Part of being a “professional” writer is knowing when you need to hit Ctrl+A and then Delete. Case in point: I was putting the finishing touches on a blog post defending alcohol at sporting events this week when word came out about the fights, shootings and general malfeasance at last weekend’s Raiders vs. 49ers preseason game. Not talking about it would have been ignoring the swaggering, enraged elephant in the room. But at the same time, I can’t shake the feeling that – despite common perceptions to the contrary – we’re talking about different things.
Ultimately, alcohol isn’t what causes people to turn violent and aggressive at sporting events – it’s the excuse that people use to justify getting “crazy” in the first place or to defend their actions after the fact. Yes, the majority of the fans taking part in the most violent and abhorrent shenanigans at the Raiders/49ers game were likely drunk, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have done the same thing if they were sober. In short, those Raiders and 49ers fans didn’t brawl because they were drunk – they brawled because they were complete idiots who can’t separate themselves from their teams.
Admittedly, I’m a bit biased here. My friends will tell you that I don’t mind “bending my elbow” and “enjoying a tipple” from time to time (if said friend was Andy Capp), although my alcohol consumption has significantly slowed in recent years. Blame it on a combination of fatherhood, frugality and a moderate interest in maintaining my health. But while I’m drinking less (and less often) overall, I find myself more likely to enjoy a few drinks before or during a sporting event than ever before.
I think this partially speaks to the changing role of sports in my life. In my 20s and early 30s, sports were a massive part of my life. In particular, USC football held an almost totemistic place in my life. Some people look back at their periods of heavy drinking and cringe; I do this, but with my borderline obsession with USC football. In a particular dark period, I would tape games and play them back while charting formations and which plays were run. The purpose? So I could be prepared to know what plays were going to be run when I went to a game based on formations and tendencies. (“We’re in trips left but the Y receiver is in motion against a base 4-3. It’s going to be an off-tackle run to the right.”)
Simply put, I was addicted and needed help.
This time in my life was also when I drank the most. I had my own dive bar that I would go to two to three times a week. And while it was a popular spot for me to go after games, I never went before. In fact, I didn’t tailgate at games and almost never bought a beer at the game (this was back when they still allowed beer sales at the Coliseum).
Why? Because I was so obsessed with every aspect of the game that I didn’t want to sully it with alcohol. After all, if I was tipsy, how could I tell that the safeties for Arizona State were creeping up the line and we needed to call that play-action QB rollout with the TE and FB dragging to hit a big play? It was one thing to be hung over at work on a Tuesday; it was another thing to be inebriated at the game. Drinking could wait: watching a game was serious business.
And now the opposite is true. I can’t remember the last time I had a beer at home, and I can count the number of times I’ve been out past midnight in the past three months on one hand. But if I’m going to a sporting event, I’m much more likely to enjoy a few drinks before or during the game.
I’ve struggled to understand why I drink more at games and less elsewhere. Finally, in talking about this with my (incredibly supportive and unbelievably put-upon) wife, she was able to hone in on why this is happening.
“You don’t go out much anymore,” she said, “and you aren’t going to as many games as you used to. So when you do, you are more concerned about just having fun than getting wrapped up in the minutia of the game.”
She’s right – going to a game is less about the Xs and Os of what’s happening on the field and more about having a fun experience. Drinking at a game has never made me want to get into a fight or start trouble with another fan – instead, it’s made me want to hang out with fans from other teams. (Unless said fans are from UCLA – some demons are always there with you.)
Just as importantly, my identity as a person is not wrapped up in my favorite team like it used to be. The fact that all of my email addresses from years ago have some reference to “USC” or “Fight On” in them shows you just how much I had blurred the line between “the team I am a fan of” and “my team.” Years later, I know that it isn’t “my team” – I don’t own them and I don’t play for them either. I can follow them and root for them passionately, but at the end of the day they aren’t me.
At the end of the day, that’s the issue that I think is at the root of the current “wave” of fan-on-fan violence. (I used quotes because it’s folly to suggest that these things weren’t happening frequently – and often far more violently – in the past; that’s another post for another time.) There are a certain percentage of fans who are struggling to find their own identity, so they latch on to their sports team and claim that identity as their own. Any opposing fan is a threat to their identity and must be dealt with in order to reassert their own self-worth. When you get two fans that have the same identity problems, it’s a powder keg which will almost always combust – alcohol just acts as an accelerant.
So don’t blame the alcohol the next time there’s a fight in the stands – that’s letting the “fans” involved get off too easily, with a convenient scapegoat to hang the blame on. This is all about knuckleheads looking to use a sporting event to elevate their own limited self-worth. You can’t stop selling low self-esteem at halftime to make that go away.
Richard Manfredi asks that if you drink at a sporting event, please have a designated driver. Or make sure that you hang out in the parking lot at the Rose Bowl for three hours waiting for traffic to calm down while jamming a box of Krispy Kreme donut holes in your maw while sobering up.