When Football Fans Attack: How to Fix the NFL's Violence Problem

What's to blame for recent fights in San Francisco and Baltimore?



Welcome to the end of Western Civilization. Please leave your humanity at the door.

That's what people seemed to do in San Francisco last weekend, when fans attacked each other at Candlestick Park during an NFL preseason game between the 49ers and Oakland Raiders. In addition to countless fights in the bleachers—many of which were caught on camera--serious injuries included two men being shot in the parking lot, and another badly beaten in a stadium restroom.

On Monday, the NFL reacted. 49ers chief executive Jed York announced increased security patrols and more DUI checkpoints around the stadium, and a ban on tailgating at Candlestick after games have started. The league also said that any season ticket-holder found to have taken part in the violence will have their tickets revoked.

This doesn't seem like nearly enough. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has defined his tenure by taking a hardline on character issues for players—witness Tuesday's meetings with Kenny Britt and Aqib Talib—and should be just as tough or tougher on fans who misbehave. After all, who affects the average fan's experience more directly: a player who gropes a waitress a thousand miles away, or a belligerent fan in the next row? At the very least, any fans found guilty of fighting at an NFL stadium should be banned for life from attending another game.

York, as expected, also said he would ask the NFL to remove the annual preseason meeting between the Bay area rivals from next year's schedule. That's the right call, of course, but it nevertheless feels like the wrong one. There's something demoralizing about the mighty NFL declaring itself unable to provide a safe environment for fans when the Niners and Raiders meet. It feels like the league is capitulating to thuggery.

The fan-on-fan violence at Candlestick, along with less severe but equally creepy brawls in Baltimore during Friday night's meeting between the Ravens and Chiefs, was immediately lumped in with an attack earlier this summer on Bryan Stow, who is still in the hospital, months after being savagely beaten at Dodgers Stadium for the crime of being a Giants fan.

On his video blog for ESPN.com, Jeremy Schapp articulated the conventional wisdom that fan-on-fan violence merely reflects a rising tide of aggression in society a whole. It's hard, Schapp said, not to "see a correlation between what's happening with fans, and what's happening in the culture at large," suggesting that this culture-wide rise in violence is caused, at least in part, by the widening gap between rich and poor.

Toronto Star columnist Cathal Kelly agrees with the economic argument. He writes that "times for many North Americans are mean, and as a result, North Americans are getting meaner."

Seems logical. There's only one problem. It's not true. There is no rising tide of violence, not if you believe the FBI crime statistics, whose latest figures show a 5.5 percent drop in reported violent crimes between 2009 and 2010.

Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News rightly notes that binge drinking has more to do with the problem than economics, but he also blames the NFL for creating an atmosphere that's conducive to violence. Purdy specifically mentions league marketing campaigns "that portray fan loyalty as some sort of tribal warfare." Apparently in all seriousness he suggests "All My Rowdy Friends," the Hank Williams Jr. track played before each Monday Night Football game, as typical of marketing that promotes bad behavior. How, exactly, lyrics like "Are you ready for some football?/It's a Monday Night party!" encourages fans to beat on each other remains unclear.

Tim Dahlberg of the Associated Press concurs, and he doesn't hedge by blaming the league's cultivated rowdy image. He simply blames the game, and says the NFL is at fault for fan bad behavior, because football itself inherently makes people aggressive.

"The NFL glorifies violence," Dahlberg writes. And "sometimes that violence spreads to people wearing the replica jerseys in the stands."

Conveniently ignored by this theory, of course, is that Bryan Stow was attacked at a baseball game, and how soccer, which has much less contact than American football, has far more violence in the stands. In fact, although some experts disagree, at least one Nobel Laureate, Konrad Lorenz, famously argued that football, far from causing aggression, provides a socially constructive outlet for it.

If you really need a scapegoat, why not blame technology? There may be less violence overall in society, but thanks to omnipresent cellphones and security cameras, much more of it is caught on camera and broadcast to the world.

The omnipresent lens, in some cryptic way, may actually be a contributory factor to fan violence, by encouraging us to live in a virtual world, without repercussions. Anyone who has seen a Facebook debate turn vicious knows how nasty confrontations can get online. In the same way, fights on YouTube, in the movies or video games don't matter, because the punches don't really hurt, and the blood isn't real. People can get hit in the head with a crowbar and keep walking. In the real world, though, bones break easily. Lives can be shattered with a single punch, and the hospital bills alone are enough to destroy a family.

Contact hurts. Sports show us how fragile we are. That's why playing sports, as opposed to just watching them, or playing video versions of them, grounds us, keeps us in tune with the natural world and in touch with the ever-present limitations of the human body.

One of the great things about shows like American Idol and Glee is their celebration of amateurism—the legitimization of singing simply because it's fun and healthy to sing, even if you're no good at it. Football fans need to adopt more of that attitude in our backyards, parks, and sandlots. The problem with football and fan violence, in other words, isn't that too many people play it. The problem is that too many people don't.