It started with the “DizzyBat” incident back in Week 1 in September. A Buffalo Bills fan took a long swig from a beer funnel, spun around repeatedly with the funnel held to his forehead and then took a futile swing at a beer can before crashing head-first into a parked bus.
The next week, before the New England game, a tailgating fan took a chug, and then launched his body at a dummy dressed in a Tom Brady jersey. The fan landed flat on his back.
Then this past Sunday, a new standard for self-destructive behavior was set, when a Bills fan set himself on fire by jumping onto a burning table in a parking lot.
These scenes, plus countless body slams onto folding tables, slap fights, public urination and sexual displays have played out in the private and public parking lots outside Ralph Wilson Stadium this past season.
Much of it, of course, was recorded on video for the whole world to see.
The Bills didn’t make the playoffs this season, but a few of their tailgating fans seem to have set the standard for outrageous behavior captured – and spread virally – across the social media world.
You might describe it as the Drunk Olympics.
Or a bad Three Stooges festival.
Unfortunately for the reputation of Bills fans, this fairly new sport of videotaping outrageous tailgating acts has gotten more competitive with each game.
And much of the mainstream media has picked up on these social-media lowlights. For example, the fan who set himself on fire before being doused with beer and other videos of fan misbehavior have been seen on Deadspin, YouTube and BuzzFeed. They also also are on the websites of the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, USA Today, Fox Sports and the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom.
That means hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, have seen the videos.
“I think it’s embarrassing for the community,” Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said. “It sends a bad message about all Bills fans. People across the country see this and think all Bills fans are drunken hooligans.
“We’re better than this,” the county executive added.
Not indicative of fan behavior
The question remains: Does this behavior say anything about the majority of Bills game-day fans, or is it just a few dozen people, out of tens of thousands, who play to the cameras?
“It doesn’t put Bills fans in a good light, but it is not – I repeat, not – indicative of Buffalo sports fans,” said Del Reid, co-founder of a fans’ group called Buffalo FAMbase.
“I’ve been going to games for years and years, and I’ve never seen the debauchery that I’ve seen on display through social media this year,” Reid added. “But I really think it’s out of context. If you walk through a tailgate [area] or a private lot, you never see this kind of thing. I really do think it’s a small segment of fans, mostly younger fans, doing anything they can to get their 15 minutes of fame on a national website.”
Ken Johnson of Rochester has been to the last 357 regular-season and playoff Bills’ games, home and away since 1994. He agrees with Reid.
“I think these are isolated incidents that have gone viral,” Johnson said. “I do believe there’s a lot of copy-cat behavior that is happening in Buffalo because it’s gone viral. It’s become the rage among some younger folks.”
Deadspin, and then some other websites, have captured enough of these brief incidents that it’s become “a national thing, to see something outrageous in Buffalo,” he said. That means some fans are trying to become the subjects of such videos, while others capture the events on their phones.
Diehard Bills fan activists don’t think these videos are indicative of fan behavior at the games. But no one is portraying the fans here as choir boys and girls.
Johnson should know. He’s been everywhere the Bills have played in the last 22 seasons.
“Generally, in the Northeast, your Steelers, your Jets, Cleveland, basically the cold-weather cities, it is a more rowdy crowd, with more drinking,” he said. “As soon as you get out of the Northeast, with the exception of Oakland, it’s a more mellow crowd.”
At least Buffalo is not the only fan base with a reputation.
The Bills, their security force, Erie County sheriff’s officials and Orchard Park police say they work closely together, and they claim that fan behavior inside and outside Ralph Wilson Stadium has improved in the last few years.
And they say they have the numbers to prove it, with both game-day arrests and ejections going down each of the last few years. Vigilance from deputies, police and security officers has gone up over that time period.
“When you have less ejections and less arrests, I think that shows that fan behavior is improving inside the stadium and in the parking lots,” Erie County Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman said.
That’s why authorities seem frustrated that these tailgating videos have provided a false nationwide impression about fan behavior here.
“This is certainly not indicative of Bills fan behavior,” Andy Major, the team’s vice president of operations and guest experience, said before referring to the culprits. “This kind of person is not the type of person we want at our games.”
Wipperman, the undersheriff, has seen the videos, and he, like the others, finds the behavior disturbing.
“It’s a problem that’s going to have to be addressed next year,” he said. “We’ll sit down with the Bills and the Orchard Park police, and we’ll come up with a game plan.”
Sheriff’s personnel already have researched the behavior, by going on Google Earth and other sites to determine where these videos are being made. The locations of grass parking lots, utility wires and views of the stadium in the background have helped authorities determine that most of these videos are being shot in private, satellite lots, not the Bills stadium lots.
So one obvious remedy would be the use of more patrols in and near those private lots, Wipperman suggested.
“Just because people are in private lots doesn’t mean they can do things that are dangerous and breaking the law,” Poloncarz noted.
Officials also hope that fellow fans concerned about these incidents and their effect on Buffalo’s reputation can help. Maybe they can’t stop the incidents, but they can report them, either in person or by texting the team’s Fan Conduct Text Line.
“It’s all part of the message we have conveyed to our fans: act responsibly, and if you see something, say something,” said Scott Berchtold, Bills senior vice president of communications.
Public officials and fan advocates alike consider these incidents to be isolated behavior that gets glamorized through social media. And then repeated, with the stakes getting higher each week.
“Unfortunately,” Wipperman said, “one act happens, and then the next week a person wants to be a jerk and copy cat and one-up that person.”