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Bloody Sundays : Experts Try to Find Reasons for Increasing Fan Violence Around World


Shane Geringer went to a Raiders game last month, took off his shirt, got some sun, had a few beers and then, police said, kicked another fan into a coma.

Almost routine, claim behaviorists who have studied the incident. Apart from the degree of injury, they said, bleacher blows are thrown just about everywhere every Sunday. And in terms of drive-by shootings and terrorist bombings, they added, football punch-ups barely quiver the needle on today's gauges of calculated human violence.

In fact, say psychologists, sociologists and lawyers, the incident at the Coliseum fills the paradigm for a now all too common disorder: fan violence.

Consider its parameters:

* Geringer, who will be arraigned on felony assault and battery charges today in Los Angeles Municipal Court, was described by his Los Angeles lawyer as "a fanatic Raider fan." Attorney Leslie Abramson also said her client has had a drinking problem since age 13.

"That's a bad mix, a dangerous mix . . . the lowering of inhibitions with alcohol and the lifting of excitement by being a rabid sports fan," noted Richard Lister, a Costa Mesa sports psychologist.

* Geringer was in a crowd of 50,000.

"It is known that in mob scenes, people do all sorts of things that they wouldn't do alone," said David Phillips, a professor of social science at UC San Diego.

* Geringer's attack on Paul Albrecht, a Pittsburgh supporter now recovering from head injuries, occurred in the fourth quarter of the Steeler's 20-3 loss to the Raiders.

"These fights just don't happen," commented Ira Reiner, Los Angeles district attorney and follower of professional football since 1946 and the Rams' first game in Los Angeles. "They are invariably the culmination of three quarters of increasingly rowdy behavior . . . that is tolerated (and) that finally ends up in a fight sometime around the fourth quarter."

* Geringer is 19. He recently left high school and lives on his own.

"The typical fan rioter is around 20," said Jerry M. Lewis, professor of sociology at Kent State, Ohio, a global expert and author on crowd behavior and sports violence. "Then there is what I call the Alienation Hypothesis as the young white male becomes estranged from his institutional ties. Family. School. Work. Church. Where he (then) identifies is with his peer group . . . and that is what accounts for gang warfare.

"But why sports? Well, sports becomes a medium to express an identification with a team, and to your fellows. Very seldom do sports rioters act without an audience. And so the audience provides them with a sense of meaning to reduce the alienation."

The facts of this international matter of sports violence have written some violent box scores.

Brussels, 1985: Thirty-nine dead, 520 injured during a European Cup soccer riot. Detroit, 1984: One dead, 80 injured celebrating the Detroit Tigers' victory in the World Series. Detroit, 1990: Eight killed, 127 injured after the Pistons win the NBA championship.

In the past, only programs and suggestions were thrown at umpires, players and rival fans. In the present, from Beijing to Tiger Stadium, from Seoul to the Montreal Forum, acid, bricks, seats, urine, rocks, pipe bombs, firecrackers and feces are being tossed.

And in Los Angeles last week, fears of crowd violence rose high enough for Coliseum and Raider management to impose a one-day ban on beer sales Sunday--with clear hints that fighting fans are on probation, and permanent restrictions on beer sales are a definite consideration.

There is a consensus among sociologists--including the late Irving Goldaber of Miami, founder of the Center for Study of Crowd and Spectator Behavior--that sports violence is increasing.

"I have found the line to explosiveness is being crossed more and more," wrote consultant Goldaber in a report authored shortly before his death in 1988.

Kent State's Lewis--although emphasizing that even soccer hooliganism is an isolated ill and its social severity small compared to street crimes--believes the nation's next Kent State-type confrontation "will be at a sports event.

"We haven't reached the point yet . . . but it may be coming."

When or if it comes, it is unlikely to add anything new to centuries of deep research into sports thuggery--but make that more than a millenium of study.

For it was at chariot races in AD 532, that fans joined furies and forces in what may well have been the first crowd protest over bad officiating. They demanded the resignation of several start-finish judges. Riots roiled for several days before fans of the Ben Hur Division asked their emperor to intervene. Or they would overthrow him.

The emperor did respond. Troops were called to disperse the mob. And 30,000 sports fans died.

In the ensuing 1,400 years, countless theorem and theses, learned papers and half-baked hypotheses have attempted to analyze the causes that degrade friendly rivalry into fatal confrontation.

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