Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Opening day 2015

By Claude Fischer


Baseball is back this week. Hallelujah!

Actually, it was back earlier, in spring training, which has become highly popular in recent years. One fieldwork observation about spring training in the Phoenix area,where 15 MLB teams train in close proximity, 10 of them sharing stadiums: The teams’ enthusiastic fans seem to mingle in good cheer.

Why is this amicability worth noting? Because if one looks to Europe (and Latin America), one sees violence between gangs of fans at a scale and intensity shocking to Americans. The U.S. has a much higher rate of violent crime overall than does Europe and yet, in this regard, our stadiums seem like oases of peaceful sportsmanship.


To be sure, violence does break out among fans at American sports events, even baseball. Mix together young men, competition and alcohol and you have a formula for brawls in the stands, dousing opposing players with beer, and busting things.

In the Bay Area, we have had a couple of tragic fights break out among handfuls of fans just outside stadiums. Last year in southern California, three U.S. Marines were stabbed in a brawl between Dodgers and Angels fans.

Post-championship celebrations too often end up in street violence – as did the celebration of the Giants clinching the 2014 World Series – although usually the damage is just to property. Still, American sports have nothing like the brutal battles between the supporters of European football (soccer) teams – for example, 39 deaths in a 1985 European Cup riot. How come?

Technical factors

Some have been concerned that the kinds of brawls that occur elsewhere between fan groups at games, in the streets, and even on transportation lines to the games, could come to the United States. A Sports Illustrated article 30 years ago worried that “Americans may not be quite as fanatical as European soccer fans, but some of them harbor the same frustrations, grow similarly aggressive at sports events, drink excessively before and during games.”

Yet, that sort of violence has not happened. The same article closed,“With luck, American sport will suffer nothing worse than random knifings, shootings, fistfights and ‘celebration’ riots.” A policing-advice site out of SUNY-Albany which provides guidance on stadium violence states that “some European countries have designed moats around soccer fields to prevent fans from interfering with game play . . . . Such extreme measures are generally unnecessary (nor permissible) in the United States.”

As far as I can tell, there is no simple answer to why the U.S. has been spared. A couple of papers I have found (pdf; and here) present several explanations, including these:

* Tickets to U.S. professional events are notably more expensive than those overseas and thereby minimize the sorts of fans –working-class men – who tend to battle for their team colors. Similarly, American sports crowds include proportionally more women, lowering the level of aggression.

* U.S. fans are more engaged by watching television rather than in-person as European fans prefer.

* The stadiums of rival teams are often so distant in the U.S. as to discourage visiting-team fans from traveling to away games en masse.

* European fan clubs often have another agenda which is nationalistic, racist, or otherwise “communal.” England’s famed Manchester United, for example, has been historically associated with Catholics and Manchester City with Protestants. Indeed, some xenophobic movements see such clubs as vehicles for political mobilization.

Deeper reasons?

The sociologist who wants to dig deeper may wonder about national differences in the nature of fan loyalty. Where one does more often see organized fan struggles in the U.S. is at some college and high school sports events. Separate sections for the fans of each team, sometimes with physical barriers, are common in European professional soccer, but not in American professional sports. But such separations (minus the fences) keep fans apart at major college and high school competitions in the U.S. Perhaps, there is something tribal-like in these school affiliations that mildly echoes those of soccer fans around the world.

Professional sports in the United States does rest to some extent on affiliation by birth, that is, by city or region (e.g., the “Red Sox Nation”), but rarely if ever by race, religion, or heritage. Our fandom seems much more discretionary, voluntary. Many fans change teams when they move cities or are put off by owners of the teams or otherwise feel like switching. (I know of at least two men who “converted” to their wives’ teams upon marriage.) Being a team’s fan is much more like joining a club than it is being in a tribe or family.

If this line of analysis is valid – that American voluntarism defuses the team fanaticism – then it would make sense that warring over professional teams is not as compelling here as it in much of the world.

As we turn to Opening Day in America’s voluntaristic sports climate, the wish is for a peaceful and Giants season.


Cross-posted from Claude Fischer's blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.