The other night, on Monday Night Football, the Buffalo Bills very nearly beat the hated New England Patriots. They were leading, and were in very good shape with a little over two minutes left: New England had just scored to pull to being down 24-19, when they kicked off. Bills cornerback and kickoff returner Leodis McKelvin fielded the kick in the end zone, and then he decided to attempt a run back. He got out about twenty-five yards or so before the New England players arrived around him and began tackling him. Rather than just fall down, McKelvin attempted to push for more yardage, and so doing, ended up fumbling. New England recovered, scored, and won 25-24. Ouch.
So naturally, McKelvin ended up being "the goat". It's not dead certain that the Bills would have held on for the win had he gone down, but their chances would have been superb; all they would really have needed to do is pick up a single first down and kill the clock. Much of the postgame discussion focused on McKelvin: whether he should have attempted to run the kick back at all, the obviousness that he should never have striven for more yardage once the tacklers converged upon him; Dick Jauron's odd defense of McKelvin the next day on the basis that he's a really good kick returner and you never know when he's going to break one. (This on a kick where the Patriots might well have been kicking onside, forcing the Bills to deploy their "hands" team instead of their kickoff blockers.)
Most people are now of the "Sucks, but it's over and Tampa's in town on Sunday." However, a couple of teenagers decided last night to vandalize McKelvin's front lawn. So now the discussion is no longer even about the fumble but about this act of misdirected "fanhood". The topic of discussion on the sports-talk show I like to listen to on the way home from work was, What does this say about us? About Buffalo Bills fans? About Buffalo? About football fans in general?
I'm not sure it has to say anything about any of those things, right now. Police in Hamburg, NY -- the Buffalo suburb where McKelvin lives -- apparently, as of this writing, have two teenagers in custody who have confessed to the vandalism. And as misguided-fan incidents go, this is pretty weak tea, easily corrected with some lawn care products and tools. Of course, that's not the point: it's still a very ugly incident that puts on display yet again the fact that too many sports fans in this country take their teams and their allegiances way too seriously. In point of fact, it's not even this country: it's all over the world. As bad as our fans can get at times, nobody's ever heard of people getting trampled at a baseball riot. But that's probably small consolation to taxpayers and business owners each year in the cities whose teams win the World Series, or the NBA championship, or the Super Bowl.
I've never been one to engage in "Things were better back in the day" rhetoric. I usually find that, upon deeper inspection, things "back in the day" tended to suck a lot as well, and that people pining for things back then usually turn out to have simply not been aware of how things sucked "back in the day". But I do wonder if sports fandom is getting qualitatively worse with regard to things like this. On opening day of the 1987 season, Boston Red Sox fans gave Bill Buckner an ovation. I don't remember how too many goats were treated, save one: after Super Bowl XXV, in 1991, a giant rally was held for the Buffalo Bills in downtown Buffalo. At that rally, Scott Norwood, who had missed what would have been the game-winning kick at the end of the game, received a massive ovation. Back then, a guy whose missed kick cost his team the Super Bowl championship got an outpouring of love and support. Eighteen years later, a cornerback whose fumble cost his team a regular season game got his lawn vandalized.
Of course, the situations are different, and the emotions in sports are so often defined by the situations. McKelvin's fumble came in a regular season game against an opponent that is universally loathed in this town, for various reasons. (Mostly because they're loathsome!) It also comes after a recent history that has seen huge amounts of futility, of mediocrity, of disaster at critical times, of injury, of just plain loss. But that doesn't excuse anything, obviously; and neither does it lessen the point. Instead, it clarifies it: why are so many sports fans so angry these days? Win or lose?