Angry about being pelted with snowballs and blocks of ice launched from the crowd, Oakland Raiders tackle Lincoln Kennedy climbed into Denver's Mile High Stadium stands Monday night to confront several fans after a loss to the Broncos. Meantime, Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson allegedly struck a female fan with a snowball he fired back into the crowd.
The flare-up, which began when a barrage of snowballs were thrown at Raiders players and lasted until security officers escorted Kennedy back to the field, resulted in eight fans and one player--Woodson--facing misdemeanor assault charges and 13 other stadium-goers receiving citations. Three fans spent the night in jail. It was described as "the ugliest scene I have ever seen," by 12-year veteran wide receiver Tim Brown of the Raiders and "an embarrassment to the city of Denver" by Raiders cornerback Darrien Gordon, a former Bronco.
Though Kennedy and Woodson took the unusual step of responding physically--a fan in the stands with a bloody lip accused Kennedy of throwing a punch--the affair was merely the latest in a series of fan-related disturbances at sporting events in recent months.
Two weeks ago, 10 fans were arrested and 20 were ejected during a Monday night football game between the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. During the American League Championship Series in October, fans threw bottles and other projectiles onto the field during a New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, causing a brief suspension of play. That game took place just over a week after fans at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium cheered when Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin was felled by a neck injury.
Even golf--a sport in which fans routinely observe rules of courtesy such as keeping silent during play--recently has been sullied. During the Ryder Cup in Brookline, Mass., in September, fans derided Colin Montgomerie and reportedly spit at another European player's wife.
"Most fans root with a fervor, but when things go wrong on the field, for some it turns into a twisted zeal," said Tim McCarver, a major league catcher with four teams over 21 years who was in the broadcast booth during the Red Sox-Yankees game. "Our civility is being severely tested in this day and age.
"Where," McCarver added, "is all this anger coming from?"
Indeed, the seemingly unprecedented display of fan misbehavior in recent months has raised disturbing questions about the culture surrounding American fandom. Are fans getting meaner? More prone to violence? After all, a municipal judge was installed last year on the premises of Veterans Stadium to hasten prosecution of the large numbers of disorderly fans at football games. Though there have been recorded incidents of fan violence dating from the 1930s and 40s, some say fan misbehavior is more frequent today, more vicious in nature, and more threatening to other fans and players.
"The general impression is that it has gone up," said Frank Farley, a former president of the American Psychological Association and professor at Temple University.
"I've been here 13 years," said William Lester, general manager of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission in Minneapolis, the landlord of games played at the Metrodome. "There's been a trend to more raucous behavior. . . . We're concerned. We don't want it to degenerate into the soccer fan hooliganism issue that has plagued European sports."
"The whole arena of sports has become an uglier one," said Arthur Bernstein, a Washington attorney who directs the United Sports Fans of America, a two-year-old advocacy group for fans. New Orleans Saints Coach "Mike Ditka was fined for giving the finger to the fans. You would never see a coach challenge the fans in the past. You get into a cycle of everything justifies everything else. There's a lack of respect all the way around."
Even passionate fans may be inclined to wonder whether the ballpark, stadium or arena is a safe place--let alone a comfortable one--to go for a good time. In August, a fan at a D.C. United game was hospitalized with stab wounds to his abdomen after an altercation in the stands. Earlier this season at Mile High Stadium, a metal object thrown from the stands struck Broncos cornerback Dale Carter in the cheek, causing blurred vision and a bruise. This past September, a Milwaukee Brewers fan jumped onto the field and punched Houston Astros right fielder Billy Spiers before teammates and the police came to Spiers's rescue, dragging the man away. Earlier that month, authorities used tear gas to quell a fan riot after a Colorado-Colorado State game. In May, 25 people were ejected from Chicago's Wrigley Field for throwing garbage to protest an umpire's call.
The morning after the Red Sox game, Boston Herald columnist Michael Gee called the guilty fans "pigs" and wrote, "If you love sports, you should be sickened."
"It starts with this profanity-laced dialogue from the fans to the players," McCarver said. "With that, it escalates."
Former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, now a television announcer, speculated that alcohol and fanatical talk radio shows have exacerbated what has long been a problem: fans losing control in a setting in which passion comes with the price of the ticket. Farley said societal desensitization to violence and abusive language likely plays a part in taking acceptable fervor to an unacceptable level. Others speculate that the frenzied crowd atmosphere associated with professional wrestling, whose popularity has soared in recent years, has extended to more traditional sports venues.
Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney pointed to a simpler answer: the growing divide between fans and players because of players's high salaries and the tendency to change teams through free agency.
"There is too much movement now of players from teams," Rooney said. "I do think it leads to a feeling of abandonment by the fans from the players. They feel like players turn their backs on them for money and greed."
Said Bernstein: "It's the whole alienation of fans from sport. When fans felt like they were part of the sport, and loyal to the team, they didn't do things like that."
There were, actually, at least occasional incidents of fan misbehavior even during what some would call the glory days of American sport. Baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb went into the stands once to attack a heckling fan. In 1934, Tigers fans reportedly threw garbage at St. Louis outfielder Ducky Medwick after he slid with spikes up into a Detroit player during the seventh game of the World Series, forcing Medwick to leave the game. In 1955, a fan--angry that NHL President Clarence Campbell had suspended Canadians star Maurice Richard for the playoffs--struck Campbell in the Forum stands, setting off a chain of fights in the crowd and a historic riot throughout Montreal.
During the '70s, with the advent of free agency--and big-money contracts--in sports, incidents of fan misconduct seemed to grow more numerous. Bottles were hurled at baseball legend Pete Rose and a battery was tossed at Pittsburgh Pirates star Dave Parker. The Cleveland Indians forfeited a game after drunken fans rioted; the Chicago White Sox canceled a game for a similar reason a few years later.
Washington Wizards General Manager Wes Unseld said that, as a player in the late '60s and early 1970s, he was subjected to occasional racial epithets. He said lengthy verbal disputes--during games--among fans and players were not uncommon. After a game in Seattle, Unseld said, one of his Washington Bullets teammates was struck by a fan's violin case.
In recent years, Unseld said, relations between fans and NBA players have generally improved. He credited that change largely to the league's non-tolerance of misbehaving players. Players, wary of hefty fines, are less likely to interact in a negative way with fans, Unseld said. And the fans, he said, seem to have responded with increased respect of their own.
"Players have been made abundantly aware that [fan abuse is] not going to be tolerated," Unseld said. "Any player who [incites fans] is either stupid or out of his mind."
In 1997, Major League Baseball banned pregame promotions that could serve as projectiles. That decision came after an Opening Day game at Milwaukee's County Stadium in which fans threw souvenir baseballs onto the field, suspending play for 14 minutes. Rooney said the Steelers seize the season tickets of fans who cause disturbances during games. Most stadiums offer alcohol-free sections, stop selling alcohol well before the end of the game, and serve food and drink only in plastic and paper containers.
In response to the arrests at the Nov. 8 Vikings-Cowboys game, the Vikings asked beer vendors to cut off sales after halftime instead of the third quarter, Vikings General Manager Tim Connolly said. And during the next Monday night game at the Metrodome--Dec. 20 against the Green Bay Packers--the organization will hand out pamphlets and make announcements over the public address system reminding fans of rules and regulations regarding conduct.
At most venues, extra security measures are taken for games between big rivals. At the conclusion of games after which fans are likely to storm the field, security officers usually assume places around the stands.
"If fans throw stuff onto the field, it's the responsibility of the fans around them to make sure they're ejected," former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. "Mike Ditka got fined $20,000 by the [Saints] for a gesture he did to the fans. I certainly think the court system and local municipalities would jump down hard on fans who make it hazardous for the players, but that's only going to come from cooperation from other fans."
Even obscene language and mean-spirited jeering grate on some players and fans trying to have a good time. Washington Redskins season ticket holder Dan Laibstain, 41, of North Potomac, said he has been hesitant to take his 4-year-old daughter to a Redskins game because of the inevitable exposure to profanity.
Esiason, now an announcer on "Monday Night Football," agreed.
"I like to take my children to hockey games, but it's appalling, at times, to what you're subjected to out there," Esiason said. "I'm talking about [bad] language. I'm not a prude. It's not against my religion. I know there's going to be frustration involved. But people use the most ridiculous obscene language. When I'm sitting with my 8-year-old son, I have to turn around and say something."
Bill Banfield, a Redskins season ticket holder since 1963, said modern fans are no more hostile than they were in years past. However, Banfield said, the composition of the crowd seems to be changing. He said current fans lack the diehard devotion to the team that characterized those of an earlier day.
"It used to be a real event," said Banfield, 58, of Easton, Md. "People dressed up to go to the games. People [today] don't actually use their tickets. They are staying home, selling them, or letting their kids use them."
Connolly said problems seem more frequent at games or stadiums in which season ticket holders are not in the vast majority. Season ticket holders, he said, tend to treat the stadium like a "neighborhood" to be protected and cared for. Infrequent stadium goers, he said, attend events for the purpose of "raising hell and having fun. That's what you have to watch out for."
Some speculate that the huge success of the WNBA, which has averaged about 10,000 fans in each of its first three seasons, has been a testament to the average sports fan's desire for a family friendly atmosphere. The crowds at the WNBA games have earned a reputation for restraint and positive reinforcement. Even mere booing is extremely uncommon.
At a recent Monday night game between the Cowboys and the New York Giants at Giants Stadium, dissatisfied fans began booing the home team on the first series.
"My approach has always been that fans can do and say just about anything they want," Unseld said. "That's why they're fans. They are fanatics. You've got to accept that. . . . It's like the proverbial water: You've got to let it roll off your back and go on. That's part of what you get when you pay for a ticket."
Bernstein agreed that verbal abuse is far less significant than physical abuse. However, he said, "One flows into the other.
"It's easy to bridge the gap from vicious words," Bernstein said, "to throwing that bottle."