Two weeks ago I attended the Detroit Lions football game against the Miami Dolphins in downtown Detroit. As I sat down behind the end zone and dug into my bag of peanuts, I heard the announcer over the speakers reading some messages. These messages were really nothing out of the ordinary; go to gate 24 for this, gate 30 for that, drink responsibly, our sponsors are blah, blah, blah. It wasn’t until he said something along the lines of “we ask that you please watch your language” when I began to question the amount of authority the owners of that particular stadium had over me and how that affected my individual rights. Ok, no I didn’t, but I am now – and it’s brought me to an interesting connection to a reading we’ve very recently done.
Any venue has its rules to govern its spectators and this was true of not only Ford Field, the Lions’ home stadium, but also O Estádio do Morumbi (That’s Morumbi Stadium in Portuguese). A little less than a year ago I was able to watch a soccer match between the São Paulo and Santos Football Clubs while I was living in Brazil, and the sights I took in there instantly relate back to my experience in Ford Field. Both sports arenas had security outside checking everything we were bringing in, both had a great deal of rules we had to follow once in the stadium, and both had a huge amount of fans filling up the seats. The rules of one, however, were very clearly much more relaxed than the other. Before I get too far into my story allow me to preface it with a nod to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In his philosophical work, particularly Chapters III and IV, he discusses the authority of the government in restricting a citizen’s liberties. In the beginning he argues for a concept known as Individualism, how it’s best for the government not to interfere with the way an individual leads their life under the pretense that increased individuality is a benefit to the society as a whole. This concept is then a part of the basis for another concept of Mill’s, the Harm Principle, that suggests the only way the government is justified in restricting an individual’s liberties would be if it were to protect someone else from direct harm that would come of that individual’s actions. Simply put, if you’re going to hurt someone, they’re going to stop you. To this extent, Mill argues, the government should be allowed to meddle in our affairs, but otherwise should keep out.
Back to my story then. It’s not even half time yet, the score is 1-1, and I find myself looking more at the fans across the stadium from me than at the game itself, and for a good reason! Flares left and right, police in riot control gear, and giant waving flags. This might sound out of place for a simple soccer match but the game continued without interruption and the crowd was unphased. Surely there was a danger to our well being? How did those people even manage to sneak flares into the stadium past security? I wasn’t far off as it seems because in February of 2013 there was an important match where a flare went off and killed a 14-year old boy in the crowd. Now don’t let me scare you, South America is an amazing place in its entirety, but the customs at these particular sporting events are the polar opposite to games we would consider normal here. I think it’s hilarious to compare the scene I experienced in São Paulo to the one in Detroit, and find myself throwing a little bit of Mill into the situation to try to explain it. In Brazil you can throw burning flares around cloth banners in support of your team but in the US you ought to avoid any dirty language lest a sheltered child and overbearing parent be offended.
What would Mill say? Well I believe he would settle somewhere in the middle of these two events. On the one hand maybe the managers of Ford Field are a little too restrictive of our liberties, granted they don’t take away all of our freedoms (I was able to chow down on some peanuts knowing full well someone with a deadly peanut allergy could be near). On the other hand, requiring riot shields to contain a crowd is far from desirable. In both situations the fans are clearly having the time of their lives, as I saw with my very own eyes, but maybe the ideal sporting event would contain fewer life threatening instances yet more unrestrained cheering on of the team. To this end it seems the Harm Principle is rather apt; I won’t be in danger but I also won’t be entirely suppressed – it was these two events brought me to this conclusion.