Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

February 22, 2016

Confronting the Thugs

ESPN Producer Justine Gubar gets up close with fan violence in Fanaticus.

David Goldenberg

In 2011, ESPN producer Justine Gubar was working on a story about a scandal in the Ohio State football program for Outside The Lines when she started receiving threatening notes from Buckeye fans. Those fans had been coordinating via message boards to collect information on Gubar, and then they started berating her on her Twitter and Facebook accounts, and eventually via her cellphone. “Buckeye Nation will not show you mercy,” wrote one. Another told her she was “Not even on the same level as a prostitute.”

Justine Gubar
"I did a couple of interviews that all seemed to lead to porn and sports as outlets for maleness."

Justine Gubar

Most of us in Gubar’s position would likely hide and cringe and privately worry about the misogyny and violent threats seemingly inherent to fandom today. But we’re not Gubar. She set out to find and confront her tormentors, eventually landing on the entryway of a house of a guy named Tommy who told her, colorfully, to go away, adding, “You and the Outside The Lines people can go suck shit.” Gubar saw it as a research opportunity for her new book on extreme fandom, Fanaticus. “I wanted to drill deeper on the fan hostility via the internet,” Gubar says. “Unfortunately, it didn’t really work out that way when I got kicked off a porch in Columbus, Ohio.”

Gubar’s bravery and fascination permeates every aspect of her new book, which takes a look at why fandom often degenerates into destruction, vitriol, and violence. And despite the fact that those impulses are sometimes directed at her, Gubar is determined to give these fans the benefit of the doubt, often embedding herself in among the groups she’s trying to understand. In the following interview, edited for clarity, Gubar tells Gelf why fandom is an escape for the modern male, and how selling alcohol in stadiums can actually decrease crowd problems.

Gelf Magazine: Which was your favorite fan crew to be embedded with?

Justine Gubar: I love my Black Hole buddies. Especially when they showed up at book events in the Bay Area! Bookstore weren’t quite sure what hit them.

Gelf Magazine: Did you get a sense of whether riots are more dangerous when fans are celebrating wins or losses?

Justine Gubar: It doesn’t matter. Riots gets dangerous based on who’s watching: how many cameras are out there and how law enforcement reacts. By then, the outcome of the sporting event itself is barely relevant.

Gelf Magazine: You state that pretty much anyone can be a rioter given the right (or wrong) circumstances. Does that make you more sympathetic to them?

Justine Gubar: There’s always someone forced to clean up that charred mattress. In researching Fanaticus, I became less sympathetic to rioters because I undercovered example after example of harm. From businesses that were vandalized to wasted monies spent on police overtime to kids who get kicked out of school for literally one bad minute, I came away with a sense of just how destructive these gatherings can be even if no harm is initially intended. Basically, I became annoyed by fans who got caught up in rioting.

Gelf Magazine: What was the worst fan violence incident in the U.S. that you covered? Why?

Justine Gubar: The Vancouver Stanley Cup riot in 2011 was simply the most destructive and expensive and sadly much of the mayhem could have been prevented. The city made some classic mistakes. The Bryan Stow beating really penetrated the cultural zeitgeist and influenced how many perceive the dangers of the sports fan experience. People who couldn’t tell you the the name of a single starting pitcher for the Dodgers were well versed on what happened to Stow that day in the parking lot.

Gelf Magazine: There's a lot of psychology in the book, but one thing that stood out to me was this idea of violence being fueled by "men in crisis." Why did that resonate with you?

Justine Gubar: Extreme fandom is a great escape for anyone. Anthropologists say sports is an important part of male bonding—that in the distant past, men bonded over killing animals for food, while women gathered food. Men remain wired to bond, but since there’s not a need to kill for sustenance, powerful alliances are now formed in politics, war, work, sports, and secret societies. In a nutshell, men are more hardwired for fandom than women, and aggressive fandom at that, as both are a product and cause of these strong ties. I did a couple of interviews that all seemed to lead to porn and sports as outlets for maleness. I was not thrilled to be talking about porn with strangers over corn muffins but that’s just me. As for the crisis component, I was really intrigued by the work of a sociologist named Michael Kimmel who in Fanaticus talks about men being challenged by the rise of women in the workplace and society in general and retreating to the “clubhouse" of fandom.

Gelf Magazine: What are the best books you have read about fandom?

Justine Gubar: Among the Thugs by Bill Buford whom I interview in Fanaticus. To Hate Like This is to be Happy Forever by Will Blythe … really the title says it all. And a bit of a darker choice: A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley.

Gelf Magazine: There's an interesting section in which you describe how West Virginia managed to decrease incidences of vomiting by selling beer in the stadium. Should that be expanded everywhere?

Justine Gubar: Numbers like what was reported in West Virginia show that regulating the sale of booze rather than prohibiting it outright make a difference. Accounting ledgers certainly support this practice and the tally of universities going down this path is only rising. But the bottom line is we know alcohol facilitates aggression and you can never eliminate all of the risk. I do believe we will see most college stadiums and arenas cast off restrictions and sell alcohol at concession stands in the next five years.

Gelf Magazine: In general, alcohol seems to be a very big force behind most fan violence. Does society have a responsibility in general? What should be done?

Justine Gubar: Hand out marijuana edibles. Kidding. Sort of. Alcohol has been an issue since the dawn of sport. In ancient Greece during the Pythian Games, wine was banned in the stands in an effort to crack down on rowdy fans. I think the societal responsibility lies in educating folks 1) how to be a responsible drinker and 2) how to be a responsible fan.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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