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Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Updated: November 19, 7:58 PM ET
Not in our house

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

Ugly fan behavior has long been a part of sports. I suspect in medieval times, the first English soccer fan downed one too many pints of ale, painted his chest, smuggled his spiked club into a game and next thing you know, hooliganism was born.

Bears
Green Bay Packers fans usually are well-represented at Soldier Field.

Because we wouldn't be anywhere without England, it was only a matter of time before Americans were getting drunk, painting their chests and beating on each other -- though, thank goodness, the NFL banned spiked clubs, I believe, at that meeting at the Hupmobile dealership.

Just the same, we have apparently learned very little since then, often using the occasion of an otherwise wholesome pastime like a sporting event to express our basest instincts. And when I say, "our," of course, I mean "their."

Surely, it can only be someone we do not know and would never associate with who would be capable of the act that Pittsburgh Steelers fan Zack Heddinger accused one or more Bears fans of committing.

Heddinger, 46, said he has lost his eyesight and part of his memory after accepting what he now says was a spiked drink from Bears fans as a supposed peace offering after an altercation at a downtown bar following the Bears' victory over the Steelers at Soldier Field on Sept. 20.

If proved, this will no doubt go down in history as one of the most heinous acts of unruly fan behavior ever, though I'm betting that even as I write this, there is a guy sitting on a barstool somewhere in Chicago claiming that the same thing happened to him and worse when he was in a Pittsburgh bar "a coupla years ago."

I have no way of knowing exactly what happened in the Steelers fan incident. I am confident heavy alcohol consumption was involved, which if not explains it, then frames it in a way with which we are unfortunately familiar.

Obviously, no one deserves to be maimed because of their team persuasion. But have we come to a point that fans must be held at least partly responsible for what happens to them in so-called enemy territory? And how far does it go? Is it OK to wear your Bears jersey while sitting in Cleveland's Dawg Pound? Of course. This is America, remember (see: second paragraph). But is it smart?

My brother Barry, a longtime Bears season-ticket holder, goes by bus to a Bears road game about once a year with a fan group. The bus ride is supposed to be part of the fun. But aside from this, I trust his judgment and his opinion. "There's a certain etiquette involved in going to opposing stadiums," he said. "You're a guest. If you don't annoy people, you can certainly enjoying watching your team play and not add to the tension. You don't behave as if you're in Soldier Field. It's just rude.

"That's what I've done anyway, and I haven't been punched out or poisoned yet."

Of course, there is a happy medium, something between mooning opposing fans and my brother's Miss Manners routine.

Jim Lannon, a Bears season-ticket holder and attorney from LaSalle who organizes one of these Bears fan groups, exercises the push-it-as-far-as-you-can-within-the-boundaries-of-good-taste approach, and finds this tact to have been largely successful for the 30 years he has spent traveling to one or two road games a year.

"I have a Bears hat and a Bears sweater that's probably 35 years old that I wear, and I always get compliments on it," Lannon said. "And when we go to restaurants the night before, sometimes really nice places, we always sing the Bears' fight song and people find that very amusing. Most don't have a fight song the way the Bears do. We don't hide at all, and I've found fans to be very welcoming."

When it comes to screaming for the Bears, the volume, Lannon said, "depends on how much I've had to drink. Of course, I would think it would be inappropriate to rub their noses in it. I think you have to be smart."

Obviously, there have been very few nose-rubbing opportunities of late, but that's another column for another day.

Lannon's friend, Jim Wimbiscus, a retired Circuit judge, told the story of attending a game two years ago in Detroit -- a Bears loss -- after which Lions fans chanted at Jim's group, all wearing Bears gear: "Bears suck, Bears suck."

"So someone in our group said, 'At least we get to go back to Chicago. You have to stay in this [blank]hole,' " Wimbiscus recalled.

Wimbiscus thought the Lions fans were kind of hostile, and far be it from me to argue with a judge, retired or otherwise, but I would interpret the Bears fan's response as the sort of behavior that could result in visiting fans seeking medical attention and would not fall under the category of good judgment.

At the United Center, one security guard said drunken behavior has been greatly reduced at Blackhawks and Bulls games the past few years.

"Fans aren't getting smarter," he said. "The price of liquor is getting too expensive. The average guy who got into fights before was in his early 20s. Those guys don't have enough money to get drunk now."

Alcohol-fueled or otherwise, I'd still like to believe that the Steelers fan incident was an isolated example of a sociopath at work, and that fans can still enjoy a sporting event in an opposing city without being in fear of their safety.

Look no further than my brother, who has been largely unscathed if you don't count his experience in Cincinnati four weeks ago, "an absolute nightmare" in his words.

"First of all," he recounted, his voice still trembling at the memory, "the Bears didn't actually go to that game but sent stunt doubles impersonating NFL players. There were probably 10,000 Bears fans, but by the second quarter, there were closer to 400, most of us melting into a puddle of humiliation under our seats.

"The Cincinnati fans were pretty rude, but we had no rejoinder. We were what the team was."

Nothing more hideous than that.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.