October 15, 2018

The Behavior of Buffalo Bills Fans: A Mini-Ethnography

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

Buffalo Bills fans have a reputation. As seen in this Deadspin video, they are known for wild antics that take place at home games. Last season, in his role as an analyst, former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher acknowledged Bills tailgaters by breaking a table during a CBS pregame show. The so-called Bills Mafia arrives several hours before kickoff for tailgate parties.

I’ve attended many Bills games in my life and have fond memories of partying with my peer group in the parking lots surrounding the stadium. We did most of our tailgate partying in our 20s, and I can recall cracking open the first beer during breakfast. Our partying consisted of drinking, eating chili (our gatherings usually occurred in winter), and playing catch with a football. I have no recollection of people jumping through tables in those days. I decided to conduct a mini ethnography to see if this reputation reflected the experiences of fans, at least in my presence.

We didn’t have social media back then, and it seems reasonable to suggest that some Bills fans have taken their partying up a notch (or many notches) knowing their shenanigans might be recorded and circulated. There has been some pushback to the notion that Bills fans are mere drunkards who destroy tables and act foolishly in other ways. Notably, the Bills fan base made news for positive reasons when they donated more than $300,000 to the Andy and Jordan Dalton Foundation.

I’ve consumed a lot of media coverage about Bills tailgaters in recent years, and it’s been unsurprising to me to see the kinds of activities that garner attention. The fans who hang out quietly before game time don’t make for a compelling story. How many clicks can you get from a story about people drinking responsibly and playing cornhole?

Although I didn’t have tickets to the Bills opening home game against the Los Angeles Chargers on September 16, I went to the stadium at 9:00 a.m. to conduct observations of the tailgating scene. What I witnessed were people standing around and chatting, drinking beers, grilling, playing catch, and generally not doing anything outlandish.

Numerous kids who were selling candy bars and other items to fundraise for their organizations approached me. People with homes nearby the stadium made money by charging $20 to park on their lawns and driveways. Corporations made their presence known. Samples of Pepsi were being served, and a Toyota truck was prominently displayed in front of the stadium. People wore their favorite gear, celebrating their Bills affiliation one way or another. I saw quite a few vehicles inspired by the Bills’s uniform colors. And, certainly, people came ready to drink. There was entertainment in front of the stadium, including a mechanical bull ride, and the atmosphere was enlivened by music courtesy of a DJ.

At a Bills game, I always see at least one person wearing an O.J. Simpson jersey. I don’t know the intention of a person wearing the jersey of a person found liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in a civil trial (as is well known, he was found not guilty in the criminal trial) and who was found guilty of kidnapping and armed robbery in 2008. Frankly, it disturbs me that anyone would wear a clothing item with Simpson’s name or face on it. Though I didn’t get a picture, I saw a young man wearing a t-shirt that had a picture of Simpson’s face and the words: “Drink apple juice, OJ will kill you.” I suppose one person’s disgust is another person’s punch line. Whatever the case, I have a feeling there will be Bills fans who choose to wear Simpson jerseys and other related clothing for a long time to come.

It was easy to notice a strong law enforcement presence, which struck me as a way to curtail the chaos. When a ban of table jumping was announced by the local sheriff’s office, I was curious how Bills fan would react, as we know that forbidden fruit is sometimes the most desirable. At least one fan found a way (skillfully, I might add) to break the policy. Sometime during the game, a fistfight occurred in traffic not far from the stadium (in the video, you can hear the radio broadcast of the game while a man wearing a Bills t-shirt trades punches with two other men).

Arrests and injuries are not uncommon on Bills game days. Tragically, a man died after being ejected from a game in 2012, apparently from drowning. It appears the Buffalo Bills organization and the law enforcement community are willing to allow fans to drink heavily in the perimeter of the stadium, while also trying to minimize the number of serious (or even fatal) injuries.

As it turned out, headlines for this game were not about Bills tailgaters. Bills fans will remember this game as rookie quarterback Josh Allen’s first start. It will also be known as the game when Vontae Davis retired at halftime, an action that earned a rebuke from teammate Lorenzo Alexander and sparked debate from writers. Gene Demby observed that players are unceremoniously dumped by their teams all the time, while Sal Capaccio criticized Davis for quitting on his teammates. One could also view it as a person making a practical decision to no longer put his body in harm’s way, especially in what looks to be a losing season. In a statement, Davis said he no longer felt capable of performing at a high physical level and felt it was time to retire after a 10-year career.

With only eight regular season home games a year, it makes sense to me that Bills fans turn them into party occasions. In a season when the Bills aren’t expected to win many games, fans can at least count on having a good time hanging out before the kick-off. From what I can tell, the majority of fans who attend home games conduct themselves in mild-mannered ways. But folks who enjoy themselves in an easygoing way aren’t likely to capture much attention.

Let’s face it, we tend to be drawn to spectacle. In my estimation, the typical Buffalo Bills fan is reserved, out of the spotlight, eager to root for their team, hoping one day they win a Super Bowl. I have to admit, I can’t begin to imagine the kind of partying that would ensue, should that day ever come.

Photos courtesy of the author


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