all young, white males wearing Kentucky jerseys?” said Bob Carrothers, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio Northern University who studies rioting in sports. “There’s a culture around this, that sports fans think they’re supposed to do something crazy or something radical when their team wins, to show how good of fans they are.”
I get that. Mid-January, rivalry game, your fifth-place team upsets the team that’s first in the conference: Storm the court. If it’s football season, tear down a goalpost, spray some beer in the streets. There’s an aggression that comes with a big win, and that’ll keep going after the game is over.
But these examples of extreme violence after a big win simply show that in America, we put too much value in sports. Too much of our self-worth is tied up in our teams. What happened in Lexington on Monday is just a window into that warped psyche that overvalues these things that ultimately don’t matter.
At least we can count on the next big sporting event, the Masters golf tournament that starts Thursday, being more sedate. It’s an individual sport, first of all. And golf fans are so maddeningly polite that their quiet applause is branded as the “golf clap.” Even if Tiger Woods ends his major drought Sunday, surely golf fans won’t storm the streets of Augusta.
Or so you would think.
Lewis has compiled a list of more than 200 sports-related riots in America over the past 50 years. It’s a list that saddens him, because sports are so important to the social health of American society, and sports violence is a cancer to that social health.
And it’s even more sad when you hear that two of the sports-related riots on his list occurred after golf tournaments.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.