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The Fans Strike Back: 9 Sports Protests

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In Washington, DC, Redskins fans are mailing "Fan Cards" to team headquarters and local media outlets, renouncing their fandom as a result of the actions of owner Daniel Snyder. In Cleveland, legendary fan "Dawg Pound Mike" is encouraging Browns fans to stay out of their seats for the opening kickoff of the team's Monday night game against the Ravens next week. And in Oakland, it's only a matter of time before Raiders fans think of a creative way to protest the dreadful state of the Silver and Black. Fan protests are alive and well across the NFL, but they're hardly a modern phenomenon. Take a look back at a variety of history's sports protests and then share your own additions in the comments.

1. Who Needs Tickets? The Mayor, For One

For more than a century, ticket scalpers have drawn the ire of fans hoping to attend a game for a price somewhere close to face value. In 1908, scalpers almost put a stop to the World Series. In Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era, Steven Riess writes that Chicago Mayor Fred Busse was so angry that he hadn't received tickets to the Fall Classic between the Cubs and Tigers that he threatened to dispatch police officers to prevent fans from entering Chicago's West Side Park because of alleged building code violations. A league-wide World Series policy prevented teams from selling tickets to individual games, so Cubs officials had sold the tickets to scalpers before making them available to the general public.

Busse eventually secured some tickets, but some equally annoyed Cubs fans boycotted the games in Chicago. Given that the Cubs haven't won a World Series since, some of those protesters might regret their decision.

2. The Aints

The Saints joined the NFL in 1967 and went 20 years before finishing with a winning record. The team was the laughingstock of the league, even in New Orleans.

In 1980, the Saints started the year 0-9, prompting fan Robert LeCompte to produce 5,000 paper bags for fans to wear to home games. LeCompte's bags, which provided some anonymity for Saints supporters who were too embarrassed to be associated with such a sorry team, were decorated in black and gold and labeled "Aints." The team's ugly record was listed below the eye holes, which naturally featured painted-on tears.

"It's sort of a humorous protest," LeCompte told reporters in 1980. "If anyone wants to go to the game, but doesn't want his friends to know it, he can go with the bag over his head."

According to the New York Times, Derland Moore, who played nose tackle for the Saints from 1973 to 1985, could've used one of LeCompte's paper bags when he went out in public. "We were the league's doormats," Moore once said. "When I went out and people would ask me if I played for the Saints, I would say no."

3. Giants Fans Decide They've Had Enough

The 1978 New York Giants started the season 5-3 and were within a game of the division lead when things began to fall apart, just as they always seemed to for the G-Men at the time. New York hadn't had a winning season since 1972, so it was no surprise that fans' frustrations bubbled over after the Giants slipped to 5-7 with a loss to division rival Philadelphia. Following that game, an ad appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger prompting disgruntled Giants fans to call a phone number. Those who did were invited to a meeting to decide how Giants fans could best exhibit their frustration with the team's ownership. "We wanted to do something that would truly get the Giants' ownership to take notice," Giants fan Peter Valentine recalled in a 1987 New York Times article. "Burning a ticket? Not enough. Staying away? There are a lot of no-shows late in the season when the weather is bad. What could we do that would really get attention?"

Valentine and his fellow fed-up fans chartered a plane to fly over Giants Stadium during a December game against St. Louis. The plane pulled a banner with the message, "15 Yrs. Of Lousy Football—We've Had Enough." The second part of the message was a reference to Howard Beale's famous line in Network, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore," which was released in 1977. The Giants wouldn't win another championship until the 1986-87 season.

4. Pirates Protest Falls Flat

In 2007, the Pittsburgh Pirates were in the midst of yet another losing season, their 15th in a row. A group of fans who were tired of the team's hapless performance organized a pre-game rally outside of PNC Park to protest the team's ownership. The organizers encouraged fans to attend that night's game against the Washington Nationals and to walk out in protest after the third inning. According to newspaper accounts, only a few thousand fans of the crowd of 26,959 were seen leaving their seats after the third inning and only an estimated 100 actually left the ballpark, some of them to boos from other Pirates fans. "I totally understand the fans' frustration," Pirates owner Bob Nutting said during the game. "I respect the people who are trying to make a statement." An unusual offensive outburst from the Pirates in the form of a six-run second inning may have persuaded some fans to remain in their seats.

5. The Old-Fashioned Protest: A Letter to the Editor

Ken_PhelpsIn August 1989, Yankees fan Nicholas D. DeCurtis wrote a letter to the editor of Newsday. His message? Boycott the Yankees. "Realistically, the only way that baseball can perhaps rid itself of this mean-spirited, greedy, egomaniac is if we fans boycott all future games at Yankee Stadium and send the Boss a message—loud and clear—that we are not returning until he unloads the Bronx Bombers, a once-proud and great franchise." The Boss, of course, was George Steinbrenner, longtime meddlesome owner of the Yankees. Twenty years later, the Steinbrenner family still runs baseball's proudest franchise and the Yankees have added five more World Series titles to their legacy. Now, more often than not, it's the fans of other teams who write the letters protesting New York's free-spending owners.

6. MLBFanStrike.com Strikes Out

Facing the prospects of baseball strike in 2002, less than a decade after baseball's last work stoppage, a group of fans across the county organized a National Fan Boycott on July 11, the day that the league resumed play after the All-Star Break. Web sites, including mlbfanstrike.com, were launched to promote the boycott, which urged fans to refrain from going to games, watching games, and purchasing MLB merchandise. "It's time for the fans to take back the game," Don Wadewitz, one of the organizers, told reporters. "If baseball stops again, a lot of fans aren't coming back this time. We are fed up." The protest was perhaps the most organized in the history of baseball, thanks to the advent of the Internet, but the boycott didn't exactly go as planned. As one reporter wrote in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, ""¦attendance around the majors was affected. It jumped by 2,000 per game. So much for replacing 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' with The Funeral March."

7. Europeans Show Us How It's Done

Some of the most effective sports protests take place across the pond among fans of European soccer teams. Recently, fans of the Halesowen Town FC promised to stay away from home matches until Morrell Maison and Kelly Gentles relinquished control of the team. It's one thing to boycott a dreadful team and quite another to boycott a winner. Halesowen fans continued the boycott despite the club's strong start to the season, helping put the club in a debt of more than 400,000 pounds. "People are still adamant they won't support the club until Maison is gone," said Gary Willets, one of the leaders of the boycott. "It's a shame because we're doing well and it would be nice to watch the team. But everyone is looking at the big picture right now." The boycott was lifted in October after two groups made bids to purchase the club.

8. Eagles Fans Are Good at Booing, Not Boycotting

Sometimes a team has to be torn down before it can be good again. That's what Philadelphia football fan Frank Sheppard thought of the hometown Eagles in 1968. "The really loyal fans of the Eagles do hope for a bad day," said Sheppard, who helped organize a fan boycott for a home game against New Orleans after the Eagles started the season 1-11. Sheppard and other fans had grown so frustrated with team owner Jerry Wolman and coach-general manager Joe Kuharich that they took out ads in the local newspapers calling for their dismissal. "To hope for a loss is the best thing an Eagles' fan could do," Sheppard said before the game against the Saints. The boycott was a flop—57, 128 fans showed up—and the Eagles won, taking them out of the running to finish with the league's worst record and the right to the No. 1 draft pick, which Buffalo would use to select O.J. Simpson.

9. Mercury Rising in Support of Brandy Reed

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Without fail, when All-Star teams are announced, fans, coaches, and sportswriters will clamor that someone was snubbed. In the case of the 2000 WNBA season, that someone was Phoenix Mercury center Brandy Reed. Mercury fans threatened to boycott the All-Star Game, which was being held in Phoenix, while Phoenix head coach Cheryl Miller grabbed a microphone following the final game before the All-Star break to encourage fans to go to the All-Star Game wearing black shirts in protest. WNBA president Val Ackerman stepped in and added Reed, who was sixth in the league in scoring, to the West's roster. Crisis averted. If only it worked that way in baseball.

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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History
Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

Courtesy of Dave Drason Burzynski

If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

Photo (C) by Brian Bukantis, www.wrestleprints.com

According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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