What I recently witnessed at an NFL game in Buffalo disturbed me. The young fans there to see the Bills play the New York Jets seemed hopeless, yet searching for hope.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I often attended Bills games with my dad, an accomplished tailgater who welcomed friends to share in a joyful pregame atmosphere he helped create. We tossed footballs, listened to blaring music, and inhaled the tantalizing smell of grilled meats before devouring them.
But this year’s visit was radically different. Everywhere I looked that morning, I saw drunken youth and the crude expressions of their woozy state of mind.
“I hope you get raped!” yelled a young woman (a Bills fan) to another young lady wearing a Jets jersey. Thirty yards away, a drunken, bare-chested, obese young man stood on the back of a flatbed truck waving a giant Bills flag with one hand while downing a beer with the other. Next to him was a guy wearing a Bills jersey waving an equally large American flag. After snapping a photo of this freakish expression of parochial pride and patriotism, another young man turned around to show me the back of his T-shirt, which proclaimed that I could kiss his backside if I was incapable of urinating in red and blue. Avoiding conflict, I gave him a thumbs-up and a “Go Bills!” Satisfied, he returned to his pack of revelers.
After enjoying a few bowls of our host’s special chili, we made our way to our seats in the upper deck surrounded all the way by throngs of young people in a drunken stupor.
I spoke with a happy young couple with glazed-over eyes throughout the game, while another pleasant young couple nearby cheering for the Jets remained comfortably numb for all four quarters. A few sections away, an inebriated young man slid down the wall at the end of the upper deck and fell backward 40 feet to the lower level. His employer fired him the next day after seeing the video replay that went viral (see video clip below). Later, a disturbance broke out, and a man with the bloodiest face I’ve ever seen emerged from the crowd escorted by Bills security.
As I looked across the way to where my dad used to sit, I recalled how it used to be. Sure, there was an occasional rowdy fan, a sloppy drunk, and a docile intoxicated observer, but the stadium wasn’t filled with them.
But there was one moment that afternoon that reminded me of the old days. Before the game, military personnel unfurled a huge American flag that covered the entire field, and everyone stood to sing the national anthem respectfully, almost reverently.
Later, the Bills cheerleaders came out wearing military boots, camouflage pants, and skintight black shirts. They ended their routine doing a split while saluting the crowd. The fans went wild for this contemporary sexualized patriotic display. My mind then flashed back to those two flag-waving guys in the back of the truck. Was there a connection, a common thread? Was the excessive drinking an expression of hopelessness and a desperate search for happiness? Maybe. On the other hand, was the patriotism an expression of hope in something bigger than oneself: community and country? I think it was.
Although the NFL regular season ends soon, we’re in the middle of a season of hope when we celebrate the birth of a Child upon whose shoulders rests a government that will increase forever. This is the best hope for young and old tailgaters.