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Rioting: The new campus craze

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BOSTON, Massachusetts (Reuters) -- Have a few beers. Watch the big game. Get loaded. Go out and burn stuff.

That, in a nutshell, is the latest craze sweeping American colleges, and one that has campus administrators and police scrambling for solutions.

From Maryland to Minnesota to Ohio to Massachusetts, students have caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage in booze-fueled riots following major sporting events.

One recent rampage broke out in Boston when the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Hundreds of college students took to city streets after the thrilling victory and set fires, broke windows and overturned cars. One person was killed.

Some experts think rioting is just the latest wacky behavior to spread through the higher education circuit.

In the late 1930s, for example, an American college freshman ate a live goldfish for fun. Within weeks, campus copycats across the nation were swallowing dozens of the little fish in a bid to outdo one another.

Later, it was fashionable among college students to cram themselves into phone booths. And in the 1970s, the fad was streaking: running naked through campus.

And just as goldfish-eating or squeezing into tight spaces was done in a spirit of good, clean fun, today's rioters say "fun" is a big motivation for them, too.

Lost in the crowd

Experts believe the small core of college students who riot for fun do so because being part of a mob both empowers them and gives them anonymity -- a theory supported by at least one first-hand account.

"Rich" -- not his real name -- is an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Massachusetts who was among several students arrested in October during a riot that broke out when the Boston Red Sox lost to the New York Yankees for Major League Baseball's American League championship.

"I just wanted to have some fun," Rich said when asked to explain why he chose to participate. "Alcohol was definitely a factor in causing me to get arrested. I was just being a complete idiot, basically."

Rich and his roommate had been drinking beer with friends in their dormitory, and when the Red Sox-Yankees game ended they decided to go to an open area on campus that had been the scene of previous post-game rowdiness.

But unlike the many fans who showed up, Rich and his roommate came prepared: they brought eggs and toilet paper to throw from the safety of the crowd.

"I was 40 feet deep in the crowd and I thought 'How the hell is anyone going to stop me?"' Rich said. "But within three seconds of the egg leaving my hand, I got arrested by a cop who was in the crowd."

Now, Rich is paying the price. He has been ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and is on academic probation. "The school is tired of this behavior and they're punishing us to send a message," he said. "If I screw up again, I'll probably get kicked out of school."

Young, white males

Jerry M. Lewis, professor emeritus at Kent State University and a sociologist specializing in fan violence, said the recent riot in Boston bore most of the hallmarks of the newest college fad. Lewis has found that generally today's rioters are usually young, white males -- and that they are more likely to riot when their team wins, not when it loses.

"A small portion of young, white males is choosing to express their fandom in violent ways," he said, noting that the violence usually lasts a matter of hours.

That stands in stark contrast to American riots of years past that usually lasted several days and typically concerned politics or social justice.

These days, college student-rioters usually have enough alcohol in their systems to overcome their inhibitions, but not so much that they are falling-down drunk, Lewis said.

Moreover, the violence is usually an expression of a feat of skill, he said. So where a basketball player might score a three-pointer to win a championship or a defensive squad might keep the opposing team from scoring, the rioters hurl bottles or band together to flip cars.

And unlike in Europe or South America, where fan-related violence tends to revolve around one sport -- soccer -- the new brand of American rioting is pluralistic: campuses have witnessed violence following baseball, football, hockey, and even women's basketball matches.

Hundreds of people rioted near the University of Minnesota last year after the men's hockey team captured the national championship, and a riot struck the University of Maryland in 2002 when that school's men's basketball team won the national title.

Lewis believes the way to stop the college rioting is to enlist the help of peers -- preferably women -- to drive home the point that such behavior is not socially acceptable.

Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University, thinks the solution is far easier.

"One thing we know about crowd behavior is that it thrives on anonymity," he said. "The only way to reduce rioting is to make sure students know absolutely they'll be caught."

With that in mind, Levin said universities and cities should install lots of video surveillance cameras at gathering areas and make sure students know they're being watched.

"It doesn't matter how many cameras there are, but you have to let the students know they're there," he said.

"Hopefully one day we can get the students to go back to eating goldfish," Levin quipped. "It was a lot safer for all of us."

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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