TAKE A BREAK
Mickey Blue Eyes
On 15th June this year Vancouver Canucks lost 4-0 to Boston Bruins in the deciding final game of the ice hockey Stanley Cup Final in Vancouver. Afterwards, there was a serious riot in the city, an uncomfortable echo of a similar disturbance in 1994 when the same team lost. There are plenty of other equally serious examples of this sort of thing in North America, thus demonstrating, (a) mass hysterical reaction is not confined to football, and (b) Janus-faced Americans who jeer at "soccer hooligans" ought to take a good, long look at their own sports culture before having a go at anyone else.
Now I have nothing against ice hockey, grid iron, basketball or baseball. They are unquestionably games which require genuine talent, athleticism and organisation. And every time I viewed them in the flesh I was fortunate enough to have family or friends explain their more esoteric aspects. But to me they can only ever be a spectacle of limited novelty value; in a lighter mood I am apt to describe baseball as rounders, grid iron as a street fight in biker helmets, basketball as netball, and ice hock ey as a slapstick brawl on skates. Like Morris Dancing, they might hold my attention for about ten minutes before I get off and do something more interesting such as water plants or watch river traffic through binoculars. I completely understand too the American Establishment wish to have sports they consider "American." Each to his or her own, even if sometimes there is something peculiarly isolationist or (at its absolute worst) paranoid in their motivation.
But the Vancouver episode struck a chord in me because at the time I was engaged on another project researching the Salem witchcraft "trials" held at the turn of the seventeenth/eighteenth centuries. Reading the transcripts I was struck by the similarity in contrived mass hysteria and idiocy, not only in the Vancouver riot but also in comparable facets of football and other sports. For anybody who wants to go deeper there are also plenty of specialist psychologist papers on the subject. Almost always when playing fortunes go wrong the reaction boils down to a sort of vested interest in emotional insecurity, an inability to shrug and say, "Well, we lost that one. Maybe next time. And I'll make sure I do better." Someone or something, it seems, has to pay the price or get the blame when a sports endeavour is unsuccessful. Even inanimate objects will suffice if there is no available human being. All it needs after that is a few evil demagogues and sufficient ill-temper to manufacture a mass-hysterical mob; it requires no special talent, only a cheap second-rate appeal to worst instincts. Then events can go rapidly downhill and get out of hand. As we all know, local, national and international football is riddled with examples. The paradox is that players generally are much more philosophic than fans: some you win, some you lose, some you draw. Nevertheless, most supporters manage a reasonable understanding and get by without turning into a rotting lemon. Usually it is only a noisy, self-pitying minority who carp and whine like old women; and of course for them there is always the stupid illusion of heroic martyr or visionary. Still, mass reactionary hysteria in adversity is the exception, not the rule.
At such times it is almost useless appealing to reason because there will always be somebody who finds a niche or weird rationale in misery or mischief. For instance, such people can also get real sado-masochistic pleasure in barracking individual players. Like the real culprits at Salem they have found a focus for everything in their own unhappy lives. Then it can set like stone and is just as unfeeling and pitiless. In a human sense it is often outright evil. I have yet to see or hear a mob who is anything other than ugly, threatening and cowardly, and usually racist in one form or another. It transpires the Vancouver riot was merely the latest physical expression of it. No doubt there will be others in the near future.
There is a thin dividing line between an enthusiastic crowd and ugly mob action, just as there is between an informed critic and a hectoring bully or between justified outrage and mindless anger. If human history has anything to teach us it is that civilised people instinctively know the difference even when they find it difficult to articulate. In other words it is possible to be determinist without looking and sounding like a thug.
All of which explains why I am glad we are in the football close season. For me it will be a welcome break from the usual nonsense of individual and group hysteria prompted by an inconsistent season. Oh I'm sure that won't stop tedious diatribes against a new strip or some other infantile cause celebre. Nor would it surprise me on a walk through Calderstones Park to happen on an unsteady circle of wobbly beer bellies trying desperately to summon footy spectres waving bundles of free Swiss francs. Just be thankful for the breather. Come August, we'll be knee deep in witchcraft again. And maybe when we return the Enlightenment will have reached into some hitherto dark corners haunted by who-knows-what-demon. Don't make book on it, though. Vancouver proved there is still some distance to travel to the light.