In this grand sporting nation of ours, home of noble Olympians, Little Leaguers with mint chocolate-chip moustaches, the late John Wooden and humble NBA millionaires like Grant Hill, solemn questions this Independence Day:
Do we care too much about our games and our teams? And if not, then exactly what makes a fan of one team pummel a fan of another team into a coma?
It’s been more than three months since Bryan Stow, a San Francisco Giants fan, was beaten unconscious by two Dodgers fans in a stadium parking lot after a game. He remains hospitalized with brain injuries and one man, a known gang member, is in custody.
While taking into account a perpetrator’s background — and the fact there are unruly fans and then there are just flat-out violent criminals who happen to have a ticket stub — it’s hard not to, at least in part, connect the dots back to an endangered species at the ballpark.
“Not just sports, but the level of civility in society has diminished,” said Ronald Kamm, the director for Sports Psychiatry Associates in Oakhurst, N.J. “Look at Congress, the things they say now on the chamber floor. See the 24-hour news cycle and the opposing political channels. We never had that growing up. Part of entertainment now is demonizing the other guy.”
Remember when part of going to a game used to be about canonizing the homegrown star and giving the visitor good-natured grief?
Yeah? Well, when Kevin Love returned to his native Oregon with rival UCLA for a basketball game a few years ago, his grandmother was called a whore, his family was pelted with food, placards held by students found creative ways to say he was gay and, oh, he also got this nice little message (one of 400 left by Ducks fans who distributed his cellphone numbers among each other): “If you guys win, we’ll come to your house and kill your family.”
Ralph Nader, for one, is fed up. He spoke to Post editors and reporters last week regarding the unveiling of a new consumer advocacy group for fans. He said the loss of civility is directly related to the corroded relationship between the stars and the people who pay to watch them play.
“There is a symbiotic relationship,” Nader said. “The more coarse the players who play are, it feeds the fans. And the more coarse fans are the more the players have to play to the fans. . . . There are some players who do make fans worse because of the way they behave.”
Kamm has treated hundreds of athletes of all ages and levels and he is unwittingly part of a larger support group: Philadelphia Eagles fans.
He says some of the problems rooted in Philadelphia’s fan behavior “can come from having a city with an identity problem.”
“When there is violence involved, for someone whose identity is unformed and shaky, this is the fan’s way of getting 15 minutes of fame today unfortunately,” he said.
Unprompted, Nader last week asked, “Why are the Eagle fans notorious? Philadelphia fans are no worse than anywhere else.”
Actually, in my experience, they are.
In April, GQ magazine released its Worst Sports Fans in America list. Predictably, Philadelphia sewed up the title again (Maryland’s riotous basketball fans came in No. 5, behind the perennially heinous Oakland Raiders fans.) Among the top 15, GQ actually bestowed Nos. 1 and 2 on Philly’s most despicable while declaring, “Philadelphia stadiums house the most monstrous collection of humanity outside of the federal penal system.”
Sarcasm and the old “They booed Santa Claus” anecdote cloud two facts about their fans. If major markets like Washington had half their passion and lack of patience, losing franchises would be forced to make real, not cosmetic, change.
And the downside: that Eagles-Phillies-Flyers-Sixers zealotry has manifested itself in some of the most violent, ugly, life-altering confrontations imaginable.
Nothing I’ve seen in my career at pro sporting events was worse than the free-swinging brawl about 50 feet from the court prior to Game 3 of the 2001 NBA Finals. Lumbering, large men — about six on each side — threw haymakers at each other for a good three minutes, until three men were knocked unconscious and blood was all over the seats and floor. Several perpetrators walked out nonchalantly, as if they had finished eating at a restaurant, as Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson watched in amazement steps away.
I’ll never forget a girl who was maybe 3 years old screaming and crying as her father held her tightly in his arms, stunned this could happen next to him in a lower-bowl seat at an NBA Finals game.
Buried in Paul Schwartzman’s wrenching story of a father’s vigil for his son in The Post last December was how Ryan Diviney ended up in a vegetative state at 21. He and some friends who had been drinking encountered some other kids who had been drinking late at night in Morgantown, W.Va. “Phillies suck!” his friend remembered Ryan saying. Moments later, another kid, an avowed Phillies fan, punted his head like a football while Ryan lay helpless on the ground — presumably because for that warped 19-year-old, who was sentenced to 10 years, that’s “representing” his team.
In July 2009, two more factions of inebriated men, including members of a bachelor party, got into it at a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park. Kicked out of the game and an adjacent bar, they started going toe-to-toe in the parking lot — until David Sale, 22, was beaten to death by “hands and feet.”
Of course it’s not just Philly. Futbol hooliganism has resulted in deaths and mayhem all over the world. And anyone familiar with the case around the brutal beating of Stow in the Dodger Stadium parking lot would say it’s impossible to completely dissect the senselessness.
But we should have common sense. Indeed, the worst commentary after the beating of Stow did not come from a fan but rather a media member.
“Maybe someone can ask [Stow], if he ever comes out of his coma, why he thought it was a good idea to wear Giants’ gear to a Dodgers’ home opener when there was a history of out-of-control drunkenness and arrests at that event going back several years,” wrote a former Pittsburgh sports anchor who doesn’t deserve the decency of mentioning his name here.
It was the victim’s fault? Sadly, that’s where we are — that there are parks and stadiums in this country believed to be off limits for certain jerseys? When we get away from our fanaticism, really, how un-American is that?
Heaven forbid if we support our team by wearing their colors at a visiting ballpark without the fear of being beaten close to death. Where are people allowed to do that, free countries?