JOIN CITY AND YOU’RE DEAD.
This was the chilling message sprayed in splotchy red paint over Wayne Rooney’s face on a billboard in Manchester, England, days after the volatile but talented striker requested a transfer from English Premier League soccer power Manchester United. And the night before that an angry mob of 40-strong protested outside Rooney’s nearby home, repeatedly ringing his intercom, demanding to talk to him, and re-assuring him that “We’re not going to hurt you.”
English soccer fans are notoriously maniac when it comes to their sides with violent hooliganism dating back to the late nineteenth century. Fights and full-on riots pepper the history of football in England, evidenced by Parliamentary Acts similar to the since amended Football Spectators Act of 1989. Once on the decline, fan-related violence and vandalism is back, highlighted by rioting after an especially heated match between rivals Birmingham and Aston Villa at St. Andrews in 2010.
Said Blues manager Alex McLeish after the incident, “It’s a return to the dark ages… When you see flares being thrown into the crown, it’s not something you want to be associated with.”
Amazingly, just fourteen people were injured in the melee which took place the day before FIFA was to make a decision on whether to award England the 2018 World Cup. With events of the night before undoubtedly taken into account, the English bid was denied.
Unfortunately, this kind of behavior isn’t just a problem across the pond. While we’ve yet to see a full-on riot, fights, death threats and the like happen here, too.
Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Blake was threatened through his wife’s Twitter account after he missed a game-winning three-pointer in the 2012 playoffs.
Then there were the racist comments made to the Washington Capitols’ Joel Ward after a penalty left his team a man down in an eventual loss.
Fans aren’t safe either. San Francisco Giants backer Bryan Stow was savagely beaten outside Dodger Stadium last year by supporters of the home team. Stow suffered severe brain damage in the attack, which was reportedly “provoked” only by he and a group of friends objecting to heckling by Dodgers fans in the parking lot. Dorene Sanchez, the preliminary trial’s final witness and kin of both defendants, remembered one Giants fan involved in the attack saying, “It’s just a game. It’s not that serious. It’s not like a heart attack.”
Unfortunately, Louie Sanchez and Marvin Norwood – the two men charged in the attack with mayhem, assault and battery – refused to heed those sensible words and a sports-inflicted tragedy ensued. Their passion for the Dodgers won out over cool heads and common sense, and countless lives were changed forever.
Dr. G.R. Wurster of Prairie Village, KS, a practicing psychiatrist for over 30 years and an avid sports fan, relates the behavior displayed by fans in the situations above to those of a spurned lover. ”We fall in love with these teams to an extent,” Wurster said. ”And when we love the team, we love the players. As one of them moves on when we aren’t ready for them to do so, we revert back to the ugly human condition. We love and hate the same thing.”
“The manic and potentially dangerous behavior displayed by fans of Wayne Rooney and Manchester United aligns almost perfectly with those expressed by someone in a lasting domestic dispute,” Wurster continued. ”[William] Congreve (a 19th century English poet and playwright) said that ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ A similar principle applies here.”
“The threats to Kyle Williams and others fall under that same broad category. We condition ourselves to love these teams, and when they – or an individual player – let us down we can react with those extremely negative emotions exactly because we feel so strongly. Like anything else, it all comes back to love and the overwhelming pull and influence it has on us.”
In a secretly taped conversation between Sanchez and Norwood after their arrest on July 21st, 2011, Sanchez indirectly confirmed Dr. Wurster’s assertion that personal relationships, love, and sports are closely related.
“I got mad and they were talking shit to my sister… what am I going to do?”
Sanchez was intolerant of people bad-mouthing two things he loved – first the Dodgers and then his sister.
While this sort of thing isn’t widespread in the states, these incidents show it doesn’t take a mob to perpetrate hate, ignorance and violence. It just takes a few individuals that can’t separate sports reality from actual reality.
Williams’ fumble and Ward’s penalty were life-altering, third-person mistakes for us in the moment but just the ebb and flow of a game – something we’re supposed to enjoy – when taken altogether in the context of life. But it’s hard to think that way when our Super Bowl and Stanley Cup dreams are dashed with the bounce of a ball or height of a stick, and our inner fire is stoked by an opposing fan speaking ill of our team.
And that’s when we make mistakes like those abroad brazenly threatening Rooney, and those at home that led the beating of Stow.
A popular series of ESPN commercials toes the line appropriately when it comes to inevitably obsessed fans. “It’s not crazy, it’s sports.” The familiar logo of the “worldwide leader” flashes on-screen, there’s a cut to black and the viewer laughs, knowing how all too applicable the parodies of the uber-fan just depicted are to him or someone he knows.
That’s true most times, but definitely not when some of us lose ourselves in anger and heartbreak and react instinctively, forgetting why we’re so worked up in the first place. It’s just sports, after all, no matter how much we love it. And that’s something we all need to remember.