In Don DeLillo’s “End Zone,” one of the characters remarks halfway through the novel that there is no need to metaphorically confuse football with warfare. The waving banners, bands and hordes of screaming fans do not recall military imagery, he says, and the warriors charging and bleeding up and down the field of battle are not pantomiming actual fighting.
For warfare, the character quips, is warfare. “We don’t need substitutes if we’ve got the real thing.” During sporting events it’s all too easy to forget the meaning of this statement and why we cheer for a team in the first place. There are many reasons why we pick a team and stick with them through thick and thin — school pride, appreciation of a particular player, love for one’s hometown. But all too often, fans young and old seem to lose sight of the reasons why they love their team and instead focus on why the other team needs to be chopped up and buried in several different shallow graves.
Part of this mentality can be traced to figures like the late, great Al Davis, whose aggressive demeanor on and off the field paved the way for a generation of football players and fans with a markedly disdainful attitude toward their competitors.
It’s probably safe to say the Black Hole is the epicenter of hatred in the football world — I’d wager that more Coliseum-parking lot beatings have been carried out in the name of the Raiders than in any big-city back alley.
This kind of attitude is contagious. All too often on game days here at Cal one might catch a glimpse of a fans bombarding passers-by with a cascade of half-empty beer cans for wearing the wrong colors. Other times the hostility will be subtler, whispered in the halls and plazas: “hey man, screw those USC assholes.
Rich punks didn’t deserve to win with their illegal recruiting and their golden cleats.” It’s easy to lose sight of why we watch collegiate sports in the first place. Standing in the student section is one of the most exhilarating experiences of a college career — there are streamers flying everywhere, the band is booming below and every single one of your thousands of neighbors are your best friends, at least for a while. There is truly nothing like the camaraderie that comes from watching your school’s best players trade shots with another school’s finest.
Some fans take things a bit personally, though. Time-honored sports traditions like heckling and catcalling are a classic, if a bit unwholesome, part of big games.
From my personal experience as an athlete, I feel that heckling almost helps the other team more than it harms them. I remember one volleyball match in particular against San Jose State last season where the entire crowd was verbal. In a small gym, it’s easy to hear every hateful word thrown your way. Everything was fair game: our shoes, our hair, our sexual orientation, our moms, etc. One guy in particular was really on top of his game. And by that I mean he probably downed a couple of Four Lokos before showing up. A real professional.
As the guy berated me I start to get angry. You wouldn’t like me on the court when I’m angry. I just started rattling off kills left and right, spurred to action by the heckler’s words. It was like I had to prove him wrong, and doing so gave me a sick sense of satisfaction, like every strong play on the court directly corresponded to a kind of metaphorical punch to his jaw.
But this attitude presents another danger. As fun as heckling players on the field is, the old adage “don’t hate the player, hate the game” applies here. Athletes who are slighted by fans of another team assign a bad reputation to those people and ensure that the cycle of hate rolls on and on.
This is not to say that rivalries should not spontaneously appear. If anything, a healthy rivalry is one of the greatest things about sports.
Prolonged competition between two teams over years and years creates a sense of mutual one-upsmanship that encourages bigger plays, more crushing defeats and more thrilling spectacles for all fans involved. If every professional or collegiate sports event could be a rivalry instead of a grudge match, the sporting world might be a better place for it.
At the end of the day, we have to remember that the other team has fans too. And that they want to win just as badly as you do, without getting clocked in the head by errant beer cans.
Football, after all, is not warfare.
So go out and enjoy yourself for a change. And don’t worry about the other team — they’re not here to fight either.