Mary Pilon in Nautilus:
The soccer match hadn’t even started when the cops showed up. On the streets of Marseille, France, the officers—helmeted, shields in hands, batons on belts—charged through a crowd to break up a thicket of English and Russian fans who were hurling bottles, threats, and insults at each other. Some fans were bare-chested, caked with dried blood, screaming at the top of their lungs. Others clutched plastic cups of beer while trying to avoid the clouds of tear gas. The scene broke up when a knot of fans left for the hospital to have injuries treated, or in handcuffs with a cop at their side. The brawl happened in June at the beginning of the Euro 2016 soccer tournament. But the annals of extreme fan behavior are Biblical in scope. Fans in Constantinople in A.D. 532 spent a week violently rioting after a chariot race in what historians today call the “Nika riots.” It’s estimated that thousands died. In the Sydney Riot of 1879, an umpire decision at a cricket match led to 2,000 spectators storming the pitch and “a scene of confusion ensued, and blows were received and returned,” according to a local newspaper. Unruly fan behavior at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, home of the Eagles, got so bad over the decades that in 1997 it had its own in-stadium courtroom to deal with fans urinating in sinks, smuggling alcohol, and fighting in the stands. In 2011, Pennsylvania State University students clashed with cops as they protested the termination of football coach Joe Paterno in the wake of a pedophilia scandal. Two years later, 17 people were killed in post-boxing match riots in Indonesia. What is it about sports that drives us to the psychological fringe? For eons, sports have been a cesspool of metaphors: sports are war, sports are religion, sports are business, sports are love, sports are hate. Sports are life. But according to a branch of social psychology called terror-management theory, the answer is not found in the bleachers, it’s found in the graveyard. Sports are not about life. They’re about death.
An outgrowth of Ernest Becker’s 1974 Pulitzer-Prize winning tome, The Denial of Death, terror-management theory posits that human beings experience a psychological conflict between wanting to live and realizing death’s inevitability. In Becker’s view, the world is terrifying and human behavior is motivated by a biological need to cope with anxiety. “This is the terror,” Becker writes. “To have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die.” In an uncertain world, death is the only thing that is a given. The “main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death,” Becker writes. So we adopt a hero system that permits us to believe that death is transcended when we participate in something immortal, something that will last beyond us: an empire, a religion, a sports team.