Philadelphia may be the city of brotherly love, but that affection is lavished only on those willing to root for the local teams. When it comes to sports, Philadelphia fans do not put much value on diversity of opinion, and cheering for the visiting side tends not to bring forth brotherly love but something altogether different usually something cold and sudsy.
That is especially true when the Eagles, the American football team, are playing. They stir hometown passions like no other franchise in the National Football League, and their fans are in a particularly agitated state these days, having seen the team reach the semi-finals three years running, only to fall short of a Super Bowl berth each time.
During the off-season, the Eagles made several big acquisitions, notably the troublesome but supremely gifted wide receiver Terrell Owens, and they are once again considered favourites to reach the Super Bowl. They have made an auspicious start to the 2004-2005 campaign, winning their first three games. But at this point, nothing less than a trip to the Super Bowl will satisfy the Philadelphia faithful, and the city police might want to have riot gear at the ready in case the fourth time proves no more charming for the Eagles than the previous three.
How ugly can things get? After yet another beer-soaked brawl erupted in the stands during an Eagles game in 1997, the city felt compelled to open a jail at the stadium, replete with a courtroom and judge. Two years later, spectators broke into lusty cheers when Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys spent 20 minutes motionless on the pitch after suffering a neck injury that ultimately ended his career; when the ambulance came on to the field, the cheers turned even more enthusiastic. The fans at least had the decency not to pelt Irvin with beer bottles, the treatment often accorded opposing players.
Tough audience? Eagles fans will never live down the infamous Santa Claus incident. At half-time during a game in 1968, a man dressed as dear old Saint Nick took the field and was greeted with a barrage of snowballs; he scurried around the field trying to avoid the blitzkrieg and eventually had to be rescued by officials. Amazingly, two local talk-show hosts published a book last year, The Great Philadelphia Fan Book, in which they excused the snowball assault as a natural reaction to a 2-12 season. More amazing still, they tracked down the unfortunate Santa Claus and he, too, sought to justify the crowd's behaviour: “I'm a Philadelphia fan, I knew what was what. I thought it was funny.”
The drunkenness, the violence, the nihilism: the Eagles should really be an English football team, not an American one.
In time, some sociologist will doubtless open an inquiry into the Philadelphia state of mind and the toxic effect that professional sports seem to have on the locals. It is a topic that merits exploration. After all, Philadelphia is not a forlorn rustbelt city where the Sunday choice is between a trip to church, a trip to the stadium or a trip to the mall; it is an east coast metropolis with a world-class arts and intellectual scene and a surfeit of pleasant diversions. (Of course, you might not know that by reading the local papers, which habitually put the Eagles on the front page during the football season).
It is true that Philadelphia diehards have had their patience tested over the past two decades. The Eagles last played in the Super Bowl in 1981; the baseball Phillies last won the World Series in 1980; the basketball 76ers have not won an NBA crown since 1983; and it has been 30 years since the Flyers last won ice hockey's Stanley Cup. The incidence of self-inflicted baldness in the greater Philadelphia area has undoubtedly soared in the last 25 years. On the other hand, millions of sports nuts the world over lead lives of audible desperation; why do so many Philadelphians become psychopathic about it?
I will leave that to our sociologist. In the meantime, much that ails the average Philadelphia fan could be cured by an Eagles trip to the Super Bowl. Last year should have been the year, but the Eagles turned in a pathetically lacklustre performance in the semi-finals and were beaten by the visiting Carolina Panthers 14-3. At this point, reaching the Super Bowl is probably as much a mental hurdle for the team as anything else. Perhaps the knowledge that their rabid fans may just turn on them should they falter again will help the Eagles get over the hump this time around.