Why are so many of us so angry? In these boom times, why is our affluent culture turning violent and venomously anti-social at the very sports events we are presumably attending to have fun? Once, we went to games to let off steam. Now, we get steamed.
In you're playing right field for the Houston Astros in sedate middle-America Milwaukee, you better be careful. A fan may run out of the stands and punch you in the face. If you're at a Colorado-Colorado State football game, bring your gas mask; in September, tear gas was used to quell a fan disturbance. A D.C. United patron came to RFK Stadium to watch soccer; he ended up in the hospital with stab wounds.
Is it possible we've gotten so intoxicated with winning in the '90s that all other reasons for playing games, or attending them, have shrunk to insignificance? How could "fun" be sufficient? No way. Not unless there's a chance to make a quick killing in a "fun.com" IPO. In a culture that, every year, seems to define itself more in terms of raw competition, we are tempted, unconsciously, to reduce issues to "I'm a winner. You're a loser."
In this week's installment of our sad saga, two Oakland Raiders players got in a snowball and ice-chunk throwing battle with Broncos fans in Denver. Three fans spent the night in jail. One Raider allegedly hit a female fan in the face with a snowball while another was accused of punching a fan. Oakland defensive back Charles Woodson faces a misdemeanor assault charge. Maybe he just doesn't know the rules: You can't chuck a fan more than five rows into the stands.
The Raiders' Tim Brown called the melee "the ugliest scene I have ever seen." These days, that's quite a distinction. A little less than three weeks ago, 10 fans were arrested and 20 ejected at a Vikings game on a Monday night in Minneapolis. On any given Sunday, you never know what you'll see in the NFL. Sometimes fans apparently ask the New Orleans Saints' coach, "Mike, what's your IQ?" Obligingly, Mike Ditka answers with one finger.
Football's not alone. At Fenway Park last month, fans in the bleachers in front of me began throwing anything they could get their hands on at the New York Yankees and the umpires. They weren't just mad about bad calls. Worse, they were furious about being perceived around the country as "losers"--those comic Red Sox fans, stuck for generations with their dopey Curse.
As play in the AL Championship Series game was suspended, the rain of garbage and curses increased. Many decided to join the mini-riot, as though it were just part of the show and came with the pricey ticket. What, you mean Yanks vs. Red Sox isn't the WWF? For the most part, the hundreds of people who acted berserk were middle-class white males ranging in age from their late teens to their thirties. In other words, typical American fans.
Throughout the postseason, you could hear that same ultimate insult: "You're a loser." Usually with an extra adjective added. In one shoulder-to-shoulder line at Turner Field in Atlanta, barbs started flying between Braves and Yankees fans. It started as bravado but quickly got crazy. Nobody would back down. The space was cramped. One huge guy, half-drunk, stood inches from me, trying to start the Civil War all over again. He didn't just want to start a fight. He wanted to be the fight. The Yankees fans retreated.
Whatever level of raw rage you think is circulating in our sports arenas, I promise you, it's higher. By contrast, the fuss at the Ryder Cup, where I walked in the galleries, doesn't even register on the fury meter.
To some, it's a paradox that in the best of economic times we exhibit the worst behavior. Maybe it's actually the opposite. Hard times, catastrophes and illness have usually brought out the most unselfish impulses in people. However, when we are flush with security or success, we often isolate ourselves from the needs of others. We're too big to fail or need anyone else. Greek tragedy said: "Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make great."
In sports and out, we've seldom been more obsessed with winning than we are right now. I catch myself all the time. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Everybody does. Even utility infielders are filthy rich. Why not me? If you're not a winner, you're a loser, right? A champ or a chump. So, why not run up the score, win by 70, to gain a spot in the college football rankings.
American sport always has been of two minds about what it values. On one hand, pro sports is pure capitalist competition. Survival of the fittest. To the victor go the spoils.
On the other, there's usually an awkward recognition, even by famous athletes themselves, that much of life is a mystery to them. They've deliberately narrowed themselves to become great. It's their choice. Ironically, we now seem to have people who choose a comparable narrowness for the sake of being more fanatical fans.
Of all our words to live by, few have proved more shallow, or less sustaining in hard times, than, "Just win, baby." Every religious leader or philosopher for 2,000 years has managed to get past "I win, therefore I am." Yet that's where some of us are stuck now. If you climb the Himalayas to reach the guru at the top, he's not going to say, "Mets rule, dude." Or "give my regards to Regis."
It's a cruel illusion that flush times address our deepest issues. How do we live a life that satisfies us, not in the eyes of others, but in the privacy of our own hearts? That question hasn't gotten any easier over the centuries. Rooting for the pennant winner, or even finding a way to get that million, isn't going to help.
Why are so many in our stadiums so angry? Perhaps we feel entertained, yet undernourished. Aided and abetted by sport, we've gotten in the habit of asking the simplest, most childish question--who won?--and then asking nothing more. When you lose, and you haven't thought beyond winning, you can get mighty mad.
CAPTION: Lincoln Kennedy gets up close and personal with fans after Raiders' tackle was hit with snowball following overtime loss to Broncos, 27-21, in Denver on "Monday Night Football."