Fan behavior: How has the U.S. escaped bigotry in the stands?
[UPDATE: February 9, 2007: Several stadiums in Italy are banning fans because of security concerns following last week's death of a police officer during riots at a game in Sicily.]
Not surprisingly, sportswriters do not cover spectators in the stands too often. There is the game action, interviewing players and coaches, and, well, the fans are a complex mass of people cheering, booing, sitting silently, leaving early. The networks are trying to package a game so they are used as props: zoom-in on the guy painted green, or the toothy blonde...On the face of it, there is not much to the people watching the game. At soccer matches around the world, however, fans are a much bigger part of the story, and usually for all the wrong reasons. In Paris after a soccer match a few weeks ago, a black police officer protecting a Jewish fan shot a young man to death and wounded another while under attack from supporters hurling racist and anti-Semitic epithets. The incident followed a match between Paris Saint-Germain and Hapoel Tel Aviva. The examples are endless and frequent.
Although American fan behavior can be boorish, and a riot in a 2004 Pacers-Pistons game even become the story of the NBA season, U.S. fandom is not dominated by overt racism, as is the case in European soccer stadiums in which racial taunts are not uncommon. In fact, French national and Arsenal star Thierry Henry has headed a campaign against racism. (For further reading, check out one of my favorite sports books, Among The Thugs, about Manchester United supporters, and unruly fan behavior.)
But it begs the question: why aren't there more social problems reflected in the stands in the United States?
"In England local football (soccer) clubs have traditionally been characterized by a kind of local 'neighborhood patriotism' and their audiences and players have, for much of the history of the sport, been drawn from sections of the local white working class," John Williams, a senior lecturer at the University of Leicester's Centre for the Sociology of Sport, told me. "In such communities--and in the sport itself--a conservative territoriality and resistance to 'difference' and change has historically been quite strong. Mass black immigration to the UK only really occurred in the 1950s and black soccer players only made the breakthrough in soccer here very late on, in the 1970s--when they faced real racism, as a consequence."
In my research of American football (the equivalent, fanwise, of soccer in the rest of the world) of the earlier part of the century, there is on-the-field violence--sometimes much worse than exhibited in today's game--but the reporters covering the games did not talk about any disturbances in the stands and, for the most part, this relative peace has gone on for one hundred years. I don't mean to be pie-in-the-sky here. Of course, there has been racism--segregated seating, for example--but there is no comparison to modern U.S. fans and European soccer supporters. While U.S. supporters scream at opposing players, and players on their own teams who are not performing well (the Yankees Alex Rodriguez, for example), and sometimes get out of control, U.S. fans are a fairly respectful bunch, at least on the surface. It's always amazing how dumb luck, not some sort of cultural superiority, prevails in social structures.
"English soccer fans have often used racism as a convenient way of baiting rival fans," says Williams. "Unlike in sport in the USA, soccer invites opposing white fans into other parts of the stadium to watch the game. This means that 'us' and 'them' oppositions are powerful and immediate features of stadium cultures in the UK. Abusing rival black players can aid well with such sentiments, of course. There are no segregated opposing fans to bait in US sport, using racism as the instrument, as there are in England. In most US sports--certainly in football and basketball--blacks make up the majority of the top players now, and this has been the case for some time. Mobilising racism in the crowd in this context would be pretty difficult."