Rioting when you're happy is senseless


STAYED UP late the other night to watch Maryland nail down its first NCAA basketball championship, then took in the obligatory post-game riot, courtesy of Eyewitness News and Sky Eye Chopper 13.

(Speaking of which, how did we ever live before news helicopters provided overhead shots of drunken, shirtless frat boys marauding through the streets of College Park? Watching a riot from ground-based TV cameras seems so quaint now, doesn't it? Like watching old reruns of Bonanza.)

Frankly, the concept of fans rioting to celebrate a big victory is one that escapes me.

I can understand rioting when you're oppressed and poverty-stricken and seething with rage, that sort of thing.

But who riots when they're happy?

To me, this is like hitting the big jackpot in the lottery and saying: "All right, let's go set fires, overturn cars and throw beer bottles at the cops!"

It's like finally marrying the girl of your dreams, jetting off on your honeymoon to some tropical island and saying: "OK, who's up for throwing some bricks through store windows?"

To get a handle on the whole issue, I called my old friend Merrill J. Melnick, who's a psychologist and professor at the State University of New York at Brockport and an expert in "sport-group dynamics."

Melnick teaches a course called "Sports Spectating in the United States" and co-wrote a book, Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators.

Professor, I said, what's with these idiots who riot after their team wins a championship?

We've seen Los Angeles Lakers fans do it, Denver Broncos fans do it, Chicago Bulls fans do it, Detroit Tigers fans do it. Now we've seen Terps fans do it. Five minutes after the victorious team hoists the championship trophy, the streets fill with drunken yahoos screaming "We're No. 1!" as they smash car windshields and duke it out with the police.

"Psychologists call them 'celebratory riots,' " Melnick said. "We sometimes get some of our worst fan behavior after victories instead of defeats."

Celebratory riots, I said. Sounds almost like an oxymoron, like a lighthearted mugging or a happy-go-lucky lynching.

"It's behavior that's gone off the train tracks," Melnick continued. "It knows no rules, regulations or boundaries. It's spontaneous and expressive ... It starts as exuberant and celebratory, but because it has no rules or regulations, it exceeds civil ... norms."

Psychologists, Melnick said, aren't exactly sure what causes these celebratory riots. But a number of factors can contribute to the likelihood one will erupt after a big championship win.

One, he said, is the presence of, ahem, my brothers and sisters in the media.

Take a huge post-game crowd still buzzed from the win, throw in a bunch of satellite trucks, TV cameras and news choppers, and it's practically like a stage director yelling: "Showtime!"

"It may well be that the crowd acquires the sense they're expected to act in certain ways," Melnick said. "[The media] is expecting mob-like behavior. Then you throw in the stimulus of the helicopters flying overhead ..."

A second factor that's almost always present in these riots is alcohol.

Oh, I know, I know ... you're shocked by that one. And of course we're not talking about people who've been sipping a couple of Coors Lights here. No, we're talking about people who've ingested half the contents of a Coors brewery before the game and the other half during the game, just to be sociable.

Now they hit the streets after the big win and the first thought on their minds is not exactly: "Well, better get home to feed the cat."

A third factor in post-game rioting is what Melnick calls "the guarantee of anonymity" that being part of a crowd provides.

Maybe you wouldn't dare break car antennas or lob bottles at the cops if you were by yourself and there was a chance you'd be recognized. No, not you, Mr. Solid Citizen.

But, hey, when you're doing it as just another drunken lout in a sea of Lakers or Broncos or Terps T-shirts, who's going to know it's you? You can still pretend you're a saint at heart, even as you smash that street lamp or loot that store with the crowd after the big game.

A fourth factor that can lead to post-championship rioting is a heavy police presence, something Melnick said the beered-up crowd can find "provocative."

"The enemy is no longer the other team," said Melnick. "It's whoever is trying to stop the party."

Of course, if no one had stopped the party Monday night - in other words, if the cops hadn't turned out in force after Maryland's win - I'm convinced half of College Park would have burned down.

Pretty soon we'll be seeing a couple of new stats in championship game box scores: FA (fans arrested) and ERD (estimated riot damage.)

Tell me it's still only a ballgame.

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