Dateline, Philadelphia, January 5, 2012. Three Philadelphia Flyers fans are wanted by Philadelphia police for their role in beating two New York Rangers fans in the immediate aftermath of Monday’s Winter Classic. One of the victims was beaten quite brutally and hospitalized. Video of the assaults emerged. (You can watch it easily enough; I urge that you don’t.) The more seriously maimed victim, turns out, is a cop, an Iraq war vet, a Marine, and a Purple Heart recipient. He had the temerity to attend a big hockey game in Philadelphia wearing the colors of that day’s adversary. You know, just as has happened with every game in every arena and stadium on the continent the past 40 years. But in Philadelphia, this hero of his country was beaten for it, brutally.
I like to think that somewhere in her eternal rest Kate Smith is restless and nauseous.
To me there is something distinctive about this instance of violence relative, say, to that we witnessed in Vancouver after last June’s Stanley Cup finals. Both outbreaks are abhorrent to be sure, but there is in our sport something enduring and singular — and brandished as a badge of honor, even — by the bellicose and beer-swilling in orange sweaters, somewhat a minority of the overall Flyers fanbase, I think, who for at least a generation have taken it as a blood oath to violently defend their allegiance.
There are fights in the stands at many rinks and ballparks, I know. But it’s really only with one civic outpost that news of them seems to be met with . . . a wildly warped sense of pride.
You see, yesterday I had to endure a soberly stated justification by a Flyers fan — a high school classmate of mine — for what transpired in Monday’s assault: that somehow the Rangers fan, likely loose of victory-bragging tongue, deserved his fate. My Flyers’ partisan high school buddy is a Duke graduate, a Gulf War vet (Marine), a lawyer, a husband and a father. And he thinks as he does in this instance. So I say he’s card-carrying member of a warped culture. I’ll still call him classmate and friend, but yesterday I wondered: just how eager would the hospitalized Rangers fan Marine be to share a foxhole with my Flyers’ friend, and would my friend really have articulated the defense he did with me in front of his daughters?
You want to say that only a tiny sliver of the Flyer fanbase could and would go perp like this, but afforded over many years ample opportunity to disavow themselves of the reputation, collectively they’ve passed. They like the reputation not just of their skating heroes being bullies but of being bullies themselves. That sweater, its wearers want you to know, represents a good deal more than division titles and Stanley Cups won. And it’s been that way for years.
I can’t say that I can recall an instance when the executive leadership of one of Philly’s professional sports teams has led some public initiative to counteract the city’s pride in its twisted embrace of being bullies. Instead, the culture of Philadelphia seems almost to celebrate that their football stadium — and theirs alone in the republic — erected a makeshift courthouse on site to address violent attacks that have become a staple of sports patronage there.
There is a seemingly lone voice of reason up there in all this — the Broad Street Hockey blog. Those bloggers did what the Flyers should have: reluctantly, but courageously, they pushed out video and narrative of this super sad story and condemned the violence. “We say so often that we don’t deserve our reputation as awful monsters moonlighting as sports fans, but when this sort of thing happens, it completely undermines everything we say on the subject,” they blogged.
By about 5:00 yesterday this story had gone viral — Fox News, NBC.com, Puck Daddy were all weighing in on the malevolence. Out of curiosity I visited the Flyers’ web site to see if the public relations damage had occasioned any concern from the team. Maybe the team wanted to intervene and assist the victims’ families in some way. Nope. A band of cretins wearing your sweater pummeled a Purple Heart vet, in broad daylight, fellas. Would it really be beneath you to show some moral leadership and remind your community that this isn’t really behavior that ought to be replicated, again, or even celebrated? This morning there is acknowledgment of injury in Philadelphia on the team’s web site — Kimmo Timonen got dinged (upper body) during last night’s game against Chicago.
I like to think that two forms of justice ultimately will visit the assailants in this crime — the formal one meted out by the courts, and then the other seldom detailed but widely understood, enacted, well out of sight, against those who harm those who sacrifice to keep us safe. More importantly, I hope at long last a story that makes you cry will occasion a leadership long lacking in a bully culture.