American Soccer Fans And Their Discontents
by Dr. Ken Pendleton
July 27, 2016
The history of soccer has been punctuated by violent confrontations between fans, some of which have resulted in mass fatalities. The possibility that such behavior could be imported to the United States has always raised alarm bells, and those fears recently resurfaced after hooliganism marred the recent European championships.
In fact, in a recent New York Times Magazine article, “The Dark Side of American Soccer,” Jason Kang argued that white American soccer fans are mimicking their European brethren by, for example, singing vile songs. Kang fears that such behavior reflects Eurocentric attitudes, which could ratchet up racial and ethnic tensions, and possibly lead to violence. And, finally, he argues that the lack of multiculturalism, especially the marginalization of Latino soccer culture, is inhibiting the growth of the sport.
Mr. Kang is correct in claiming that there are two soccer cultures in the United States—modeled on European and Latino worldviews—and that most white fans embrace the former, especially in its English form. However, it simply does not follow that white fans loosely mimic Europeans because they are xenophobic and long for violent confrontations.
The song he cites Seattle Sounders’ fans singing seems to support his hypothesis: “Take ’em all, Take ’em all, put ’em up against a wall and shoot ’em! Short and tall, watch ’em fall. Come on boys, take ’em all!”
The lyrics explicitly promote violent behavior, but there are two problems. Sounders’ fans are not singing about other races or ethnics groups; they are singing about rival fans, most of whom are white. And reports of violence, let alone hooliganism, are quite rare. It is far safer to be a Portland Timbers’ fan in Seattle than a New York Giants’ fan at a Philadelphia Eagles game.
White soccer fans are having harmless fun playfully parodying European excesses—without acting on them. They also have a reputation for being more worldly and liberal than fans of other American sports. One suspects that the vast majority will not be voting for Donald Trump.
If this is true, why do they light off smoke bombs and sing songs (most of which, by the way, are far more innocent than the lyrics quoted above), and behave so differently than fans at baseball, football or basketball games?
First, we need to understand why fans, regardless of sport, root for the home team and against any visiting team, especially ‘hated’ rivals.
Modern sports, as birthed in Great Britain in the 19th century, was supposed to promote strenuous effort and sportsmanship. Players were expected to play hard but fairly. Fans were expected to behave, and be inspired and educated by what they were witnessing.
This ideal was never fully realized. In the 1890s, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly mourned the fact that some of the spectators at Ivy League football games were more interested in seeing their team win than a well-played game. “Nothing could be more unfair or discourteous to visitors (than rooting),” Ira Hollis opined, “and yet it seems impossible to make students understand this.”
Measured by these standards, modern sports and its fans must be judged complete failures. Playing fairly almost always takes a backseat to winning and fans are often, to put it mildly, quite discourteous.
But what if the Victorians got it badly wrong and the purpose of fanaticism is to come together as a community by projecting pent up hostility on an imaginary enemy. In Civilization And Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud argues that society can only function if its citizens largely repress their hostility towards each other (for example, when you are driving in rush hour traffic or waiting a in a long line) and behave politely. The challenge, he argued, is to find a release valve, lest we implode.
Enter big-time sports, the perfect outlet for our collective aggression, if it is kept in perspective.
Sounders and Eagles’ fans, regardless of race or ethnicity, put aside their differences and day-to-day frustrations with each other and symbolize their unity by wearing their team’s colors, cheering for ‘our’ team, chanting obscenities and occasionally singing vile songs.
The sense of togetherness that all fans of teams feel is reinforced by the shared perception that the referee is giving our team a raw deal, the other team is cheating, and their fans are the product of inbreeding. Our players are virtuous, or at least that SOB is our SOB, and our team is so good it can overcome the fact the deck is stacked against us. All of the above symbolizes the fact that our community is a bastion of civilization and its inhabitants the greatest the world has ever seen.
Critics, like George Orwell, have decried the fact that none of the above is true and worry about instilling hostility: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”
Orwell’s observations are correct but his conclusion misses the key point: sports is war, minus the shooting. Rooting for the home team serves a constructive psychological and social function precisely because fans are free to behave so poorly and irrationally.
Rivalries play a particularly important role because it is easy to rationalize that our neighbors are the source of all of our tensions and problems.
Freud never alluded to sports, but he did argue that directing hostility towards neighboring communities, by indulging ‘in feuding and mutual mockery’, serves as a particularly powerful outlet. What he called “’the narcissism of small differences’…can be seen as a convenient and relatively innocuous way of satisfying the tendency to aggression and facilitating solidarity within the community.”
In sum, sporting events bring us together and rarely harm our daily interactions and commerce with other communities.
What makes soccer fans unique is that they reject the idea of being treated like consumers. They are tired of frequent commercial interruptions, exploding scoreboards, cheerleaders, piped-in music, and generally being passive. They want to decide how to cheer, when and what to sing, and be an integral part of the action. Going to a Timbers or Sounders match is far more immersive than going to a Portland Trail Blazers or Seattle Seahawks game.
The fact that soccer fans are more engaged than their peers attending traditional American sports only serves to intensify the sense of collective identity and the cathartic function watching a game can play. The authentic nature of that experience is one of the main reason soccer attendance has risen so dramatically in recent years.
However, such expressions only have a positive impact if the game is kept in perspective. Vile chants and lyrics represent a huge problem if there is deep-seeded animosity or hatred behind it. This is sometimes (but by no means most often) the case when it comes to European, or Latino soccer, but Oregonians and Washingtonians, or even New Yorkers and Philadelphians, are just playing at hating each other.
Far from being dark, the behavior of American soccer fans usually strikes a perfect balance between Victorian restraint, which serves little psychological or social function, and the violence that sometimes characterizes the sport abroad. Their behavior might not bridge the cultural divide that characterizes American soccer, but it is certainly not fostering hatred, prejudice, or xenophobia.
 Sports Spectators, by Allen Guttmann, New York; Columbia University Press (1986), p. 89.
 Civilization And Its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud; (Kindle edition– https://www.amazon.com/Civilization-Its-Discontents-Sigmund-Freud-ebook/dp/B00HHDWW7W/ref=mt_kindle?_encoding=UTF8&me=#nav-subnav), pp. 63-4
Dr. Ken Pendleton earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oregon and is a senior researcher at the Oregon-based Sports Conflict Institute, which is dedicated to understanding, resolving and preventing conflict in sports. He is also the CEO of Trading Players, a soon-hope-to-launch fantasy sports stock market for professional athletes.