Across the Pond

The Manchester United protests highlight the difference between American and British fandom

May 03, 2021

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Like everyone who writes for this site, and everyone who reads it, I love sports. Can't get enough, will never get enough. And yet, I love sports in a distinctly American way, which means I mostly love it from a safe remove. Except in rare cases, I don't get very emotionally invested, and haven't since I was a child. I want my teams to win, but if they don't? I'll live. It is not a central focus of my life, even though I spend a lot of time around it. I'm not saying all Americans are like this—I once saw a very big, very bearded man weeping outside Madison Square Garden when the Rangers got eliminated from the playoffs—but in general, even the "hotbeds" of our sports culture, like SEC football, or Steelers fandom, or whatever the hell is happening in Boston and Philadelphia, are only engaged up to a certain limit.

Which would seem normal and unremarkable to me, except for the fact that I know about European soccer. And holy ****, these people are absolutely nuts.

These thoughts are inspired, of course, by the Manchester United riot, when 1,000 supporters protested the club's American owners (the Glazer family, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) in a Sunday afternoon demonstration that started out peaceful, and quickly turned into mayhem as they overwhelmed a cordon of police officers, stormed Old Trafford, and invaded the pitch. The direct action forced the club to cancel the scheduled match against Liverpool, and pressure is high on the owners. Look at these scenes, complete with smoke canisters and flares and angry chants and a hostile takeover of the grounds:

Watching this all play out, I had to ask the question: what's the difference between us and them? Why don't Americans ever do this kind of thing? And I think there are a few answers, and a lot of it has to do with history and the structure of the clubs and franchises, but the most important answer is that these people feel the team belongs to them.

Which is great, actually. They should feel that way. They should feel empowered, because without them, there's nothing. And they're still pissed off about the Super League, and they're mad that the owners have drained the club of money for 15 years and fallen off the standard set by one of the most successful clubs in the world. Gary Neville laid out the laundry list of valid complaints for Sky Sports:

And, unlike America, these fans eventually reach a breaking point and do something about it. An interesting comparison, I think, would be to James Dolan, the owner of the Knicks. The Knicks are a proud franchise with a massive fan base (not as massive as Manchester United, but still), but are there any tangible consequences for the team's failures in the 20th century? Maybe from elite players who refuse to join the Knicks in free agency, but from the fans, zilch. Knicks fans view the situation as basically unchangeable, and so they accept it with a resigned grumble. Again, it goes back to that fundamental truth: Knicks fans root for the team, but they don't think it's theirs. And when you don't feel a sense of ownership, you don't think it's your place to demand a change.

In short, American fandom is much more passive, and on some level you have to admire the fierce energy of a supporter base like Man U's. There is a huge downside to this passion, of course; anyone who has experienced it or read a book like Bill Buford's Among the Thugs knows how that energy can be warped into violence and terror of the kind that we don't see in America to nearly the same degree. In that sense, it's not like I'm desperate to trade places. Overall, I'm pretty fine with my arms-length relationship with sports...if I go to Fenway Park and wear a Yankees hat (note: I would never do this), I know I'll get heckled, and if I end up among the wrong crowd, maybe someone will throw a beer on me. But I can also be reasonably sure that if I'm quiet, I won't get beat up or stabbed or pelted with rocks.

Still, I can't escape the feeling of envy at how much the club means to fans in the U.K. Everyone is looking for a purpose in life, and it's clear that for those Manchester United supporters, the team is that purpose. Now, you could get political with friend Zach (who knows about 1,000 times more about all of this) told me that "this is very broadly the club soccer fans’ revolution against late-stage capitalism. So it all has to be framed in that context, whether individual club ownership or Super Leagues or TV revenue driving all the decisions or whatever." And I think he's dead on, and I think you could probably extrapolate from there and say that Americans are more historically complacent about that kind of thing. That's opening a can of worms I can't begin to analyze in this post, but it's worth thinking about.

At bottom, though, there is a fundamental difference in how we interact with our teams, and that creates a wide gap in accountability. In America, we don't feel that anything can change, and so we behave accordingly; our fandom happens at a distance. Over there, the club is part and parcel of each supporter's existence. Failing to engage a hated owner would be like failing to dream. Storm the barricades, boys; I envy you from afar.