Fanning the flames . . . @justinegub and the modern sports fan #sportsjournalism

In my Columbus-based private eye series, my protagonist, an ex-Ohio State quarterback turned sleuth, takes a lot of crap for a mistake–albeit a big one–he committed as a college senior. His actions cost his team a national championship and himself a career in the game he loved and excelled at. I’m occasionally asked whether I might be laying on the fan antagonism my character faces a bit too thick, especially two decades on from his transgression. Fans of the Buckeyes assure me I’m not, by a long shot.

In case you’re not convinced, pick up Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), by Justine Gubar. Gubar, a veteran producer for ESPN, opens her book with the reaction she received after arriving in Columbus to research “tattoogate,” the 2011 scandal involving players trading game memorabilia for cash and tattoos that ultimately led to coach Jim Tressel’s resignation for failing to report the misconduct. Here’s a taste of the social media scorn leveled at Gubar after a local radio host broadcast her presence and her mission in the city:

_ “Just another OSU fan telling you to f@#$ off, bitch.”

_ “You’re not even on a same level as a prostitute. People like you are a disgrace to the practice of journalism.”

_ “I simply advise you to do what’s right and if you don’t, realize that Buckeye Nation will not show you mercy.”

Suffice to say, the fringe elements of Ohio State fandom don’t come off well in Gubar’s account. Nor should they. As a Columbus resident, it was embarrassing to read about the treatment she received, to say the least. But as her book makes clear, it was also perhaps no surprise. As Gubar writes, “In a certain type of social setting, normal people can forsake self-restraint and accountability and do abnormal things that they claim not to understand after the fact.”

Fanaticus begins by exploring bad fan behavior through history, with tales of the violence that permeated gladiator matches and chariot races in ancient Rome. Gubar goes on tod detail some of the worst modern-day sports riots, including the more than 300 people killed during and after a 1964 soccer match between Peru and Argentina. But myriad and recent examples are available in the U.S., including rioting in 2004 after the Red Sox beat the Yankees to reach the World Series for the first time in almost two decades. During the melee, a crowd control weapon fired by police struck and killed a 21-year-old female student at Emerson College.

Gubar explores what motivates violent fan behavior (“Your Brain On Sports”), the role of raucous student cheering sections (“The Art of Noise”), and the influence of alcohol, including obvious, and not-so-obvious solutions to curbing excessive drinking. One method used with apparent success–though not without controversy–at schools like West Virginia University involves fighting with fire: serving alcohol at sporting events inside stadiums on the theory it helps curb the binge drinking that happens at tailgating parties before the main event. (Ohio State just announced a similar expansion of beer sales stadium-wide for the upcoming season, though it didn’t cite the impact on excessive drinking in its publicity.)

Along the way, Gubar interviews members of the Antlers, the unofficial, hyper-raucous student fans at the University of Missouri; talks to Jan Van Cauwenbergh, a “real-life hooligan” whose life revolved around support for Belgium’s Royal Antwerp Football Club; and quizzes students caught up in post-game riots, including McKenzie Lagodinski, a University of Minnesota senior arrested after the Gophers beat North Dakota for a berth in the NCAA hockey finals. Only a bystander, she watched as a fun celebration quickly turned negative: “It turned into people thinking, ‘Oh yeah, we are going to riot. We are going to burn stuff down. We just want to prove we can still riot.’ “

Gubar also interviews academics and sports professionals studying the problem of fan behavior and trying to do something about it, which leaves the reader with some hope that violence can be reduced. Yet Gubar concludes after her exhaustive research that loutish sports enthusiasts may always be with us. Driving home this point is the extreme reaction she gets when trying to meet in person with one of her most rabid Ohio State Twitter attackers, most of which is not appropriate for this semi-family friendly blog, but can be summed up by his opener: “You are a shit journalist.”

The good news is Gubar’s book leaves the opposite impression: it’s a fair, thorough and accurate accounting of a troubling phenomenon. But even she is left wondering whether the problem will always be with us. “I’ve come to believe,” Gubar writes near the end of Fanaticus, “that bad fan behavior is part of human nature. History documents the enduring nature of violent fans. Science tells us that’s because our brain is primed for aggression and easily influenced by other examples of violence.”

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