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The Sports Riot: First We Lose (Or Win), Then We Set This Sucker On Fire

A person walks in front of a burning vehicle after riots break out following the Vancouver Canucks' loss in the NHL finals. (Getty Images)

The Vancouver Canucks lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday night — or rather, the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night. But what's in the news this morning is the depressingly familiar spectacle of fires, overturned cars, and broken windows. That was in Vancouver, where the team lost. (And where similar problems happened in 1994 when the Canucks lost to the New York Rangers.)

Of course, you can get exactly the same reaction from the fans of a team that wins — take the riots in Los Angeles that happened in June 2010 after the Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in the NBA finals.

If you want more evidence that extreme jubilation can lead to the same tragedies as extreme frustration, consider the fact that there was a death in Boston in rioting that followed Boston Red Sox' victory over the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series in 2004 — perhaps the most exuberant moment in recent sports history.

A piece that ran in USA Today in 2004 after the Red Sox riots (and a similar nightmare following the Patriots' Super Bowl win) looked at prevailing theories about sports riots, centering on youth, alcohol, and the pitched emotions that surround sporting events.

It also mentions the fact that the University Of Maryland had, among other things, attempted to improve fan behavior by prohibiting the band from playing Gary Glitter's "Rock & Roll Part II," which you may know as "duuuuuh-nuh (HEY!), duh-nuuuh-nuh-nuh!nuh!"), which is a good sign that nobody really knows what to do about any of this.

The problem is that none of the theories that inevitably emerge are entirely satisfying.

Youth. If this were a matter of "young people will burn cars with little or no provocation if you give them a chance," wouldn't they burn cars on New Year's Eve? The same would apply if you assume it's young people who are drunk. There are campus parties that involve just as much alcohol as sports celebrations, and they don't all turn into campus-burning riots.

Drinking. Yes, obviously, alcohol plays a role in many incidents that involve loss of judgment on a grand scale. And drunk sports fans don't actually need a game of any particularly pitched significance at all in order to start acting like idiots, as you will see if you read up on Ten Cent Beer Night, probably the worst promotion anyone in baseball ever dreamed up. (The ESPN remembrance of the evening does a fine job of noting how goofy behavior transforms into violent behavior: "The jovial, frolicking nudists had disappeared," it notes as simple chaos turns into a dangerous explosion of fighting.) But there are lots of bars where there are a bunch of drunks every night of the year, and they don't wind up overturning police cars.

Sports. One of the explanations that makes some inherent sense is that sports already play on some of our more warlike instincts — sporting events get people really, really wound up, so there's a spillover of excess brutish energy that turns into violence, whether the outcome is positive or negative.

What's unsatisfying about that explanation, though, is that we manage to have political rallies that are very, very angry, but remain peaceful. If people don't typically turn over police cars after an election that doesn't go their way or after being literally rallied, why does the energy from a sporting event have to boil over and wind up with somebody stabbing somebody else?

Police presence itself. It's pretty clear that flatly blaming a police presence for rioting is simplistic at best, since some riots are blamed on the police not making much of a showing.

But I was fortunate enough to chat by chance this morning with NPR multimedia intern Tucker Walsh, who covered what I guess could paradoxically be called "moderate rioting" that took place at Virginia Commonwealth University after VCU's unlikely run in this year's NCAA basketball tournament ended with a loss to Butler (he produced a terrific video about it for the Washington Post).

One of the things he told me was that some of the students became aware of the police presence outside at halftime, and they saw police in riot gear. That seemed to bug them a little, he says, as far as the expectation that there would be rioting, and for some of them, it seemed to feed the expectation that that behavior was inevitable. In other words: When you see riot police, you riot.

Miscellaneous, unattached aggression in search of a cause. What I find unsettling about sports riots, in the end, is that they seem straightforwardly opportunistic. They capitalize on preexisting, unattached anger and coiled-spring destructiveness that isn't particularly directed at anything; it just is. In other words, people walking around all the time being really mad is the parasite; the game is just the host.

If I'm being honest, it's often what unsettles me about what other people tend to see as the decline of civility in the age of the internet. Not being much of a believer that humanity becomes inherently better or worse over time, I'm not sure people get nicer or meaner; they just have different ways to express it. And, I think you can argue, the public riot and the public message board have in common a certain anonymity and tendency toward groupthink that can both operate loosen the bonds between individual people and their good sense. There's also the show-off factor — just as I fear the possibility of appearing on a great cell-phone video could encourage people to tear down street signs, the desire to be cheered on, or recommended, or just quoted, seems to be at the heart of some of the worst discourse I see online.

At times, when comment conversations anywhere on the internet that are about something incredibly inconsequential (like what phone you use or whether you like superhero movies) get weirdly personal and nasty, I have a reaction that's similar to the one I have when I see people setting a trash can on fire because their hockey team lost. (Obviously, the concrete consequences are not remotely the same, and I wouldn't claim they are.) I'm not convinced that anonymity or crowds — real or virtual — can create anger or incivility that isn't already there. They just become cultural flypaper, and extreme hostility sticks to them. You're not learning how angry sports make people, or how angry the internet makes people. You're learning how angry people already are.

You win, you set a fire. You lose, you set a fire. The message is pretty clear: It's not about the game; it's about the fact that you ... wanted to set a fire. If you see pictures of a sports riot and you want to worry about something, don't worry about sports or sports fans. Worry about that.

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