Punish the Fans

What is it that sets sports apart from other areas of Israeli life? Why do we never hear about gangs of Puccini fans attacking Mozart lovers in the parking lot of the Tel Aviv Opera House?

It's very easy to blame "society" for the violence and expressions of ugly prejudice that seem to have become an integral part of some Israeli spectator sports. It is almost platitudinous to link our society's well-documented ailments - corruption, aggression, disregard for others, and greed, to name just a few - to recent incidents. Of course society is to blame. Any society that glorifies violence - in which political discourse is conducted at shouting level and in which an argument over a parking space can easily descend into deadly assault - will fall victim to violence at its sporting events. This is even more true in a society in which the dollar is always the bottom line, in which those who organize, supervise and police sporting events see fit to host them in ramshackle stadiums and to scoff at safety standards.

It is just as easy - and not a whole lot more useful - to find parallels between the failure of authorities to predict and prevent these incidents and the same authorities' failure to predict and prevent all manner of traumatic events, from the kidnapping of a soldier to the murder of a prime minister, from a train crash to the gradual disappearance of the Dead Sea.

But society - no matter how sick or how violent - cannot be used as a catch-all for what happens at Israeli sporting venues. What is it that sets sports apart from other areas of Israeli life? Why do we never hear about gangs of Puccini fans attacking Mozart lovers in the parking lot of the Tel Aviv Opera House?

A large portion of responsibility can be laid at the door of the sporting authorities. Even the most disinterested observer cannot avoid a sense of despair at the standard of the bodies that administer Israeli sports. The Israel Football Association has, for years, been a byword for amateurism and mismanagement. It has proved that it has not learned the lessons of the past (the match-fixing scandal and revelations that members of the national team spent the night before a crucial playoff match in the company of call girls) with its sluggish response to the most recent incident involving Beitar Jerusalem fans - who, in an apparent attempt to become the most despised sports team in the world, booed during the one minute silence in memory of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Similarly, if the people of Chelm were to organize a basketball league, it would not look much less professional than the one we have become accustomed to in Israel, which enters teams into no fewer than three rival European competitions. Our teams field ineligible players, antagonize visiting fans with unreasonable pricing policies and - more often than not - fail to provide the sort of facilities that have become standard in international competition.

But blaming everything on others - another of the qualities that Israeli society has developed into an art form - overlooks some fundamental truths about sports and human nature.

Most sports, after all, are violent. For fans, watching a sporting encounter is an emotional experience; adrenalin pumps through the veins, the rate of the heartbeat increases. The vast majority of fans know how to control this surge of emotions and chemicals. However some, often fueled by alcohol, do not. In an atmosphere of neglect - neglected values, neglected responsibilities - it is easier for fans to engage in anti-social behavior. Some make monkey noises at the many African players who now grace our stadiums and arenas, others shout "terrorist" at the opponent's Arab players. They are symptoms of the same disease.

Paradoxically, bringing the bad behavior to an end may be easier than pointing to its sources, as the solution is really quite simple: Punish the fans by punishing the teams. If a firecracker is thrown during a basketball game between Jerusalem and Holon, then dock points from both teams' tally. If a fan is almost crushed to death at Maccabi Haifa's stadium, ban that team from representing Israel in European soccer competitions the next season. And if a team is consistently unable to control its fans, don't let the fans into the stadium. If we hit the teams where it hurts (in the pocket) and hit the fans where it hurts (by punishing the team they support) we will go some way to nullifying the treacherous conditions under which all sports are conducted in Israel.

No matter how sick our society is, we must not treat the disease and neglect the symptoms.