The other night I decided to watch the Yankees-Red Sox game on ESPN. Probably because I was upset about the report of fan violence last week at Camden Yards. Apparently Orioles fans were harassing a Yankees fan during the Orioles-Nationals series last week. The Yankees fan ended up getting hurt. I wasn’t there, so I’ll just defer to the CNN report of the incident. The whole thing was disturbing. It brought to mind the incident of fan violence in Los Angeles in 2011. (Click here for the update on that incident.)
We like to pretend things like that don’t happen in our ballpark. How a fun outing to the ballpark can end up in violence is hard to understand. And much of the sociological literature on sport and violence really doesn’t explain individual instances of fan violence; it’s better at explaining instances of crowd violence and rowdiness, such as celebratory riots after a game. For example, sport sociologist Jay Coakley states that general violence at a sporting event is related to three factors: (1) the action in the sport itself, (2) crowd dynamics among the spectators at the event, and (3) the historical, social, economic, and political contexts in which the event is played. This might explain some of bad behavior, but not all of it.
Sport psychology also looks closely at crowd behavior. According to a recent article in Louisiana’s Health and Fitness Magazine, “Despite all of the positive bonding and emotional experiences that can occur rooting for a sports team, there are a number of ways in which the passion turns decidedly ugly. Being in a large crowd of emotionally charged people and having a tangible “enemy” in your presence can trigger terrible behavior. The nature of being in a crowd can affect the psyche of an individual. People lose their sense of inhibition (often aided by large quantities of alcohol).”
Thus, one explanation – from both sociology and psychology – is that identifying with your team provides a sense of belonging, and being at a stadium surrounded by other fans of your team can lead an individual to act differently than he or she might otherwise do. (And, yes, the alcohol may help alter one’s behavior.) If your sense of belonging or identity is threatened, you may act out violently to protect yourself or your team. Individual factors, such as emotions and personality, can also play a role. Emotions run high at sporting events – sometimes they get out of control. While this provides some explanation – and certainly no excuse – for fan violence, it doesn’t quite explain it all to me. More research needs to be done on this issue so solutions can be found.
As much as many of us love to hate the Yankees, we need to learn to separate our emotions from the game and realize that all fans share a love of the game. Besides, as President Obama once said, “the Yankees [are] easy to love.” That goes for their fans as well.