Chatting with a fellow octogenarian the other day, lamenting, as ancients tend to lament, the difference between the youth of our day and the young today. The topic: the latest court ordered wrist-slap handed one of the infamous Stanley Cup rioters in Vancouver last year.
As my contribution to the debate on the conduct of today's young plug-uglies, I advanced the inevitable: "We didn't behave like that when I was a teenager. We didn't run around the street breaking and burning things because we were unhappy about a sports result."
As other old heads nodded in murmured agreement, an echo from the chamber of my conscience warned that while I was advancing a truth, it was not much of an argument. It is a sad fact that when my generation was in its teens, the entire world was in a gigantic convulsive riot. Death, destruction, pillaging, fire and fear were part of our civilian daily lives.
And we were too damn tired at the end of a night putting out fires and caring for the injured to torch a car or a building just for the hell of it.
Had we not been robbed of our youth by a world in conflict, could we have become part of the "sporting" mobs that now disgrace our landscape?
Maybe, because large crowds, angry or rejoicing, are prone to contagious violence. One curse screamed too loud, one rock stupidly thrown, one arrest made with excess force, can spark a reaction stoppable only by even more excessive force - or the exhaustion of the mob.
So, as is the way with old folk who have learned the basics of how to work one of the amazing inventions of post-Second World War generations, I clicked a button on my laptop and asked the genie inside to provide me with a list of sports riots.
That admirable, silent research worker referred me to Wikipedia and other sources offering statistics on riots of all sorts and sizes from political, labour, plain old street fights - and sports.
I selected the sports list because that's where Canadians seem to earn a regular spot - although we have had our share of political riots, with one or two particularly brutal ones. It isn't a complete list. Missing is the Vancouver riot of 1963, when after the 51st Grey Cup at the old Empire Stadium (won by Hamilton 21-10) it took a late-night army of shield-carrying, baton-wielding policemen to persuade window-breaking fans it was time to go home. I was well acquainted with that particular kerfuffle, because I covered it for the Edmonton Journal.
It's possible it doesn't make the Wikipedia list because the damage that night was in smashed store windows. Nothing to be compared with later Stanley Cup events and, thank whatever gods may be, light years from the year 352 - the first sports riot on the list - when chariot-racing fans ran amok in Constantinople and burned down the city. An estimated 30,000 died.
From that point, Wikipedia leaps a few centuries to list a soccer riot in the aftermath of the 1909 Scottish Cup final, then takes a half-century jump to the Maurice Richard hockey riot in March 1955, which was halted only after an appeal by the "Rocket" to Montreal fans. In 1968, tennis fans rioted in Sweden to protest the inclusion of teams from Rhodesia and South Africa in the Davis Cup. "Real" tennis fans, like "real" hockey fans, insist they were not involved.
There were rugby-game riots in Australia and New Zealand between 1971 and 1981 as the issue of apartheid became a sports cause cÃ©lèbre; in 1984, American college football fans got into the act in Kansas, and repeated their riotous conduct two years later wearing T-shirts proudly emblazoned "Riotville."
Then came the Stanley Cup years. In 1986, the Montreal Canadiens won the bauble and the fans celebrated with a riot. In 1993, they won the cup again. This time the celebrations were unrestrained as fans looted stores, torched police cars and caused millions of dollars in damages. In 1974 Vancouver fans demonstrated that anything Montreal could do, they could do better, even if their team didn't win the Cup. And last year, when the Canucks lost again, Vancouver's mindless mobsters put on the biggest hockey show of all, wrecked and looted buildings and torched 17 cars and a fire truck.
Last on the Wikipedia list - for now - is dated Feb. 1, 2012, Port Said, Egypt. Seventy-nine dead as rival soccer fans fought "with knives, swords, clubs, stones, bottles and fireworks."
The list does not signal a mark of progression to understanding that sport is an activity in which men and women show individual and team skills for entertainment. Not as a declaration of war. I think we understood that a little better when I was a lad. But maybe not.
© Copyright 2013