Why sports fans get to be angry and Baltimore does not

By Aaron Leibowitz

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Matt Rourke/AP Penn State University, 2011

If you want to understand America’s response to the uprising in Baltimore, look no further than the response to rioting in the wake of sporting events. Sports fans are not vilified for “destroying their own communities.” Sports fans are characterized as “unruly”; they are “blowing off steam” or just “partying too hard.” Cars burn, businesses are looted, people are hurt, and damages pile up in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But when most of the fans are white, no one tries to explain their behavior as pathological. No one asks why white people act this way.

Contrast this with reactions to riots in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, who sustained a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. In recent days, I’ve heard acquaintances, journalists and politicians speak about the black population of Baltimore with scorn, disgust, and an unmistakable dose of paternalism.

When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay McKesson on Tuesday night, it was not so much a Q&A as it was Blitzer begging McKesson to condemn and apologize for the violence and property damage that has accompanied the protests. If Blitzer had one iota of sympathy for the protestors, if he cared one bit about why they were protesting, you couldn’t tell.

The uprising in Baltimore is a response to the death of Freddie Gray; it’s a response to the police killing black people in Baltimore and around the country at unfathomable rates; and it’s a response to the dire economic situation in sections of Baltimore that’s been many years in the making: white flight, the loss of manufacturing jobs, predatory housing practices and the war on drugs have all played a role in creating a segregated city.

Black residents of Baltimore are angry about these things, and they’ve taken to the streets demanding to be heard. Some have looted. Some have destroyed property.

At Penn State University in 2011, students and fans became angry because their school’s football coach was fired for ignoring a colleague’s history as a serial child molester. They took to the streets, clashed with cops and destroyed $190,000 worth of stuff. Any amount of shame that was directed toward Penn State rioters is dwarfed by the condemnation of Baltimore. It’s not even close.

Who gets to be angry in America? Who gets to act on that anger? What constitutes a valid reason to lose your cool? Whose expressions of emotion are validated and whose are demonized?

Sports, at an intersection with race and gender, help us frame our ideas about acceptable emotional expression. In our society, public displays of emotion are taboo: Real men don’t cry. When women cry, they’re being “dramatic”; when they show anger, they’re not being lady-like. Anger is especially taboo for people of color: President Obama can’t get angry, because America is terrified of an angry black man.

Typically compassionate people are conditioned to respond coldly and dismissively to certain emotions expressed by certain individuals. People are left with very few socially acceptable ways to release emotion without repercussions — and that’s where sports come in. We get to care about sports; we get to kick and scream and argue about sports; we get to cry about sports. White guys get to riot about sports (and occasionally heckle protestors outside of sports bars) and receive little more than a tsk-tsk as retribution.

I’m a case in point: Most of the times I’ve cried in my post-early-childhood life — like, really cried — have been in response to personal sports failures or the failures of my favorite teams. Logically, I know that sports results don’t matter, and I care deeply about many people and non-sports related things. But I’ve been conditioned to bottle up emotions. Sports provide a space to release them.

That’s how we get to a place where white riots after a game are treated as understandable, if somewhat immature, while black riots over state-sanctioned murder and wide-scale injustice are widely condemned and met with confusion: Why are they doing this? What’s wrong with them?

“You are suggesting that broken windows are worse than broken spines,” McKesson told Blitzer. “The pain that people feel is real.”

We’ve been conditioned to be numb to that pain, to see organic outbursts of anger and cries for justice as some kind of overreaction. Baltimore, we’ve decided, is not feeling appropriately.

I’ve destroyed property in my own home because my favorite sports team lost. I probably shouldn’t demonize people pleading not to be killed.

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