No Game for a Family
I went to my last professional football game this month. My son and I braved frigid, remote FedEx Field to see our beloved Chicago Bears, the fallen Super Bowl champions, humiliated 24-16 by the struggling Washington Redskins. It wasn't the depth of our despair that will keep us away from football stadiums for good but the depravity of the fans.
I suppose depravity is a strong word. But what better describes drunken adult men, egged on by other grown beer-swillers, belly-shouting the most spectacular obscenities imaginable as they stand next to a 13-year-old boy? Every play was a competition to produce a more vile insult or a different suggestion about which Bear body part might be stuffed up which orifice. When the Redskins scored their first touchdown, four young women -- I'm guessing they were in high school -- turned around and did a little stripper's dance that made my son blush as I cringed. Even putting aside their ages, it was too cold to bare flesh.
Within 10 minutes of kickoff, I knew I had made a terrible mistake taking my son to the game.
The looming aggression and violence was more troubling than the foul language and drunken boorishness. Some of the men near us were enraged and barely in control of themselves. When Bears quarterback Rex Grossman went down with a knee injury, two obese drunks behind us bellowed that they hoped the [expletive] [expletive] would never walk again. They did this over and over, adding slurs and suggested tortures.
I had already pointed out to these gentlemen that there were kids around. They glared at me, furious. It was obvious to me that if I pursued it, there would be a fight or a screaming match.
My son wore a Bears jersey concealed under his layers of fleece and down. A man two rows in front of us who looked like Cpl. Klinger from "M*A*S*H" took it upon himself to needle my son every time something bad happened to the Bears, which happened a lot. He would turn and stare at him and wave goodbye in a threatening way. I know he was trying to be funny, ribbing us in good spirit. But when I asked him to stop, he just shook his head. The very nice man next to me, a season-ticket holder, told me that if I just waited until the second half, the guy would be too drunk to stand.
There simply was no code of conduct, no social superego, that discouraged this behavior, even around children. Worse, some people were there precisely to get drunk, angry, loud and vile. The idea that fans would have manners or courtesy in any form seems archaic and silly.
Americans have been worried for a decade about the social isolation known as "bowling alone." But if the social bonding generated by "watching together" is like the atmosphere at the Bears-Redskins game, it's understandable why many people prefer to watch alone.
There is nothing unique about Redskins fans in my experience. I took my son to a game at Chicago's field a few years ago, and it may have been worse, simply because it wasn't so cold out that day. I thought that experience might have been an anomaly, but the friends I have surveyed tell me it isn't. When I went to a Cleveland Browns game without my son, I wasn't as disturbed by the drunken meanness, but there was still plenty of drunken name-calling.
Professional football to a large degree is a gigantic beer-delivery mechanism. The club level of FedEx Field is set up to ingest beer. To watch football on television, you have to endure the same idiotic beer ads again and again. Judging from their content, these ads are not targeted at men but at oafs. The characters in today's beer commercials are boy-buffoons capable of little more than watching television and pouring down the suds. Gone are the athletes, outdoorsmen and debonair smoothies.
So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to be surrounded by oafs at a football game. I suppose there's a place and purpose for public aggression, drunkenness and lewdness. Certainly the Romans enjoyed it in their decline. But I'm not sure how all the nice, well-behaved American football fans put up with it. Attending a professional football game is no longer an activity for a family.
Dick Meyer is the author of the forthcoming "Why We Hate Us."