Portrayals of sports riots, current protests sharply differ
On the morning of Super Bowl LII, the city of Philadelphia took to the streets in anticipation of celebrating who would become the 2018 NFL champion Eagles. It wasn’t the typical procedure of putting up barricades or cleaning the streets for fans — city employees coated light poles with hydraulic fluid to prevent celebrators from climbing them.
As predicted, the slippery substance proved necessary. After the underdog Eagles beat the New England Patriots 41-33, the city of Philadelphia flared up as fans flooded the streets in joy. However, byproducts of their enjoyment were destructive acts such as flipping cars, starting fires and vandalizing buildings.
At the time, media outlets downplayed this destruction. On ABC’s “Good Morning America,” former NFL player and GMA co-host Michael Strahan simply called the fans “rowdy,” softening the extent of the damage they caused to the city. He, alongside the other hosts, were smiling throughout the broadcast, implying that the fans’ actions were acceptable.
A New York Times piece shared a similar sentiment, using “rowdy” as well as “unruly” to describe the celebrations. News outlet Quartz described the fans’ actions as “all-destructive joy.”
But the violence and chaos that ensued in Philadelphia that night is similar to what is predominantly portrayed of current Black Lives Matter protests in mainstream media. According to USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism assistant professor of professional practice Miki Turner, media outlets have a habit of downplaying the result of chaotic championship celebrations.
“Basically, it was portrayed as a celebration that went awry as opposed to a riot, but in actuality, in the definition of a riot, it was a riot,” Turner said of the 2018 Philadelphia celebrations. “Property was destroyed, there was vandalism, there was looting.”
The country has witnessed other similar violent and destructive acts occur in some of its major sports cities. But these riots don’t occur in support of diversity in sports, equal pay among male and female athletes or other social issues — instead, fans tear up their town to celebrate a win or mourn a loss.
But these sports riots extend from coast to coast, even in recent history. After the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2014, fans smashed the windows of police cars and buses as part of a larger scene of vandalism and bonfires. By the end of the night, two people had been shot and one had been stabbed.
In the past 20 years, Boston has seen riots whenever the Red Sox won the World Series, resulting in fires, flipped cars and fights with police. In 1984 after the Tigers brought home the World Series championship, Detroit faced similar riots as fans looted and burned police vehicles. After the Lakers won the NBA Finals in 2000, fans started fires and damaged police cars.
During the 2020 protests against police brutality after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, much media coverage has focused on the destruction that ensues. For instance, an NBC News broadcast stated that the “nation erupted into scenes of chaos, violence and widespread destruction,” focusing on the dangers these protests pose to cities across the nation.
Turner also noted how the circumstances of these riots could cause law enforcement to react differently to different crowds. The San Francisco Police Department reported only a “handful” of arrests after the city’s 2014 celebration. After the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series and chaos ensued, 14 arrests were made in Wrigleyville.
For comparison, 20 people were arrested in San Francisco last Tuesday for violating curfew, and in the last nine days, Chicago has seen more than 2,500 arrests related to civil unrest.
Turner said that since the current protests are, by nature, in opposition to the police, the authority of police departments to properly handle crowd control is under question — which may only add to the tension.
“Even when it’s just a peaceful situation, the police are on guard,” Turner said of the current protests. “They’ve got their hands on their hips, their hands on their revolvers, because they’re expecting something to pop up.”
Turner, an award-winning photojournalist, also illustrated how the images depicted by the media in these riots differ.
“Basically, they did a wide shot of the crowd just so you could see how many people were there and then close-ups on people who were just celebrating,” Turner said of the 2018 Philadelphia riots. “[Destruction was] not something that they focused on, and what you saw in Philadelphia is that you saw more context.”
Ali Pearl, a postdoctoral fellow at USC whose research deals with race and culture, discussed the importance of acknowledging the different reasons for violence with sports fans and Black Lives Matter protesters. This context, she said, is key in understanding why sports rioting and protesting against police brutality are two completely different stories despite occasional similar acts of violence.
“I actually understand the impulse toward property destruction when you are protesting police brutality, when you’re protesting injustice, because you’re targeting the material products of a system that maintained inequality,” Pearl said. “When you are just celebrating or lamenting a sports win or loss, I don’t actually understand the impulse toward property destruction in that moment. There’s not a target to that impulse, it’s more of a release of energy.”
Daniel Durbin, a communication professor at USC, echoed that sentiment, adding that there’s not a “larger social picture” behind sports fans’ violent actions.
“Even if you don’t choose to take it up, there’s a moral call to protest or to support [Black Lives Matter] protesters that goes across social and political lines,” Durbin said. “There’s no social or moral imperative to your team winning the Super Bowl or the NBA championship.”
In an academic journal titled Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, researchers analyzed the rhetoric used by mainstream news outlets when covering the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Mo. The journal predominantly found language referring to the lawless nature of the protests, as well as inflammatory quotes from police and an emphasis on the violence that ensued.
The article suggested newsroom diversity could help facilitate unbiased language when covering protests. Sociology and gender studies professor Michael Messner said it comes down to not only increasing newsroom diversity but being receptive as reporters to learning about and covering different communities.
“It’s partly a matter of broadening the attitudes of everybody who’s out there working, doing news,” Messner said. “But I think it’s also important to recognize that we do need to continue to move toward more diversity in the newsroom.”