The fans of the American football team Oakland Raiders are among the most notorious fan groups in sports, with a reputation for being rowdy outlaws and brawlers. Known as “Raider Nation”, they show up on game day with their faces painted with skulls and dressed all in black like dystopian pirates, zombies and barbarians. Rooted in a city that struggles with unemployment, high crime rates and a troubled public school system, “Raider Nation” is described as the embodiment of the working class community that represents Oakland. But, in 2019 the Oakland Raiders will be leaving Oakland. This March, owner Mark Davis decided to relocate the team to Las Vegas, changing the team name to the Las Vegas Raiders. Looking anthropologically at the way the fans in Oakland have reacted to the relocation announcement can help us explore some perspectives about how humans understand themselves as belonging to a community.
Two days before Mark Davis officially announced the relocation, Oakland Raiders fans rallied at the Raiders’ stadium, Oakland Coliseum. The Coliseum has played a central role in the story of the relocation, since the official statement from Davis explaining why the Raiders would move to Las Vegas mentioned the long-lasting struggle for public funding from the city of Oakland to build a new stadium. The city of Las Vegas, on the other hand, offered Davis 750 million dollars in public funding to build a new stadium in Nevada. “Raider Nation” fans reacted with fury and sorrow over the relocation, crying in public, and calling it a destruction of an entire city and community. Loyal Oakland residents accused fans that declared they would follow the Raiders to Las Vegas of being “fake fans”. However, some fans were excited about the chance for a fresh start in the gambling capital. Indeed, team captain Derek Carr said that only “true” Raiders fans would follow them to Las Vegas.
Therefore, the relocation announcement turned into a public dispute between fans about who can be considered a real and loyal Raiders fan, and how the city of Oakland represented such loyalty. The social theorist Benedict Anderson developed an influential analytical idea called `imagined communities´ that describes the way that people come to consider themselves as a part of a community. For Anderson, a nation is a large community and that community is imagined, since every citizen in a nation cannot know each other personally and will never be able to meet all of his or her fellow citizens in real life. Anderson does not mean that nations or communities should be considered fake, but rather asserts that humans come to understand each other as being part of a mutual community through shared stories and histories that do not require physical interaction. Because a person living in the north of Denmark shares the same books, newspapers, and TV programs and engages in politics and customs as a person in the south of Denmark, they can begin to imagine themselves as being part of the same community.
Using Anderson’s theory of “imagined communities” can help us to understand Oakland Raiders fans and how they resemble a nation. Even though “Raider Nation” is strongly associated with Oakland, it is an international community with fan bases in Mexico, South East Asia and Europe. Just like citizens of a nation, “Raider Nation” fans draw on shared stories and symbols – such as flags, outfits, and myths about being hard-working underdogs – which help to define who belongs to the community. For “Raider Nation”, these stories are rooted in years of watching the same games, reading the same team news and debating over the team’s performance and players. Like a nation, they also engage in wars over differences. For example, “Raider Nation” has a long-lasting dispute with the fans of a rival team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, about who is the roughest fan base in American football.
However, what becomes interesting in the case of “Raider Nation” is the way the relocation of the team has become a struggle between fans about the role of the city of Oakland and Oakland as the “real home” of the Raiders. Based on her research among villagers on one of the famous Andalusian pilgrimage routes, anthropologist Mary Crain found that the invention of nostalgic traditions played a central role in the way that villagers dealt with the global popularity and influx of tourists after the Spanish state invested money in promoting the route. By reinventing nostalgic traditions, such as the importance of knowing about specific local religious objects on the route, the villagers came to distinguish their experience of the pilgrimage as different from that of the tourists and therefore created a specific form of local community.
Like the Andalusian villagers, Raiders fans with strong ties to Oakland are also trying to distinguish themselves from the fans that don’t have a problem with the relocation, by accusing them of being “fake fans” and by refusing to keep supporting the Raiders after they move. But the so-called “fake fans” do the same, claiming that true Raiders fans don’t care where they play and then referring back to their loyalty in 1982, when the team was temporarily relocated to Los Angeles. Both are therefore using nostalgia and stories about the past in order to invoke questions about the meaning of loyalty. Looking at the relocation of the Oakland Raiders and the struggle over which group represents “true fans” therefore helps us to understand the way humans experience their communities and homes.
Benedict, Anderson (1987) Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso Books.
Crain, Mary. M. (1997) Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. Eds. Ferguson, James., Gupta, Akhil. Culture.
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