Why link a football team to a criminal enterprise?

It’s surprising that tying a beloved football team to a criminal enterprise garners such support from Buffalo Bills fans. The garments advertise the wearer’s devotion to the Bills Mafia, local and national broadcasters extol the zeal of those who encourage the Bills by calling them members of the Bills Mafia.

Why? Why would thousands of law-abiding fans want to associate themselves with known criminals for murder, mayhem and corruption? Is this what the Buffalo Bills symbolize? Not in my mind, and not in the minds of many I know who, like me, find the connection appalling.

Thanks to the world of entertainment (see “The Godfather”, “The Sopranos”), it’s easy to recognize the lure of the Mafia. I give well-attended lectures on the Mafia, but only to place the criminal activity in its historical context. Yes, the mafia existed and still exists in some parts of the country, but its existence depends on breaking the law and not on winning football matches.

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It is also a derogatory label for many people of Italian descent who tire of the perception that an ethnic group that has contributed to society for decades in business, entertainment, academia and government reflects a criminal enterprise.

In my 25 years of reporting on the Mafia, I have been slandered by other Italian-Americans for informing readers of my newspaper and viewers of my television stations about the inner workings of a criminal empire that stretched from Buffalo to Canada and the bordering states. But that was news.

Look no further than the Cleveland Guardians (born Indians) and Washington Commanders (born Redskins) for professional teams that have avoided derogatory labels toward a class of Americans. My alma mater’s team, once known as the Brown Indians, rejected that label years ago.

The Buffalo football team’s mafia alignment has nothing to do with cultural awareness; it more likely deals with public perception, the perception that fans of a professional football team somehow equate with gangsters.

Me and others I know cringe when we see clothing, banners and other paraphernalia touting allegiance to the Bills Mafia. But wait, could this be the answer? Is this whole movement rooted in making money? After all, the name has been licensed, giving companies the opportunity to take advantage of this link. And it’s certainly not uncommon for sports teams to redesign their jerseys to boost sales. Take the example of the Buffalo Sabers.

So is selling a number 17 Allen jersey the same as selling clothes that associate Allen’s team with gangsters? Maybe in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Lee Coppola is the former dean of journalism at Saint-Bonaventure University.