There’s a fine line between home
field advantage and player intimidation, and it seems that
it’s blurring with each passing day. Spectators at sporting
events used to be civilized — have you ever seen pictures of
baseball games from the 1950s? Every man in the crowd wore a hat
and his Sunday finest and cheered respectfully for his team. Now it
seems that a season doesn’t go by in professional sports
without a fan getting involved with the play on the field, and
it’s happening with increasing frequency.

Brian Schick

Take an incident from a few weeks ago. Texas Rangers relief
pitcher Frank Francisco threw a chair from the bullpen into the
crowd in Oakland. Depending on whom you ask, it was either an
unprovoked display of violence, or retaliation for insulting
remarks directed at Francisco and his family. A fan left with a
broken nose and pressed charges on Francisco.

Aggression has always been part of the very nature of
professional sports (basically one team trying to be tougher than
the other) and the way fans describe them. Every player wants to
“kill” the opposition, and the game is going to be a
“war” on the “battlefield.” But in recent
years, it seems that incidents between fans and players have been
on the rise.

Of course, every sports league wants to distance itself from
outbreaks of violence, since it gives the entire sport a black eye
(sorry, I couldn’t resist). Going back to Francisco, Major
League Baseball suspended him 16 games for his attack on the fan,
but yesterday Francisco agreed to drop his appeal if the league
would drop a game from his suspension. I guess the reasoning is
that the shorter the suspension, the quicker people will forget
about it.

But the darker side of the Francisco incident is that fans are
becoming increasingly belligerent. The victim’s husband,
Craig Bueno, was supposedly harassing the Rangers bullpen all
night, and finally, in the eighth inning, Francisco snapped.

The same thing happened two years ago, when a fan provoked a
player into violent retaliation. Notorious Toronto Maple Leafs thug
Tie Domi sprayed water on a fan after he was harassed while sitting
in the penalty box.

Domi and the fan had to be separated by the linesman, but Domi
played the rest of the game and never missed a game due to
suspension.

So, are fans going out of their way to provoke players, or are
the players just less tolerant to fan rantings? Well, both sides
need to take a step back and look at the situation. In the age of
ESPN and 24-hour sports on the Internet, professional sports have
never had more prominence than they do right now, and fans live and
die with every game. In the age of free agency and advertising
dollars, players think they should be treated as royalty and
shouldn’t have to interact with the fans.

In America, we always seem to snicker at our friends across the
pond, whom we stereotype as hooligans because they riot during
soccer games. I’ve always thought it’s a joke that
people take their teams seriously enough to pick fights with fans
for simply supporting the rival club. But are we that different
than European and Latin American soccer fans, where club owners
sometimes need to build fences around the field to keeps fans from
harming the players? With violence on the rise in American spors,
that doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea anymore.

Fan violence goes back for decades, beginning with the infamous
promotions of the 1970s, such as 10-cent beer night in Cleveland
and Disco Demolition Night in Chicago that forced both teams to
forfeit the games due to fan rioting.

But recent events have increased not only in frequency but
ferocity. Houston Rockets’ Vernon Maxwell attacked a fan who
was heckling him about his deceased daughter in 1995.

New York Giants fans pelted San Diego Chargers players with
snowballs in 1995, injuring an equipment manager. The aftermath was
175 fans were ejected and 14 arrested.

And in two successive seasons, Chicago White Sox fans attacked
the Kansas City Royals’ first base coach in 2002, then an
umpire in 2003.

Most recently, it appears that a college football rivalry might
have played a part in a player’s death. Idaho cornerback Eric
McMillan was murdered following an altercation last Monday after
the Vandals game against Washington State. While the details are
still unclear, police believe the suspects were Cougars fans and
attacked McMillan simply because he was playing for the wrong
team.

McMillan’s murder is the most recent and most tragic
example of fans taking their passions for their teams to the
extreme. While players and coaches love it when the crowd creates a
hostile environment for the opposing team, it shouldn’t make
the players afraid to play on the road.

 

Brian Schick can be reached at
“mailto:bschick@umich.edu”>bschick@umich.edu.

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