I’m all in favor of equal rights, but I can’t help feeling we need more segregation in sports.
Before you mistakenly accuse me of being Stanford’s solitary Ku Klux Klan representative, though, I should probably clarify this statement. I’m not talking about race or color–sports are unquestionably better because of the contributions from all sectors of our species–I’m talking about fans and team colors.
Last Saturday I was lucky enough to go to the Aviva Premiership Rugby Final in London, the culmination of the English rugby union season and one of the highlights on a rugby fan’s calendar. It was an exciting game, but something was lacking for such a big event. To get the best understanding of what is going on, it is always best to watch sports on TV, but to feel the roller coaster of emotions, you have to be there in person. Barring the tense final few minutes, though, this matched seemed a bit light on the sort of passion I’m used to.
Some of the critical differences between being a rugby fan and a soccer fan in the UK are the tougher regulations in the stands. For example, while alcohol is sold at soccer stadiums, it’s illegal to take drinks to your seat. And perhaps more famously, soccer fans are strictly segregated. Wearing the opposing team’s shirt in the wrong section is enough to get you ejected from the stadium (with no chance of a ticket refund), and the physical divisions between the fans are highlighted by fluorescently clothed mobs of stewards and police.
Living in this soccer police state might not seem an attractive proposition, but it does have its silver lining. Standing side-by-side with your fellow fans while being confronted with the uniform mass of the opposition supporters across the stadium amplifies the emotions. Playing with human feelings in this way can of course be dangerous–the dark days of football hooliganism in the UK are testament to that–but the risk is worth it. Skirting along the safe side of that fine line gives us sedate and domesticated Westerners a glimpse of something primal. Our adrenaline pumps, the heart races and we get to feel the raw power of the multitude for a few moments before heading out of the stadium and back to our normal lives.
At this rugby final, though, there was no separation. Fans of both teams sat intermingled and there were even many shirts from other clubs scattered amidst the crowd. It would have been impossible to taunt the opposition from the comfort of amorphous anonymity since he/she was sitting right next to you. The only real chanting from the crowd were coordinated cries of “Tigers” (for Leicester Tigers) and “Sarries” (for London Saracens); shouts that, in the acoustics of a stadium, ended up sounding so similar it was hard to tell who was supporting who. It wasn’t exactly a library, and the on-field action was exciting, but the comparative silence seemed a little eerie.
According to American friends, the support from the student section at Stanford Stadium is a little weak by college standards. But even that seemed more antagonistic than this, and at the very least, the Red Zone packs all the students together in one place.
Turning back to my favorite sport of soccer, I can’t help but feel that rugby misses the trick. My club doesn’t have the most vocal fans, but however badly we might be playing, I always feel involved because the soundtrack of the game carries me along. Though there is often an edgy feeling when fans taunt each other, throngs of adults acting in choreographed harmony is quite a silly thought. There is also a comical nature to soccer chants; some of the songs are pretty ridiculous and even the most insulting ones, including those that annoy TV censors as thousands of fans swear in audible unison, are hard to take too seriously. You can definitely get carried along with the mob without resorting to the violence that soccer unfortunately became infamous for.
Combating that violence is exactly why the law segregating fans at soccer stadiums was introduced, but it may be that it has had an unintended, and positive, impact on the atmosphere of these grounds. Keeping two sets of supporters separate has brought the fans in each closer together.
Tom Taylor also wants to know why you’re wearing that Red Sox jersey at a Rockies-Giants game. Tell him why at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu.