A Brief History
On January 11, 532, the seeds of a riot broke out in the capital of the Byzantine Empire (spawn of the Eastern Roman Empire), Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) over competing support of chariot racing teams. Not your typical few hours of drunken revelry, the Nika Riots went on for a week and resulted in half the city being burned down! While we consider a modern sports related riot that results in a fatality to be a tragedy, the Nika Riots resulted in an estimated 30,000 rioters killed, making it the worst sports related riot in history. Today we list 5 Famous Sports Riots, and as always, feel free to add any such events you believe belong on this list. (No significance to the order listed and please note we are not saying these events were the “most famous,” just “famous” riots we think you will find interesting while limiting one riot per sport. And yes, we know there have been football and hockey riots, too. Maybe next time!)
Questions for Students (and others): Have you heard of the Nika Riots? Have you ever personally witnessed a sports related riot? Have you ever felt the urge to riot over the joy of a victory or the bitterness over a defeat of your favorite sports team?
1. Nika Riots, 532.
Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, having gotten its name from the Emperor Constantine after having originally been called Byzantium. As the heirs to the Roman legacy, the Byzantines were fond of sporting events, and chariot races were a big part of the sporting entertainment of the time. Competing associations were called “demes,” each being 1 of 4 groups of teams given color coded names (Reds, Blues, Greens and Whites). The Blues and the Greens were by far the predominant demes by 532, and the Emperor, Justinian I, was a supporter of the Blues. Support of either the Greens or the Blues also indicated a citizen’s political alignment and went so far as to also have street gangs aligned by which deme they supported. This support was often underscored by violence, and some of the members of both demes were accused of involvement in murders in 531, resulting in prosecution and sentences of death by hanging. Rioting after hotly contested chariot races was not uncommon, similar in nature to “soccer hooliganism” (known everywhere but the US as “football hooliganism) in Europe and South America. In 532, 2 of the surviving convicted murderers had escaped custody, one each from the Green and Blue demes, resulting in anger from both sides. While the escaped condemned men both took refuge in a church, a violent minded mob surrounded the church and the riot began. Aggravating the situation was the unhappiness over taxes Justinian I had levied on his people and the negotiations taking place with the Persian Empire and the settling of the Iberian War. Justinian declared chariot races be held on January 13 in an attempt to deflect attention from the escaped convicts, but during the long day of racing partisan chanting changed to a unified chant of “Nika” against the Emperor and the large crowd became enraged at government policies and began a riot resembling a revolt. As the riots went on for days and thousands were killed, a Green supporter was nominated as the man to replace Justinian I as Emperor. Justinian I sent an emissary (a eunuch) to the Blue section with a bag of gold coins to remind the Blues that their Pretender to the Throne was in fact a Green, and that Justinian I was a Blue just like them. The coins were distributed, and the blues removed their support of the coup resulting in Justinian I able to reassert control over Constantinople, but only after extensive death and destruction. The Green would be emperor, Hypatius, was executed along with the senators that had supported him.
2. 10 Cent Beer Night Riot, 1974.
On a beautiful June night in Cleveland in 1974, over 25,000 fans came out to the ballpark to watch the Indians play the Texas Rangers in a major league baseball game.. While there, they enjoyed 10 cent beer. Stadium management wisely (that is a joke… we are kidding) limited fans to only 6 beers per trip to the vendor. How could that go wrong? (note the sarcasm…) It seems management did not think people might make more than one trip, and, of course, that is exactly what fans did. A previous 5 cent beer night went off without a problem and the beer served at the Stadium was of the 3.2% alcohol variety, factors that lulled authorities into confidence that no problems would develop. What event planners did not consider was that the two teams had been involved in a brawl at the Rangers’ home field less than a week prior to 10 Cent Beer Night . So, when the Rangers took a 5-1 lead, the crowd began to get rowdy. A woman ran onto the field and flashed her breasts; a naked man ran out to second base; and, in good family-event fashion, a father and son ran onto the field and mooned the crowd. Contested plays, a player being spiked, and a pitcher hit by a line drive riled up the inebriated crowd which began throwing things onto the field and throwing firecrackers at the Rangers’ dugout. When a fan ran onto the field to steal a Rangers’ ball cap, the Rangers thought they were being attacked and responded onto the field with bats. The game was called by the umpires, but a riot quickly ensued, resulting in 9 arrests and an unknown number of injuries. American League President Lee MacPhail (let’s call him “Capt. Obvious”) said he thought beer had something to do with the riot! This infamous incident resulted in modifications as to how future beer related events were to be held, limiting how many beers each spectator could buy and ending beer sales in the 7th inning.
3. Football War, 1969.
What Americans call “soccer” is of course known as “football” in the rest of the world, and the rest of the world takes this particular sport more seriously than any other sport. Rioting that started at a 1970 FIFA World Cup qualifier match being held in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, between teams from Honduras and neighboring El Salvador. The 2 countries had been experiencing tensions over recent immigration trends from the more populous El Salvador to the larger but less populous country of Honduras. Salvadoran immigrants were said to be beaten, robbed, and generally abused in Honduras. Also, social differences between the 2 countries (economic class differences) aggravated tensions. When rioting broke out during the soccer game, relations between the 2 countries exploded into armed conflict, culminating in a war that lasted from July 14th to July 18th of 1969 before the OAS (Organization of American States) could broker a peace. About 900 Salvadorans were killed and wounded as were about 2100 Hondurans. Though it would be unfair to say the war was caused by the soccer game, the soccer riot was at least the excuse for the onset of hostilities. (Other soccer/football riots are so numerous as to make picking just one hard to do!)
4. Riddick Bowe vs. Andrew Golota, 1996.
Riddick Bowe was a former Heavyweight boxing champion when he fought a match against up and coming Polish fighter Andrew Golota at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on July 11, 1996. While Golota pounded Bowe, the “Powerful Pole” repeatedly hit Bowe below the belt, a foul in the “sweet science” sport of boxing. The referee duly noted the fouls and warned Golota against repeating the offensw in the second round, and gave another and final warning during the third round. When in the fourth round Golota continued to punch below the belt, Referee Wayne Kelly deducted a point from Golota, but the fight continued into a fifth and sixth round, both dominated by Golota. Kelly took another point from Golota for yet another low blow during the sixth round, and warned Golota that one more low blow would result in disqualification. In the seventh round Golota once again committed a groin shot, and Kelly stopped the fight and declared Bowe the winner by disqualification. Bowe’s team entered the ring and attacked Golota, one of the men beating the Polish fighter on the head with a walkie talkie, splitting the fighter’s scalp. Of course Golota fought back, and fight fans rushed the ring to participate in the brawl. Ringside observer and former Heavyweight champion George Foreman tried to calm the crowd and keep people out of the ring, to no avail. Before order could be restored, 9 pepole had to be hospitalized along with 8 injured police officers and lacerated Golota. Only 10 arrests were made, and an unknown number of people suffered less serious injuries. An epilog to this tale of violence within a ring of violence is that a rematch between the 2 boxers was scheduled only 3 months later. In that bout, Golota again pummeled Bowe, but again was disqualified for throwing low blows! That second pummeling by Golota forced Bowe into retirement at the age of only29, while Golota went on to get knocked out by Lennox Lewis in the first round of a Heavyweight Championship fight in 1997, his career lasting until 2013 after twice having won a variety of the Heavyweight title.
5. Detroit Pistons Riot, 1990.
For some reason in the United States sports fans sometimes riot when their teams win, the celebrations getting out of control and turning into widespread property damage and violence. This time it was the Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball Association winning the NBA Championship that spurred rioting in Detroit that ultimately claimed 8 lives. Of those killed, one was shot to death, one fell off a roof, and the other 6 were all killed by hit-skip drivers, drivers possibly trying a desperate bid to escape the riot zone. When the Pistons defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 92–90 in Game 5 of the 1990 NBA Finals, the game was held in Oregon. Pistons fans compensated for not being present at the game by filling the home court of the Pistons, an arena known as the Palace of Auburn Hills (now closed) in order to watch the game on a large screen television. The crowd at the Palace was excited, but mostly well behaved and only 1 arrest had occurred there. It was outside in the streets that the problems began, with deliriously happy (?) Pistons fans rioting and looting beyond control. The ensuing violence included at least 2 people who were stabbed, another dozen+ who were beaten in full view of riot police, and 26 people that were shot. A total minimum of 124 people were hospitalized and 170 arrests were made, including 28 arrests in neighboring River Rouge and Roseville. Authorities were taken by surprise by the violence since the Pistons had won the NBA Championship in 1989 with little violence to speak of occurring afterwards. In 1992, after the Chicago Bulls defeated the same Portland Trailblazers for the NBA Championship, rioting in Chicago resulted in 1000 arrests, 95 injured police officers, 200 injured civilians, 61 destroyed police cars, and 347 stores looted in Chicago, although nobody was killed.
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For more information, please see…
Storm, Matthew J. From Africanus: The Roman Empire, the Nika Riots and the Approaching Darkness. Amazon Digital Services, 2015.
Williams, Ronald. How To Survive A Riot: The Definitive Step-By-Step Beginner’s Guide On How To Escape An Angry Mob Of Looters And Rioting Protesters During Civil Unrest. Amazon Digital Services, 2017.
The featured image in this article by J. B. Bury (1861–1927), to illustrate the Nika Riot, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.