American Football: Oakland riots highlight ugly side of US sport

In the latest outbreak of sports violence in the United States, riot police in Oakland used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of angry fans rampaging through parts of the Californian city after their team lost Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego on Sunday night.

In the latest outbreak of sports violence in the United States, riot police in Oakland used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of angry fans rampaging through parts of the Californian city after their team lost Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego on Sunday night.

The rioting fans left several streets strewn with burnt-out cars and smashed glass. One McDonald's restaurant was looted and set on fire. Three firefighters suffered injuries while at least 23 people were arrested, in most cases on charges of public drunkenness. When the trouble broke out, huge squads of officers marched through the streets and authorities closed off some areas of the city.

At one level, the fans' fury is explained by the comprehensive 48-21 defeat of the heavily fancied Oakland Raiders by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one of the largest losing margins in the history of the National Football League's showcase game. There was also bad blood between the two teams, heightened by the defection of Raiders' coach Jon Gruden to the Buccaneers ­ who seems to have used his knowledge of his former team to devastating effect.

But it is part of a trend about which the US has largely been in self-denial as it tut-tuts disapprovingly of the violence, primarily by soccer fans, in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Once upon time, at least according to myth, excesses by fans here were mere high jinks, most often a joyful response to victory rather than an explosion of rage upon defeat. Chicago Cubs fans fondly tell the tale of two of their number who ecstatically set fire to their car in St Louis after a baseball victory over their arch rivals, the St Louis Cardinals, thus depriving themselves of their transport home.

In general, however, the sheer size of the United States ruled out large contingents of visiting supporters. That is now changing. College football this season has been marred by several incidents. After one big game, Ohio State's victory over Michigan, 30 fires were set, while, after another game, one college athletics chief said she had feared for her life.

Even baseball, the supposedly gentle summer pastime, has witnessed ugly incidents. Last September a father and son ran on to the field at the Chicago White Sox's Comiskey Park to attack one of the base coaches of the visiting Kansas City Royals. Such episodes are replayed again and again on national television ­ which critics say only creates a copycat urge for other unruly fans.

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