The etymology is easy to surmise, and yet it seems so placid.
“Fan” is short for fanatic, describing the engine that drives big-time sports. If it weren’t for fans willing to spend time and money supporting their favorite teams, major sports would more resemble the sandlots of our youth. There would be no 70,000-seat stadiums. No $3.8 million spots for Super Bowl ads. No cultural touchstones that become the water cooler discussions of the following morning.
But fans there are, and fans there will be, as devotion to a particular team becomes a sort of self-identity.
That is one thing that makes the Super Bowl different. It draws in people who aren’t football fans, who aren’t sports fans, who aren’t fans of either team yet simply want to take part in the experience.
But the rest of the year? Well, that’s where the NFL has a budding problem.
You see, NFL fandom on any given Sunday has become a tribal ritual. Go to a game at any stadium in the league and you can witness a Lord of the Flies mentality.
At least, that’s what Vancouver’s Sarah Brown and her family saw in December while attending the Seahawks-49ers game in Seattle. Brown wrote to The Columbian describing her experience.
“Both my 14-year-old son and his friend were verbally assaulted by Seahawk fans because they were wearing 49er items,” Brown wrote. “All throughout the day, before and during the game, every Niner fan in our group was screamed at, cussed at, even pushed and threatened.
“We were not able to enjoy the game because our primary concern became our safety, not being able to cheer on our team.”
Brown also shared her complaints with Seahawks officials, and the team responded by seeking specifics of the incidents in order to improve security in those areas.
Seahawks fans are notoriously fanatic. The franchise makes a show out of raising the 12th Man flag right before kickoff, in honor of the fans. And the stadium operations team puts statistics on the video board trumpeting how often opponents are drawn into false-start penalties at CenturyLink Field, presumably because of the noise made by the home crowd.
The fact that a couple drunken yahoos can’t control themselves shouldn’t be seen as an indictment on the 67,000 other people in attendance. But the NFL has a problem, and it is growing.
In 2011, according to ESPN, more than 7,000 fans were ejected from NFL games. Considering that there are 256 regular-season contests, that’s an average of more than 25 fans per game. That led the league to institute a policy this season dictating that ejected fans must take a four-hour course on proper fan behavior before returning to the stadium.
That seems to be a decent effort to address the problem, yet getting at the root will require a little more digging.
Fans in all sports these days are more prone to embracing the “fanatic” part of their mission than they used to be. Fandom has become a righteous self-justification, a mentality of, “If you aren’t with us, then you’re against us.”
Add in the inherent violence of football, the once-a-week schedule that lends importance to each particular game, and the tradition of getting well-oiled in the hours before the game, and the sport is a cauldron for stirring up the worst among the trouble-makers in the crowd.
Baseball had a similar problem with obnoxious, drunken fans in the 1980s. The sport dealt with it by increasing security, closing beer sales after the seventh inning, and dealing swiftly with out-of-control fans. Along the way it managed to rebrand itself as a family-friendly activity.
The NFL is a different animal. The cost of a game makes attendance unattainable for most families, and as the 800-pound gorilla of American sports, the league has no real reason to alter its culture.
But something else that Brown wrote in her e-mail suggests that the atmosphere of the stadiums is, in some small way, damaging to the league:
“This was my son’s first professional game, and it will probably be his last. He has told me that he never wants to go to another pro football game again. This whole experience has turned mine and my family’s love of professional football to hate.”
And that makes for a few less fanatics for the NFL.