Passed Out in Paradise

America takes drugs in psychic defense.
–Iggy Pop, “Neon Forest”

 

Doug Schneider lives in Green Bay and only rarely attends Packers games. Instead, as “watchdog reporter” for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Schneider monitors the games from some undisclosed location where he listens to the police scanner and posts what he hears on Twitter, using the hashtag #scannersquawk. Watching the Packers game and following Schneider’s tweets at the same time offers a fascinating glimpse at to what goes on inside Lambeau Field — not just on the field but in stands.

As might be predicted, the police voices that come across on #scannersquawk relay incidents of drunkenness, violence, and drunken violence within the stands. Violence among fans has been a disturbing problem in which alcohol consumption plays a major role. But scrolling through the #scannersquawk feed, it’s difficult not to notice the many fans who pass out in the stands, in the concourse, and most prominently in the bathroom, affectionately referred to as the “vomitorium.”1 

Here’s a sampling of #scannersquawk from the Packers-Dallas Cowboys game on October 16.

It’s pretty easy to laugh at all this, and laugh I do; it helps cheer me up when the game has lost my interest. But passing out at Lambeau Field is also strange behavior for Packers fans because the eight home games are events in such high demand. The waiting list for Packers season tickets contains over 81,000 names (roughly the size of Green Bay itself) and an average waiting period of 30 years, so to pass out in the vomitorium seems like an incredibly wasted opportunity.

But the drunken casualties at Lambeau Field also suggest something considerably less humorous and considerably more disturbing (as our own Noah Cohan has covered both here and here). Passing out very well may be an unconscious attempt to avoid the damaging psychological effect of watching extremely large men crash into one another over and over and over again and be helped off the field by the training staff; or placed on a flatbed cart and driven to the locker room; or have their head secured on a back board, lifted on to a stretcher, and then driven away in an ambulance, while other players gather and kneel in prayer.

Watching an NFL game on TV is a qualitatively different experience from watching it live because the network can’t intervene and cut to a commercial during an “injury timeout” in which the play of the game is suspended while the player is helped off the field with the help of the aforementioned training staff, motorized cart, or ambulance. Injury timeouts have become a formal and regular part the NFL, and their very regularity and formality leads to a desensitized and blasé attitude toward the mangled human body that can only be described as fucked up. Essentially, the league and its advertisers have just decided that since players are inevitably going to get injured as a consequence of doing their jobs (injuries occur in other sports, but they are aberrational, not a natural consequence of the game itself), why not air some commercials while the game is stopped and the player is removed from the field?  

Of course, fans don’t experience the repetitive violence firsthand that players do or suffer the consequences of playing, but, as we’re beginning to learn, second-hand trauma is a real thing, and can have drastic effects on those who witness or listen to accounts of trauma. Trauma, it turns out, is contagious. And just because such violence happens in the context of something as seemingly trivial as a sport doesn’t make it any less traumatic for those who view it. Only the most callous among us could watch football and not, on some level, be seriously affected by what we see.

Which might explain why drinking is as much a part of NFL Sundays as injuries. The fact that we consume alcohol — a depressant — for celebratory purposes has always struck me as strange behavior. Wouldn’t other drugs be better, ones that didn’t exact such a toll on our bodies? But alcohol’s social function isn’t that it depresses us, it’s what it depresses in us, how it dulls or numbs the pain of existence so that to take a break from all our worries, “sure would help a lot” as the “Cheers” theme song reminds us. At football games, the booze and beer serve a dual purpose: they allow us to forget about the anxieties and concerns of our lives, while also dulling us to the trauma we’re about to witness.

And so, the stadium itself — as well as its parking lots and surrounding bars — becomes a reflection of the violence on the field itself. As players are being carted off the field, drunken fans are being escorted out of the stadium. As players get cortisone shots and painkillers to numb their injured bodies enough so that they can play, fans medicate themselves with booze as a way of desensitizing themselves to bearing witness to violence. The analogy even goes beyond the stadium. Players always speak of the soreness that results the day after a game, how they oftentimes have difficulty getting out of bed. In their own homes, fans wake up on Monday with splitting headaches and unruly stomachs, hangovers from Sunday’s game.

So maybe it isn’t that just that alcohol provides “psychic defense” as Iggy Pop would have it. Maybe it also allows us the ultimate fan experience, a chance to be just like the athletes we look up to: injured and semi-conscious.

 


1 Popular understanding of the term suggests that the Romans had special rooms where they would go and puke after some decadent feast so that they could go eat more. But that’s actually a modern misapplication of the term, which had nothing to do with gastrointestinal upheaval. Macrobius, a fifth century Roman writer, used the term “vomitorium” to describe the way in which spectators would spew forth into and out of their seats from the tunnels at amphitheaters. Fittingly, then, Lambeau Field connects the two usages: fans spew forth from their seats so that they can go spew forth the contents of their stomachs in the restroom.

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