Tennessee fans act like toddlers, get away with it

Perhaps these Tennessee fans were a bit drunk?

Perhaps these Tennessee fans were a bit drunk?
Photo: Getty Images

Tennessee fans were so out of control on Saturday night, that they were warned if their behavior continued, the Volunteers would forfeit.

With Ole Miss leading in the fourth quarter, 31-26, the crowd at Neyland Stadium threw a whole bunch of garbage, and Lane Kiffin, the former Tennessee coach, got hit by a golf ball.

Obviously, this is ludicrous, and it doesn’t matter why they started throwing crap, but what kind of person throws a golf ball? Two feet higher, and this could be a story about Kiffin being knocked out, or even being killed, and the manhunt to find the person who committed negligent homicide. Whoever did that is waking up today as the luckiest asshole in Tennessee, even if they’re waking up in jail.

Kiffin handled it all remarkably well. He kept the golf ball, and held it up for the SEC Network’s camera in his postgame interview, in which he said, “They were just throwing stuff, and I said, ‘Put your helmets on, let’s play.’ … They’re passionate fans, and there’s 100,000 people that came to see a show, and it didn’t end up the way they wanted, so it is what it is.”

What it is, is a sad truth: in any crowd of 100,000 people, especially 100,000 sports fans, there’s at least a few golf enthusiasts or condiment preppers in the group who just need some kind of stupid catalyst to set them off. Maybe it’s a bad call in a big game. Maybe it’s years of pent-up frustration with a team that used to put on a show that you liked, to paraphrase Kiffin, whose team got its first win in Knoxville since 1983, if you’re wondering about which category Tennessee fits in here.

Most of the time, it doesn’t result in a mass incident like Saturday night, but that destructive energy is always lurking, and with social media, it feels like we see it more and more, from Los Angeles to Denver to Kansas City to Nashville. But it’s always been there and there’s a way to control it.

In 1999, the Yankees made their bleachers alcohol free, and while there was some complaining, Tina Lewis was right when she told the New York Post then, “We have this image, and people come and think they are going to get a few beers in their system and be vulgar and cruel to other people. … Now people will see what we are really about. We are about cheering the Yankees.”

And for the last decade of the old Yankee Stadium, the bleachers were just as passionate — it was in that era that their famous “Roll Call” really took hold — but not nearly as violent. There still were occasional fights, sure, and many people did drink before entering the park, but it really did change the entire experience of the bleachers for the better. At the new stadium, the bleachers are connected to the rest of the stands, so alcohol again flows, but it was nice while it lasted.

Is it merely a coincidence that Saturday night’s debacle came a week after the Knoxville News Sentinel had a story, “More beer is coming to Neyland Stadium?

For the amount of money that beer brings in, it’s hardly worth suggesting that American sports facilities go dry. It’s not going to happen. But there are some common sense steps to take, and not just putting more responsibility on underpaid stadium workers to make sure people aren’t overserved.

When Kiffin left Tennessee for USC in 2010, there was “no riot on campus,” but the News Sentinel reported, “There were a couple of mattresses and a pile of shirts that were set on fire. … When students attempted to storm Neyland Stadium in order to charge the field, one lone UTPD officer held them at bay.”

Put aside for a moment the attempted storming of a building because their guy was leaving town, and that being called not a riot. The people who were chanting “fuck Lane Kiffin” a decade ago are still Tennessee fans, still pissed at Kiffin, and came to the stadium on Saturday wanting to see the Vols wipe the smirk off his face.

Cool, that’s a good rivalry story. It’s also a reason that you don’t start that game at 6:30 p.m., giving thousands of angry people who are overly invested in Tennessee football an entire day to drink and get angry before they can even get their hands on one of those stadium beers.

Things like Saturday should never happen, but just because they can never be fully prevented and it would be ludicrous to check every fan entering a stadium for golf balls, it’s irresponsible for the people putting on these “shows” not to do everything they can to minimize the risk. 

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