Fan Gone Too Far; the Trees of Auburn and Sports Fueled Violence

By Vincent Imhoff

Vincent Imhoff is a writer and Los Angeles criminal lawyer who acts as a managing partner at Imhoff & Associates, P.C. He earned his law degree at Chicago-Kent College and his undergraduate degree at Lewis University. When he isn't writing or practicing, Vincent finds time to ski on his favorite slopes and get some jogging in.

The world of sports and team based recreational activities are ones that are inherently tied to the realm of physical interaction.   As athletes run up and down courts, fields and diamonds, collisions, bumps and tackles are inevitable.  But it is these exact interactions that we have come to expect form sports.  They sit on the athlete's side and the fans are merely spectators of such an event.  However, in recent years that all has begun to change.  Fueled by an upset, a bad call and in some cases alcohol, an overzealous fan can depart from the role of spectator and with enough displaced aggression and anger, into the role of a criminal.

From the hate-fueled beating of Bryan Stow at Dodger stadium to the recent trial for the poisoning of the famous Auburn tree that fans of Auburn University would congregate around after a game, both the spectrum and frequency of fan related violence and crime has begun to be an all too frequent news headline.  Assigning a reason for this upswing in behavior is not always as easy as spotting the culprit (many of which have had their criminal trysts captured on film).

While sports related crime and violence are often attributed to circumstances surrounding that event i.e. a team's performance, amount of alcohol consumed or a bad call, the culprit for this behavior often goes much deeper than these immediate conditions.  To more clearly understand this occurrence you need to take a step back and look at how as a society we look at sports through the frame of identification, alcohol consumption and many other factors.

Fan Gone Too Far; the Trees of Auburn and Sports Fueled Violence
Apr 23, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA: Tree removal crews position themselves to remove the historic oak trees at Toomer's Corner in Auburn. The trees had to be removed after an Alabama fan poisoned the trees. Photo Courtesy by John Reed-USA TODAY Sports.

Loss of Self Through Over-identification

Social sharing platforms like Facebook and Twitter have no quarters or over-time.  They are always on and new information and viewpoints are constantly being put out.  For a fan that is closely aligned with a team, this constant stream of news may make it difficult for them to step away from the game after the final touchdown has occurred.

Because of this lack of disengagement, fans may step into the next sporting event worked up over a comment they read from an opposing team's fan or upset over a recent Tweet from a rival team.  These actions can snowball existing feelings of loyalty and could possibly lead to an overabundance of emotion during a game.


While often the scapegoat for many of these actions, alcohol does play a significant factor in many sport related altercations.  This is also deeply rooted in the culture of tail-gaiting and "pre-gaming".  It is not at all uncommon for many fans to enter a stadium already heavily intoxicated.  Alcohol impairs judgmentand it is this impairment that can lead to a variety of incidents.  In the 2011 Dodger's Stadium altercation, alcohol was documented as being one of the main contributing factors that led to the mob of fans who brutally attacked Bryan Stow leaving him permanently disabled.

Sport Culture and Masculine Identity

The sporting world has always been one that appeals to a more masculine identity.  With fans being televised on national news in states of hyper-aggression, this masculine alignment could subconsciously manifest itself in the mind of fan and be drawn to the surface during a game when tensions are already high.  Triggers such as a bad play, a bad call or a fan from the opposing team expressing their opinions may be the catalyst that sends someone over the edge and into a potentially violent state of being.

It was through many of these factors that led Harvey Updyke to the poisoning of the tree at Auburn University.  Updyke was noted for his close, if not fanatical ties with the Alabama Crimson Tide.  Updyke was a frequent caller to local sports radio broadcasts and even phoned one show directly after the poisoning to publically announce his actions.  He was later arrested and sentenced to three years in prison.

Changing this behavior and bringing the sporting world back to a state of rivalry that doesn't result in violence or criminal acts is only going to happen when the culture of sports changes. Fights breaking out during a hockey match is normal.  A basketball player's violent shove with a racial epitaph to an opposing team member is normal. To put it in the words of Alabama State sophomore JaquanTellis,

"… [sports] rivalries are started from birth. Alabama and Auburn fans hate each other's guts. As a result, things like poisoning trees just happen... this is just a publicized incident of things that happen all the time."

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