With the sullen aspect of a blackjack, Sonny Liston sat amid the predawn drone of a Las Vegas casino. Six years had passed since the sorry loss of his heavyweight title to the young Cassius Clay in Miami Beach, five since he had fallen finally and pathetically to that "phantom punch" in their rematch in Maine. Sonny had been a labor goon and an ex-con of ferocious repute. He had a right hand that could crumple a cathedral pillar. The white public saw him as evil, a naked example of unconsolable black hostility; to almost all, his second loss to Clay was nothing less than a symmetrical half gainer into the tank.
"Sheeeet, man," he said in Vegas, "there weren't no fix up in Maine. That phantom punch, it stun, that's all. I coulda got up. I just didn't want to. Clay and them Muslims were crazy. Like that nut I ran into in Texas. Who needed it?" Liston had been badly spooked by the crowds at their Miami fight, by threats from the Muslims and by his own certainty that Clay was certifiably mad; but it was a stranger, a white Texas fight fan, who had once struck the terror in him that softened his predatory nature and made him feel vulnerable for the first time in his life.
It had happened in 1960, on a night when he'd made quick and brutal work of a white Texas heavyweight named Roy "Cut 'n' Shoot" Harris. Sonny had celebrated late after the fight, returned to the empty lobby of his Texas hotel and lounged into a half-nod and boozy reverie. Heavy sleep was near when he suddenly heard the creak of boot leather behind his ear. He began to turn and a voice said, "Don't turn aroun', nigger."
Sonny started to turn and heard the clicking of a large gun behind his ear, felt its end up against the back of his head. "What you want, man?" he asked. "I got a couple hundred. That what you want?"
The man drawled, "You made a fool out of Roy in there tonight. Ohhhh, you're a bad nigger, aren't you?"
"Just a fight, man," Sonny said. "Me or him. No more 'n that."
"I got one bullet in this here Colt. I'm gonna pull this trigger till you tell me to stop."
Sonny said, "I ain't done nuthin'. You crazy."
"I stop," the man said, "when you tell me you're a no-good, yeller nigger."
"Shee-eet," Sonny smiled nervously. "Git lost. You ain't got no bullet in there."
A metallic crash split the silence. Sonny flinched from the sound in his ear. "Now," the man said excitedly, "just say you're a no-good, yeller nigger!"
"Fuck you," Sonny said, hoping someone would come through the door. Once more the sound of metal. The sweat popped on Sonny's face.
"You scared, nigger?" the man laughed. "Let's-----"
"Wait!" Sonny yelled. He hesitated, then blurted, "I'm a no-good nigger."
"A yeller nigger. Say it!"
"Yeah, a yeller one," Sonny said. He listened. He heard the Colt being uncocked, then only the heavy breathing of the man and himself.
"Don't turn aroun",' the man warned, and slowly the creak of leather moved off from behind the soon-to-be heavyweight champion of the world.
Now, so many years later, Liston ended his story in Vegas. "I've heard that creak ever since. I was on my way to bein' finished before I got to Clay in Miami." It took only Clay's wild monologs and lurking Muslims to drive him over the edge.
"Folks 're violent," Sonny said. "It got to be a torture for me ... bein' public. Like bein' the only chicken in a bag full of cats." Soon after---on another Las Vegas morning in the early Seventies--- Sonny Liston was found dead, with heroin in his body that some believed he did not inject himself.
Poor Sonny; for all the sinister Muslims and white racists back then, who would have believed his Texas story on that odd morning in Vegas? But now the image of a cocked Colt playing Russian roulette with his head does not seem as stark and bizarre anymore. He'd finally have a jury on his side for a change: psychiatrists, sociologists, social critics and many athletes in every sport. They might now bear witness to his credibility in this age of celebricide and growing fan violence, and they might understand his fear of "bein' public." That isolation, the fear of the crowd and the vagrant psychotic, the sense that grievous bodily harm---even death by random and calculated violence---is now a matter of eerie fact to the world's modern athlete.
Back in 1975, few wanted to accept the noisy theme of Rollerball, the movie written by William Harrison and directed by Norman Jewison. The futuristic sport in the film combined elements of roller derby and the Roman circus cast in a high-tech environment. The new game thrived on the violent nature of humanity and a world corporate state. The critics gave it the back of their hand: too absurd, too pretentious and laughable. Seven years later, those descriptions seem glib and myopic. Today's sports subculture---the crowds, players and owners---is making Rollerball a movie of authentic vision.
Dread of peripheral violence now permeates every stadium and major sport in the world. A ride on a New York subway is a breeze compared with going to a hockey game, standing at ringside after a fight and an "unfair" decision, or leaving Yankee Stadium after a game, where the prospect is likely that you will get a beer keg rolled down on your head or lose some teeth to marauding gangs.
But the American problem is still not the equal of South America's, where moats separate the fans from the field. Or go to England---long admired for its manners and civilizing influence---and take a position on one of its gloomy soccer terraces (no seats, just high ramps), where the bobbies always frisk the Clockwork Orange gangs and find an arsenal of pliers, hammers, switchblades and vegetable knives. The problem has even penetrated the command-oriented society of West Germany, where guard dogs surround the field, high wire fences separate the fans of each team and police stare into electronic apparatus that monitors the crowd. The conditions for violence in those countries seem to be primed by the fans' custom of traveling en masse---with their own colors in headgear and their carefully sculpted territorial hates---from city to city with their teams.
The climate in the United States is more incendiary and less organized. The country is too large, the leagues too sprawling for huge migrations of hometown fans, and the glut of teams seems to dilute emotion rather than fuel it. Even so, there have been some memorable incidents of crowds here running amuck. Think back to the scary outbreak at a baseball game on Dime Beer Night in Cleveland, for instance, or to the Eastern-St. John's high school football game in 1962, which erupted into close combat, leaving 500 injured, with 13 broken noses, 16 knife wounds and 54 serious head injuries. Then there was the Foxboro riot in 1976 after a New England Patriots game; its quality of infamy was notable for the scene of a few slobs urinating on a heart-attack victim who was waiting to be loaded into an ambulance. Foxboro continues to stand out as an actuarial nightmare for the N.F.L., but other cities seem intent on blurring its dreary relief. During this season's first five Monday Night Football games, more than 100 fans were arrested, mostly on assault-and-battery charges stemming from confrontations with security guards; on two occasions, a knife and a baseball bat were used.
Fan violence is not a new horror. It was called rowdy behavior back when Ty Cobb worried about being lynched during barnstorming tours, or when George Halas was giving birth to pro football. But it is new because of its spiraling frequency, its character and its constantly darkening presence during a time when people talk about space shuttles, envision miracle drugs that will let them live to be 100 and generally want to believe that the baser primitive instincts have been leached out of the human system.
A quaint notion, of course. Ignoring the debris from what we do to one another on the world stage as nations, the past two decades have seen a nasty rise in fan violence. If the full-scale sports riot is still not commonplace in America, the symptoms of fan unrest and the will for violent engagement are all too clear to sports officials: disruptive field invasions by packs of fans who are cheered by the rest of the crowd; the throwing of darts, ball bearings and hot pennies onto hockey ice; the abusive language that has nothing to do with a player's game; the assaults and death threats on more athletes than ever before. On and on it goes; the rap sheet on fan violence could fill an archive.
These signs have motivated precautions. Dime Beer Night has gone the way of the free lunch. The San Diego Chicken---and others like him---is an act that is intended to entertain, to distract and defuse volatile emotion. Go to Comiskey Park in Chicago---known along with Fenway Park for its vicious, sudden brawls in the stands---and you're likely to be searched when entering the gates. Then there is the recent addition of the Plexiglas backboard in hockey rinks to keep fans from players in the penalty box---a step that has led some to suggest, in the vein of the futurist, that sports will soon be played under special bulletproof domes. When guard dogs were used, in a disquieting show of force, to keep fans off the field during the 1980 world series in Philadelphia, it inspired a good deal of dark humor: Today the dogs, tomorrow the lions. Amusing---until you look at the faces, listen to the crazed venom around you in a stadium or arena.
Trying to capsulize the general mood of the sports crowd today. Los Angeles psychiatrist Dr. Arnold Beisser says, "The old fan used to yell, 'Kill the umpire!' The new fan tries to do it."
"Of the seventeen thousand fans in this place," said Fred Shero, then coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. "I'll bet a thousand of them aren't all there. They let their emotions get to them. Some night a guy is going to come in here with a loaded gun." The architect of the old and evil Flyers, Shero seems, over the past few months, to have become as prescient as Dr. Beisser: An attendant found a handgun under a seat in Madison Square Garden after a recent New York Knicks game and---like the last Apache---a fan with a blackjack in his pocket took a serious run at third-base umpire Mike Reilly during a Yankee play-off game last fall. So who's laughing? Not Don Meredith, former Dallas Cowboy quarterback and now a Monday Night Football announcer.
"The whole psychology of crowds ... it's really wild," Meredith says. "You can get them turned one way or the other and you never really know what's going to happen. Maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but I occasionally do fear physical harm when we do those games."
Collective madness by the crowd rattles the athlete, yet it is the silhouette of individual violence---on and off the field---that truly alarms. The atmosphere now isn't the same as it was when the old and blustering bare-knuckle king John L. Sullivan used to go into a bar and roar: "I can lick any man in the world." Today, if he didn't look up suddenly into the snout of a Saturday-night special, there would be no lack of defiance to his challenge, most likely in the form of a blind-side bar stool applied to his head. The modern athlete fears exposure as if he were naked on a Siberian tundra.
They all know what Pete Gent, ex-Cowboy and author of the insightful North Dallas Forty, means when he talks about the fear of being "skylighted," a hunting term used to describe prey when it is in full view of its predators; all athletes have to deal with it. The (continued on page 88) Wild in the seats (continued from page 84) golfer Hubert Green knew the feeling when he received a death threat a few years ago at the U. S. Open. So did tennis star Bjorn Borg. Before his final match against John McEnroe at Forest Hills last summer, Borg got two death messages from the same caller. Ringed by detectives, he left the grounds later by a back, stair well.
Athletes handle exposure in various ways. Some become reclusive; others, such as Georgie Best, the English soccer star, Joe Namath and El Górdobes, the bullfighter, layer themselves with expensive entourages. The most loved of them all, Muhammad Ali, even had his own mini security force that carried more armor than an infantry patrol. And George Foreman seemed always like a bear pursued by a pack of wolves; finally, like a Florentine prince, he grew afraid of being poisoned and added a food taster to his inner circle.
Look at the face of the Phillies' Pete Rose as he stands in the middle of a screaming mob of autograph seekers. It is not the same joyous face that was there when he broke in back in 1964, the face that remained for most of his career. Pugnacious and always infuriating to some fans, Rose has been shot in the neck with a paper clip ("I bled for three innings") and once, after sliding into second base on Frisbee Night in Atlanta, looked up on his way back to the dugout and felt the fury and wild energy of a single collective will raining down on him---fortunately, in the form of "ten thousand Frisbees." His face is worn now and his eyes are nervous, with a trace of flight in them as they scan the pack, the rolled-up newspapers and score cards. Rose can read; he knows how John Lennon got it.
"You know what they say about sleeping dogs," says Rose, smiling weakly, when asked about violent fans.
A great pall of reticence has fallen over some athletes as the weight of the evidence has mounted; obviously, something is going on out there. It's not really the language that is steadily directed toward them, the intense, personal kind that drove Astro Cesar Ce-deno up into the stands after a couple of fans who kept calling him a "killer" (Cedeno was convicted of involuntary manslaughter---but not jailed---in the Dominican Republic several years ago). Cedeno's counterattack was the first in a series of poststrike confrontations in baseball between player and fan. Later, Reggie Smith, of the Dodgers, was fined $5000 for going after fans in the stands; Gary Templeton, of the Cardinals, was suspended and fined heavily for giving the finger to his critics on Ladies' Day in St. Louis; and even the gritty Rose went after a pair of hecklers in St. Louis (he was given a summons for disturbing the peace). Prior to these episodes, this strain of retaliation had been seen only among hockey players and thespian wrestlers. The upshot seems to be that the chasm between athletes and fans is now long and deep---and imminently dangerous.
Personal abuse frustrates the player, but it is the steady portents of real danger that shadow his hours on and off the field: death threats, intimidating phone calls, the strange face seen too often in the hotel lobby. Hardly paranoid, athletes feel sharply the reality behind the gathering cloud of incidents. They know that fans shot the dog of ex-Green Bay coach Dan Devine because his team wasn't winning enough. They remember when even Billy Martin became rattled after a death threat and donned a bulletproof vest in Comiskey Park. And they know what Pirate Dave Parker must have felt when he bent down one night in Philadelphia and picked up two 38-caliber bullets.
That kind of symbolism is not lost on Oriole outfielder Ken Singleton, who will usually talk his head off eloquently in front of a TV camera but says curtly, "I have no comment on fan violence. I feel the less I say about it, the less I'll be picked out and made a target."
Singleton's teammate pitcher Dennis Martinez is wary and angry, but not intimidated. He says he has brought charges against a Chicago fan over an incident last April. His head keeps turning over his shoulder---with good reason. "I just couldn't understand it. I've been good to fans. I sign autographs, go over and talk to them. But now I'm scared." He slams the ball into his glove. "It was during a rain delay. Real dark and cold. As I came out of the dugout, I saw this shadow coming over my head. And when I turned, I saw stars. I got it right here"--- he parts his hair to show the scar---"but luckily, the bottle didn't break. I took four stitches and was dizzy for three days."
Up in Saratoga, Angel Cordero, a Picasso on 1000 pounds of horse, finishes a ride out of the money and makes his way through the crowd, his eyes full of fear and his tiny feet moving at a frantic pace. He ducks a thrown carrot and reaches the jockey room, where he wipes the track dirt from his face. "It's quiet up here," he says, "but down in the city, in New York, it's dangerous. Down there, I've been hit with ice, pieces of glass, horseshit ... everything. The fans come right up to me and shout in my face, 'Cordero! Your mother's a whore!' I try not to listen. But it gets to you. They spit on me like I'm an animal. People, they get weird in crowds."
The crowd? Politicians try to play it like a Stradivarius. Madison Avenue spends millions trying to unlock its dark and whimsical passions. Crowd mentality has brought forth everything from Pet Rocks to the frenzy of tulip mania in old Holland, from the bloody Crusades to the witch-hunts of Salem. The poet Schiller thought about the subject and wrote, "Anyone taken as an individual is tolerably sensible and reasonable---as a member of a crowd, he at once becomes a blockhead." Thick books have been written on the behavior of crowds, but after all the maddening jargon, each seems to say in so many pages: A crowd is a device for indulging ourselves in a kind of temporary insanity by all going crazy together.
By that definition, the panorama of American sports has become a permanent fix, far removed from the days when athletics were seen as purely good, as wholesome, competitive play. Listen to Lee Walburn, a former Atlanta sports executive (hockey and basketball): "I think hockey and football will be more violent in the year 2000, because we may be such a sedentary society that we need some release for our emotions. It'll be a matter of psychological therapy to have violent sport. We may not see men fighting to death, but we could see animals killing each other ... cockfights, pit bulldogs, maybe even piranhas eating each other to death on television." Quite serious, Walburn seemed to be saying this: Welcome to the new Rome.
Rome as historical example of excess and dissolution has had to carry a lot of high weight when scholars have searched for an analogy to contemporary Western ills. It has been used to color the drug problem, sexual freedom and free-for-all materialism. Now it is sports violence, a strain of diversion the emperors may have discovered but left for the 20th Century to refine into a major industry that worries perceptive men and threatens to make us all less than equal to our promise as human beings. The once "sylvan glade" of sports is under siege--- both the games themselves and what they do to the masses who consume them like chunks of tossed raw meat. (continued on page 198)Wild in the Seats (continued from page 88)
The gore of the Roman arenas or the "latest spectator sport" of public hangings in Victorian England, it was once widely held, could never be grouped with the cleansing diversions of young America. That opinion may have been right, before the industrialized society moved into high gear and life became more frenetic. It was then that sport started to be used as a mirror for the national character and psyche. Teddy Roosevelt---father to the Hemingway masculine ethic---became the music man to the great throngs seeking leisure and competition away from backbreaking labor; his notes did not sound as tinny as they do today.
The late columnist Jimmy Cannon, a lovely, grumpy man, spent a lifetime trying to sort out the tin from the true sound of games. He wrote some days as if he had a good seat at the Light Brigade's epic run in the Crimean War. More often, though, he tried to minimize the place of sports in our social structure by calling them the "toy department of life." Back in the Sixties, it was still possible---with no small amount of ignorance and naïveté---to agree with that label; not anymore. If sport is a mirror of what we are and think, then only a quick glance toward any enclosure where strong men collide for money and honor is needed to see a Dorian Gray hue of decay in the reflection.
Just look, we are told by eminent and sincere men, and the corruption is obvious: the escalating violence on and off the field; the Roman priority that sports hold in our mind; the athlete as a conduit for our deepest emotions. Ignore, for the moment, the secret and growing popularity of cockfighting, dogfighting, the traveling circus of "tough man" boxing, which feeds off the angry frustration of socially impeded men by putting the barroom brawl inside a ring; perhaps all of this is only aberration. No, look to the big sports for the real thing: the retailing of athletic violence.
How a sport is packaged and how it is played are at the root of crowd violence. For a riot to occur, the "trigger" event must always be there: "unjust" officiating; a beanball war that is not halted; a tedious, sloppy game; umpire and referee baiting in the tradition of Oriole manager Earl Weaver, the A's Billy Martin and the Celtics' ex-coach Tommy Heinsohn; or maybe just a terrible, unexpected defeat. Those possibilities---and many more---are always present. But now, because every line of sports has been heightened and must serve the central theme of life and death, and because of the new marketing of on-the-field violence as a cathartic purge for fans, stadiums and arenas are like barns full of dry firewood waiting for the gas can and a single match.
The comforting idea of catharsis or "drive discharge" has been around a long time and many learned men have found it seductive. Nero might even have been able to articulate it as a reason for the games when the citizens grew hostile and restless. Bertrand Russell thought that sports were an antidote to man's innate "savageness." But it was the ethologist Konrad Lorenz who brought catharsis into full focus after a lifetime of studying the habits of birds and animals. The most important function of sports, wrote Lorenz, "lies in the furnishing of a healthy safety valve for that most indispensable and. at the same time, most dangerous form of aggression that I have described ... as collective militant enthusiasm."
Robert Ardrey later popularized the theme in African Genesis to the extent that even football players were familiar with Lorenz' findings. Jack Lambert, of the Steelers, must have read it; he once said that "if we could suit up the whole world, maybe we wouldn't have any more wars."
Former San Diego coach Harland Svare seemed to agree. After being howled off the field, he noted cheerily that violence was moving "off the front pages to the sports pages. Football is a safety valve for these people."
Winning now seems only a by-product of the new packaging in sports. The violent nature of the games---far from Roosevelt's bromides about the rewards of "pluck and endurance" from competition---is the vital sell. No part of the sports argot speaks more brutally of box-office intent than the term enforcer, the hard man who settles scores and intimidates the opposition. Without any real talent, the enforcer becomes a superstar because of his special psychopathy, his willingness to destroy and be known for it: he flourishes on all teams and he symbolizes the product---what Dr. Beisser calls violence as an end in itself.
Or, as Fred Shero liked to say: "If they want pretty skating, let 'em go to the Ice Capades."
Talking about football, the novelist Irwin Shaw once noted. "If the players were armed with guns, there wouldn't be stadiums large enough to hold the crowds." That seems to catch the essence of most modern sports. Hockey is only a cut above a blood sport. ("We're going to have to do something about all this violence." Conn Smythe, a legendary hockey owner, once cracked, "or people are going to keep on buying tickets.") Covered with the veneer of high technology and martial language, football is nothing less than hedgerow warfare, according to the television pitch of the N.F.L. and to Woody Hayes, the onetime Patton of college football. The balletic game of basketball, too, has eroded into a monotony of aimless running, push and shove, the well-placed elbow and foot. Even baseball---pastoral and cerebral in design---struggles to retain its dignity in the face of the bean-ball and team brawls.
Don Atyeo. the Australian authority on carnage in athletics around the world, once asked an N.F.L. spokesman about the appeal of his sport. "It's what society wants," the official replied. "It goes back to the gladiator days. Instead of fighting with swords, we're fighting with padded bodies." Clarence CamPBell, former head of the N.H.L., told a Congressional committee on violence that a hockey game without bone-crushing contact "is like a harness race---when you've seen one, you've seen them all. It's a mechanical process, a lovely thing to watch. But it won't win hockey games, and it won't draw fans."
While promoters and owners seem to think they deserve public-service medals for relieving national tension, the fan---anonymous and sad brute that he is, if you believe what others say he desires and must have---takes the full swack of social criticism. He thirsts for violence, and when he does not get it, he can become a zombie searching for an adrenaline fix that sometimes turns him into a barbarian. If that seems to be the rough picture of the massive waves of people who roll amoebically in and out of stadiums, then Dr. Stanley Cheren adds some dimension to the cutout.
Dr. Cheren, an associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University, once testified at hearings in Washington on the possibility of a Sports Violence Act. He sees the current atmosphere as a "vicious cycle" that is linked to the mob's desire to see other people hurt. Using as an example the notorious injury of the Steelers' Lynn Swann---sapped by Oakland's George Atkinson---Cheren cites the phenomenon of jadedness to show what happens to our sensibilities.
Says Cheren. "For fans to respond, the fallen player has to demonstrate something more impressive and gruesome than pain. If he does not move a muscle---in other words, if he looks dead---then some ripple of reaction runs through us; otherwise, we just want the guy off the field. It takes that hushed sense of the ultimate stroke to make us tense up. A broken bone won't do it anymore. We want the real thing, and we want to see it close up. Nothing personal in all this, we just will not accept anything less than authentic horror; and when we have seen enough of that, we will need something still more extreme."
The fan has company on this vicious cycle in the person of owners and players. Of course, no owner would recognize his place there. On the way to making money, he will insist that he is merely providing escape for the public, no different, say, from a good detective story or rock concert. Pressed, he will talk about the need for strict crowd control and will reiterate the strong measures he will take against the use of drugs by his players---the prime boost (usually provided by team doctors) for violent and "inspired" play on the field. Beneath the words, the rule of thought is basic: Pay the players twice a month, give them a fistful of amphetamines and keep the circus rolling.
The player, it seems, is caught in the middle, knowing full well what the front office expects of him, but also understanding better than anyone what Cicero meant, speaking for all fans: "We hate those weak and suppliant gladiators who, hands outstretched, beseech us to live." He knows that the nature of his work is sometimes to lift sadism and violence to a fine art. "The harder I hit people, the better I like it," defensive end Tim Rossovich once enthused. "When you hit a guy and he hits the ground hard and his eyeballs roll and you see it and he looks up at you and he knows you see it, then you've conquered him. It's a great feeling."
Such comments are not confined to the frankly vicious world of pro football. Baseball players often talk about the shaking knees of a batter after a white blur lifts the chin; and hockey players speak reverently of the power of a stick that's used like a scythe. It's just another day in the armada galley for them and they know the bill won't come due till later: the old injuries that return in the form of daily pain; the mental problems that come from a life of keening rage and competitiveness suddenly scaled down to a faceless, everyday kind of existence. R. C. Schneider, a neurosurgeon, wrote in 1973 that "there is probably no better experimental or research laboratory for human trauma in the world than the football fields of our nation."
Dr. Arnold Mandell, a psychiatrist, spent three years in that lab with the San Diego Chargers, one of those years on the side lines and close to the action. Dr. Mandell was no stranger to blood and violence; he had worked as an intern in an emergency room. But he was never the same after his first close-up view of the "big hit" in pro football. "When I ran through the details," he says, "I became aware that they had actually accelerated into each other before they hit. Two hundred and 20 pounds hitting 220 pounds while accelerating. Mass times speed equals kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is the force that dents cars on collision. My nervous system never really recovered from that first hit until close to the end of the game."
Mandell also found himself in the middle of something like a battle station of drugs. "The most important influence creating the violence in football," he says, "is high-dose amphetamine. The baseball player who has to be sharp will take five milligrams. Now, that's different." He says that the dosages the Chargers were taking were massive. "You actually become for the peak effect of the drug ... crazy. And it's the most murderous type of crazy we know. It's the paranoid psychotic, the killer of Presidents."
From Mandell, it now seems like a long and shaky leap to the theoretical escape hatch of sports as catharsis, the up side of sports violence. Like head-breaking Dave Schultz of the old Flyers, we all supposedly become amiable and civil after a stadium bloodletting---player and fan alike. ("Dave is a pussycat off the ice," his wife delighted in saying.) But many studies in the scientific disciplines are beginning to cast a large shadow over the idea that sports free tensions and quell our call-of-the-wild instincts.
The work of anthropologist Dr. Richard Sipes, for one, disagrees with the torchbearers of cathartic experience. Dr. Sipes studied ten warlike societies and ten peaceful ones, then looked at U. S. history from 1920 to 1970, in addition to that of 133 other nations. His conclusion was that "aggressive behavior is best reduced by eliminating combative or conflict-type sports."
Even the pioneer Lorenz seems to be having second thoughts. Writing in Psychology Today, he said, "Nowadays I have strong doubts whether aggressive behavior even in the guise of sports has any cathartic effect at all."
So who really wants to agree with Sipes? Very few of us, to be sure. From peewee leagues on up, we have been taught that sports are healthy and constructive, that they will bring out the best in us, despite the meanness of spirit that is always present around them because of parents and coaches. And then there is the mythic quality of the memories: the work of Mays and Aaron with a small bat against a hissing, snaking circle of white; the diamond-cutting precision of a pitcher like Warren Spahn; the thrills given to us by Johnny Unitas; the splendid grace of a Jerry West; the way the Montreal Canadiens could sometimes turn their game into a pretty dream. They all seemed to give us a vision of ourselves, to mark the road in the long, uncertain journey of human existence.
The urge is strong to ignore honest criticism of sports, to see much of it as psychiatric rhetoric and wrongheaded research. Yet it is not that easy. The mind travels back to the dreary evening after the traditional Celtics-Ranger soccer match in Glasgow when the mobs turned the streets into a jungle night. It also focuses on little newspaper reports: Denver man shot by friends in bar because he turned the jukebox up during a Broncos game on television; man kills wife with blow to the head when she switched channels during a Mets-Cubs game; or this wildest image of all from a wire-service report in 1978: "A school football coach in Florida has been accused of inviting his pupils to kick a chicken to death in order to put them in a fighting mood for a competition game. 'He painted the chicken with gold and asked his team to think of it as an eagle,' said Mr. Sam Foly of the American Humane Association. 'Then he told them to see it as a member of the opposing team. The boys took him at his word, chased the chicken around the field and kicked it to death.' The coach was also accused of biting the heads off frogs as part of his pre-game pep talks."
Something, indeed, is going on out there. But protectionism from Washington or the idiocy of, say, a sports Moral Majority is, in the words of George Leonard, a "foolish vanity." Leonard is a cool and wise social critic, a pioneer of new games. "The structure provided by sports," he says, "is especially crucial in a time when every other structure seems uncertain. The way of being, the lifestyle gained from a mythic commitment to football, say, may have certain dangers in these times, but it is probably less dangerous than no way of being at all. Rather than simply attacking conventional games, we might better work for reform and change of emphasis in certain attitudes."
That will take long evolution. The fans, the essence of games, seem much closer to Lee Walburn's speculation about piranhas eating each other on television. Fan consciousness seems inured to violence, its old sense of sports totally brutalized by manipulative owners, by players who seem to have contempt for the public, and finally by the fan's own demands on a given sport; more is never enough. Bringing to the arena a whole grid of pressures from a rampant technological age, from a callous and swiftly changing society in which a scrap of recognition is primary, the fan is far from those who used to measure.the hero the way Carlyle did: "Like lightning out of heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, then they too would flame."
The fan's own complicated life, his envy of the players' style of life and salaries, the stone-hard mercantile profile of sports, have all helped dim the hero as a flame. But the fan still pays his money, for there is no release or escape from the cratered landscape of his own dreams in an office or a factory, or in the eyes of the family that demands so much of him. That is the cosmology of sports: titillation. belonging, losing one's self and identity through common purpose. Like all good surfaces, this hides the roiling underside, the observable fact of violent kickback that steadily darkens the heart of sports.
And what will come of it all? A grenade thrown on the field? A high-powered rifle aimed at a football huddle? Or will it be that most familiar of modern scenarios: the lonely, thwarted hunter of fame, armed with a pistol, trailing his idol-villain from city to city?
With a ticket in our hand and a turnstile only a few miles away, we give a quick gaze toward Carlyle's sky and, seeing nothing, we turn back and wait for the only drama that now seems capable of reaching our ravaged sensibilities---the creak of boot leather behind Sonny Liston's ear; only louder, please ... much louder.
"A crowd is a device for indulging ourselves in temporary insanity by all going crazy together."