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COMMENTARY

College Celebrations Turn to Hooliganism

April 14, 2002|SALLY JENKINS | WASHINGTON POST

No one is more sympathetic toward criminality in undergraduates than me, seeing as how much of my own behavior comes perilously close to theirs.

That said, even in my most youthfully exuberant and egregiously over-served moment, it never once occurred to me to set fire to a kiosk with a Zippo. Some hated textbooks, yes, and a mattress once. But a kiosk, never.

What is that about?

Student rioting after sports events can now be legitimately termed hooliganism; it is developing into a full-fledged pathology akin to that of British soccer fans.

Three events in the last couple of weeks proved it. First, the Maryland campus, as usual, was the site of rampant destruction after the Terrapins won the NCAA basketball title. Then, just when we decided Terrapins fans were worse than others, a riot broke out among students at the University of Minnesota after the Gophers won the NCAA hockey championship. Finally, on Tuesday came a report from a government task force on college drinking: half a million undergrads each year are hurt in accidents related to alcohol abuse, more than 600,000 annually are assaulted by another student who has been drinking, and about 1,400 students die each year. A full third of the 8 million college students met the criteria for alcohol abuse.

So there you have it -- it doesn't take an egghead social scientist to tell us what's going on. Why do they do it? Well, for one thing, they're drunk.

Before we go any further, let me state outright my position on rioting undergrads: While I am all in favor of a certain amount of benign unruliness, if one of them comes toward my car with a baseball bat and swings at the headlights, I would be hard-pressed not to tap the shoulder of the nearest police officer and say, "Shoot him."

In order to curb destructive behavior by students, first we have to figure out what's in the cocktail that is producing it. The answer is, liquor mixed with permission.

In an essay entitled "Understanding Riots," two Northwestern University law professors, David Haddock and Daniel Polsby, set out to more fully explain what causes a mob action. They weren't satisfied with the conventional shopworn explanations: repressed social rage resulting from poverty, racism, breakdown of traditional family values, and bad television, kicked off by signal traumatic events such as political assassination or a jury verdict.

As Haddock and Polsby point out, social circumstances like poverty are with us constantly, while riots are episodic spasms. What's more, incidents like those at Maryland and Minnesota are ignited by good news--the rioters are really revelers. What to make of that?

These students are not rioting out of rage--Maryland kids are hardly the martyrs of Tiananmen Square. The Northwestern law professors believe that sports riots are not expressions of deep-seated social anger, but rather, they are gratifying rule-breaking experiences that take place because the revelers are pretty sure they won't get caught or prosecuted.

Crowds like those who rioted at Maryland and Minnesota gather in full expectation that something will happen--they know mischief is afoot--and that's exactly why they're there, for a flout-the-law binge. And they are secure in their anonymity in such a big crowd.

"People who may have never met are nonetheless capable of coordinating their behavior under some circumstances," Haddock and Polsby write.

Their nominal excuse is their fan-passion. But it's a bogus one. As author Bill Buford discovered, after studying British soccer hooligans for his book "Among the Thugs," many rioters barely watched the games, and were more interested in the postgame events.

There is a subtle kind of permission at work in the student riots. First, the undergrads award themselves the liberty of acting out in the name of fan enthusiasm.

Moreover, they tend to believe that they are apart from the law, enjoying the last of their childhood immunity from prosecution. Attorney Luis Bartolomei, who is advising some of the Minnesota students who were arrested, is lobbying for lesser charges because, he said, "a felony might make them virtually unemployable. So what's the use of coming to college?" In other words, college kids are entitled to leniency, no matter what, because they are in college instead of the real world?

Authorities grant them permission as well. Cops stood by and watched as the crowds in College Park, Md., and in Minnesota gathered and caroused; it wasn't until the bonfires and the smashing of glass began that they stepped in.

Col. David Mitchell, head of the Maryland state police, said, "We wanted to have a measured and appropriate response." In Minnesota, police chief Robert Olson waited until 3 a.m. before he intervened, after students threw beer bottles and cans, smashed street lamps, jumped on passing cars, torched furniture in a bonfire, and injured six officers. Finally, here came the pepper spray pellets.

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