What I learned from the worst fans in sports
Super Bowl week is here. Hurray. After everything that’s happened, it’s quite the year to be hosting. My office is on the south side of Killebrew Drive in Bloomington- right across the street from the Mall of America. While turning into our building’s entrance yesterday morning, I noticed something unusual. Two fully armored Humvees were parked on the corners of the hotel property that connects to the mall. Apparently, the Eagles are staying there. Awesome. Every time I look out the window of my office the rest of the week I’ll get another reminder of my first (and God-willing only) trip to Philadelphia.
The last thing we did was one thing that went well- a visit to Independence Hall. It affected me a lot more than I anticipated. I walked out of there with a complete sense of awe at what our founding fathers were able to craft from scratch- the foundation of a democracy where every citizen has the freedom to pursue their personal definition of success and happiness without persecution. However, a couple of nights before going to see the most significant historical site in Philadelphia, I visited Lincoln Financial Field. What I experienced there on Sunday night could not have been more different. In the birthplace of freedom, we weren’t even free to wear purple to a football game.
I’m a fan. I’m a fan of sports. I’m a fan of unique experiences. I’m also a fan of understanding why I and other people do what we do. I flew to Philadelphia expecting to spend a day in a new city I’d never visited, to watch my favorite team play in a big game. Thanks to the blizzard back home, I finally got back to Minneapolis a day and a half later than expected. And after an experience unlike anything I could have imagined, I’ve done some reflecting on what it means to be a fan.
It all started with 3rd and 10 from our own 39-yard line. The Minneapolis Miracle. The energy in that building was unbelievable. If you’ve seen any of the fan reaction videos people took in their
living rooms, it was like that times 66,000. It was unexpected. It was
magical. It was miraculous. It was a great moment to be a fan. Everyone was filled with euphoria. We did that weird hug-and-jump thing people do when they can’t think of any other way to express their excitement. We high-fived countless strangers. We screamed; “We’re going to Philly!” and booked our flights before we left the stadium. (Unless my wife is reading this, in which case I totally talked to her first).
We were going to Philly.
I’ve never been very good at listening to warnings. I generally assume they’re either meant for someone else or completely blown out of proportion. But I also do my homework. After reading about other opposing fans’ experiences in Philadelphia, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. I was expecting to hear every word in the book delivered in every way possible. But as far as the more extreme examples were concerned, I wrote them off as exaggerated and over sensationalized. Sure, one guy punched a horse last week after the Atlanta game, but that horse may very well have had it coming. (Seriously- what kind of person punches a HORSE?) I assumed it was a few drunk idiots. I figured that surely there couldn’t be an entire population of sane citizens who engage in or accept that type of behavior. I concluded that the warnings posted online were written by people who were just too sensitive to handle a little good-natured ribbing from some extremely passionate fans. I assumed that as long as we kept our heads down and didn’t engage with any of the taunting we’d be fine.
I was wrong. Like, extremely wrong. In fact, my benefit-of-the-doubt assumptions about Eagles fans may quite possibly be the most wrong I have ever been (and I’m wrong a lot).
The things that Vikings fans were subjected to has already been well-documented. For my part, I’ll sum it up by sharing the following exchange I had with my wife the next day.
“You’ll never believe what I read about last night. One Vikings fan said that—“
“Honey- I’m just going to stop you right there,” I said, “There is literally nothing you could complete that sentence with that I wouldn’t believe.”
Yes, the things that have been reported actually happened. They’re not being exaggerated. They’re not being blown out of proportion. Honestly, if I hadn’t had all the extra time in the airport to hear these stories firsthand from the people who experienced them, I probably would have dismissed them the same way I dismissed the things I read before coming. What happened is still hard to believe, and I experienced it firsthand.
Some context; I am 6’5″, 225 pounds. I have no real fighting skills to speak of, but I’m not a small person and I’m typically not the first one to get picked on. That certainly didn’t stop them. At least a half dozen guys put their hands on me. A few of my favorites included having the hat smacked off my head, being continuously slapped in the face with a towel, getting shoved into a bathroom wall, having various items thrown at me, and being screamed at nose to nose like we were facing off at a title bout weigh-in. I am comfortable enough in my own skin at this point in my life to drop the tough guy act and admit that there were a few times when I honestly didn’t feel safe. Police and security staff’s stance on intervening seemed to fall somewhere between disinterested observance and casual amusement. After talking to dozens of other Vikings fans during the next couple days, I realized that my experience was relatively mild by comparison.
One guy said that he had a lit cigarette put out on his Vikings jersey while walking to the stadium. Others had beer poured onto their heads. One woman was fortunate enough to discover it wasn’t beer, but urine. Most of us had bottles and cans of beer thrown at us, some from the upper level above (one lucky fan left with a souvenir amounting to 18 stitches on his head). Hats were pulled off and urinated on. Beer bottles were used as clubs to whack people in the back every time the Eagles made a good play (that’s a lot of whacks). I talked to a dad whose 17-year-old son was dry-humped from behind while he was attempting to use the urinal. Another gentleman in his early 60’s had an Eagles fan jump on his back and attempt to ride him like a bull. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget… another guy punched a police horse for the second straight week (I’m not sure why, but the horse punching almost bothers me more than anything).
These were not isolated incidents. They happened to fans walking to and from the game. They happened in the lower level and in the nose bleeds. They happened to fans covered head to toe in purple and gold and fans who dressed neutral attempting to go unnoticed. One version or another happened to nearly everyone I talked to.
Was it the majority of Eagles fans? Definitely not. I met a number of incredibly nice people who went out of their way to be kind and hospitable. Most of the fans were cheering on their beloved green while they made my beloved purple look like they forgot which game was being played that day.
But, was it a more than I expected? Absolutely. Maybe I was being naive, but I was expecting it to be an extreme minority. It was much more than that. “Come on!”, the defenders have said, “There are fans everywhere who cross the line. It’s not just in Philadelphia. I was once at a game in _____ and I saw a guy_____….” Stop it. Of course there are some in every city. It’s not just Philadelphia. But there’s a massive difference between 1 out of 100 and 1 in 10. To be fair, that’s probably on the low side. The number of fans who thought that some version of completely unacceptable behavior was totally acceptable was astounding.
So, what is the definition of acceptable fan behavior? I have to believe that we can all agree that every fan has the right to attend a game without being afraid for their physical safety. Again, I was fully expecting to hear all kinds of garbage screamed at us. But I figured that as long as we ignored it, that’s where it would end. I don’t feel like it’s any fan’s duty to physically engage with opposing fans to defend the honor of a football team. And no one should have to defend themselves just to go watch theirs play.
Beyond the game day experience itself, I’ve been even more fascinated by the Eagles fans’ responses to what happened. I was curious- what did they think of their fellow fan’s behavior? So, I asked around. I polled employees and fellow patrons at the airport, hotel, and restaurants. Presumably sober and removed from the excitement of the game, what did they think of what happened? Some appeared to be lifelong fans and others probably dusted off their Eagles gear when the playoffs started. But they all had an opinion, and some of the answers I heard continue to fascinate the hell out of me. While a couple were apologetic, the majority accepted it, and many were even… proud.
“You knew what you were getting yourself into by coming here.”
“That’s just the way Eagles fans are.”
“You had it coming after doing your little chant on the steps of the Art Museum and putting your colors on the Rocky statue.”
“You’re just not passionate fans like we are.”
Hmmmmm. Let’s unpack that last one. Really? That’s what passion looks like? I’m passionate. I wake my kids up in the morning with the SKOL chant. I bought a pair of purple and gold throwback Air Jordans online to wear to the Super… (most depressing eBay delivery ever). I flew here to watch my team. But if Sunday’s fan behavior falls under your definition of passion, we are working from very different dictionaries. I believe that you can love something without hating the opposite. I believe you can show support for what you love without being violent towards those who support something else. Again, this was a football game. I didn’t break into your home and assault your family. I paid for a seat in a public stadium to root for my team.
I’ve seen a number of Philly defenders online claim that the Vikings fan’s experience is being exaggerated because our team got completely embarrassed. This is ludicrous. To suggest that the reaction to what took place is nothing more than sour grapes could not be more absurd. Philadelphia won because they were the superior team in every possible way. Period. A hug and a high five from every Eagles fan in that building wouldn’t have changed what happened on the field. This is purely about what is reasonable treatment of other human beings who dared to think they could come to your stadium and watch a game with you.
And now you’re coming to our city for the Super Bowl.
The Patriots used to be the last team I would ever hope to win yet another championship. But after seeing how Philadelphia fans carry themselves? I’ll be rooting my heart out for The Evil Empire. The
Emperor and Darth Freaking Vader have somehow become the good guys. Ready the Storm Troopers, Bill. Carve ‘em up, Tom. Call me petty, but the idea of that fan base suffering the disappointment of a loss in the big game makes me feel better. Listen, I’m sure there are plenty of redeeming qualities about the city and its people. I mean, it’s now clear to me why Philly is known to be objectively inferior to all other major east coast cities. But still, if you can’t get to one of them, then Philadelphia is really nice too. If you’re ever offered an all-expenses paid trip to visit there and you want to field test that new set of body armor your doomsday-prepper cousin gave you for Christmas, you should totally go check it out. Ok. That felt good. I’m done now. And in my opinion, hoping the Eagles lose the Super Bowl is where it should end.
I’ve heard rumblings of Vikings fans seeking retaliation this week by finding various ways to give them a taste of their own medicine. I really hope that doesn’t happen. That’s just not who we are. We are Minnesota Nice. Ok…maybe more like Minnesota Passive Aggressive (but no one’s going back to Philly complaining about what a stranger muttered under their breath well out of ear shot). Seriously, let’s not try and show them how it feels to be mistreated. Trust me, nothing we could do would surprise them. If anything, they’d feel like they were back home. We can’t win at that game, and it’s a game no one should be playing in the first place. Instead, let’s show them what it feels like to be well-treated as a fan of a team in another fan’s city.
Being a fan has an amazing way of bringing people together. It can bring out our best and create some awesome moments. Being a fan also has an uncanny way of dividing people. It can reveal some ugliness. We’ve seen extremes of both back to back. It might be a little awkward during the first Vikings game back at US Bank Stadium next fall. We’ll see the people we did the weird hugging-and-jumping thing with, and we’ll smile. That moment was special. When your team does something great there’s no better time to be a fan. And when things don’t go your team’s way, being a fan can hurt. But disappointment and heartache are where the pain should end. A fan should be free to go watch a game wherever it’s being played without fearing for their safety. A fan should be able to love something without hating the opposite. A fan should be able to show support for what they love without being violent towards those who support something else. It’s amazing that this needs to be said, but clearly it does.