Fan Perspectives on Violence in Sports.
Despite its many developments in technology, business, science and economics, the United States still remains a culture mired in violence. People witness violence on television, in the movies, and on the radio. People are involved in domestic violence, criminal violence and psychological violence. One area in which violence is becoming more pronounced is in the sports arena. Reports of violence among players, between players and coaches and between fans have escalated in recent years. This phenomenon leads to an important question for social research: What are the attitudes and perspectives of fans on violence in sports?
This topic can be tackled from many different directions because many different types of fans frequent sports competitions. Fans may be school alumni, general community people, parents, serious die-hard fanatics, and students, many of whom are mere children. In order to understand their perspectives on violence in sports, several scenarios and examples must be presented. Fans can witness violence either in person or through the media and may be categorized as serious fans, parents, the legal community, and casual fans.
In a recent study of Sportscenter, a sports recap program on ESPN network, researchers found that from a total of 355 comments about sportsmanship during sporting events reviewed over 105 days, only three were of a positive nature. One hundred and sixteen of the 352 comments on bad sportsmanship concerned fighting or battery between players between players which was an average of about one incident per day of the sports covered on the program. Hockey and basketball claimed the most comments about fighting and battery during the show, equaling 54 and 43 comments of the 116, respectively. Fights during hockey games mainly concerned players fighting players, but one incident at a college hockey game involved an entire team attacking a referee. In basketball games, four of the incidents involved players head-butting or pushing referees. Sadly, the comments made by the sports commentators made light of the fight in 19 of the 54 hockey fights (Aicinena 6-13). Fans who view this program are more likely to see fighting as normal during sporting events and downplay its importance just as the sportscasters have done.
Sports violence is also observed at live events. One type of event that has become infamous for its fighting is the soccer, or football, arena worldwide. Organized, gang-like fights between soccer ‘hooligans’ are well-established at these events. For sports on a smaller scale such as school or club sports, parents and spectators can also react to violence. According to Nicholson and Hoye “the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality portrayed through some spectators’ behavior is particularly problematic in junior sports. In senior sports the win-at-all-costs mentality is typically manifest in poor player behavior (which may influence spectators), but at junior level the impact of the win-at-all costs philosophy is most apparent in the behavior of parents and coaches of junior teams and has a number of consequences” (5)
The perspectives of various fans at sporting events is basically two-fold: first, the violence that occurs within the competition and second, violence that occurs as a result of the competition. First, serious fans, known as hooligans, often attend sporting events anticipating violence. When it occurs, these individuals extend the fights into the stands by fighting between fans of the rival teams. One researcher explains this need to defend their team and players’ honor by noting that the fights, which are usually very short in duration, can extend through the stories told by the hooligans and “are important to group solidarity because, through them, a shared understanding of the significance of the past fight for the group is created. Through the discussion of past fights, a collective memory is established which promotes certain forms of practice to group members which are consistent with group interests. Group alliance is sustained by the collective memories of violence, therefore, rather than automatically by the violence itself. For hooligans, violence constitutes the compelling form of social intercourse out of which their social group arise” (King 571). In a study published in the book Football, Violence and Identity, a positive correlation was found between football/soccer fans expectation of violence on the field and the reputation of the opposing teams fans (Guilianotti, Bonney and Hepworth, 182). IN some cases, the fans actually believed that their actions helped the team to victory (99). Hooligans seem to condone this violence, then, because it gives them a sense of commonality, purpose and belonging.
Thankfully, not all individuals feel this way. Values of coaches, parents and the community determine whether or not violence in sports is encouraged. For this reason, the feelings of coaches, parents and community towards violence in sports is vital to establish. Of course there are not absolutes. Many parents have adopted what one researcher calls an outcome-based perspective to violence in sports. For example “if a hockey player can keep an opponent from scoring a goal by using extra-legal aggression, and is given only a 2-minute penalty for punishment, then the reward outweighs the punishment and the extra-legal aggression is positively rewarded” (Nicholson and Hoye 95).
Parents and coaches who adopt this view are sending the message that some violence is acceptable and encourage children to play in this manner in order to win the game. Unfortunately, younger children may not be able to differentiate types of violence in later situations. While some parents speak out against violence, they are in the minority. More often, parents encourage their young athletes to “be more aggressive” which can be interpreted to mean pushing the physicality of the sport to its limits which is what some call as “instrumental aggression” which is used as a means to and end. This stands in opposition to “hostile aggression” which is the end itself. Most parents who voice opinions tend to be in the camp of instrumental aggression, which can also be misleading to children (Chandler 105). Of course, parents who oppose violence in sports are unlikely to enroll their children in these activities in the first place.
This acceptance in youth sports may lead to even greater acceptance at the adult sports level. Punching and kicking during professional sports is so regular that people often make light of it, as Aicinena’s study shows. Recently, during a professional hockey game, one player beat another player so badly that his nose and jawbone were broken and a blood spot formed on his brain. On an individual level, some players receive civil recompense for their medical expenses while the offending players receive various lengths of suspensions. However, one way to tell how the public feels about this type of violence is through its voice to lawmakers. Do fans ever insist that profession sports clean up the violence they view?
“Legal history would say no. While many civil cases have been decided in favor of injured athletes, there never has been a successful criminal prosecution, no matter how brutal the check or the tackle or the punch thrown in anger. Three times since 1972, Congress has failed to enact a law on sports violence, suggesting that legislators believe such activity falls outside the realm of public policy” (Goff and Mitchell 1).
The legal system has also failed to react in other, high profile cases. Tony Twist illegally checked goalie Stephen McKichan into the boards during a time-out. It is always a penalty to check goalies in hockey. McKichan was unconscious and had to be hospitalized. He sued and was initially awarded $175,000 but an appeals court overturned the ruling because “severe body check is part of professional hockey” (Goff and Mitchell 2). In a well-televised event, boxer Mike Tyson bit off a piece of his opponent’s ear but never faced any charges. Likewise, fans continue to flock to these events, seemingly offering their passive consent to the violence. (Goff and Mitchell 2). It seems that the legal system and the community condone violence by its lack of pursuance of these actions in criminal court, and that fans condone the violence by continuing to buy tickets to the games.
It may be argued that fans who do not wish to see violence should not attend the games in the first place. This may already be true. Perhaps the fans that are troubled by sports violence simply stay home or turn the channel. This certainly seems to be the case with the average sports fan, particularly fans of boxing, hockey, football and basketball. The many incidents of injury, even fatalities in these sports, have not lessened the attendance or the ticket prices.
In fact the opposite has occurred. Fans endorse the sports whole-heartedly, and it is rare to hear one complain about the brutality. In fact, one fan writing an opinion blog for Forbes.com announces “The aggressive acts we see on the field are in fact a healthy expression of base emotions—and watching them not only helps us to stay in touch with our true selves; it also helps us control our own violent impulses. It’s time to reconsider violence in sports and embrace the essential humanity of watching two grown men beat each other’s brains out” (Ewalt). While his opinion may be tinged with irony, most fans echo his sentiments despite research which shows that for children the pressures associated with sports produce low self-esteem, excessive anxiety, and aggressive behavior which may continue into adulthood (Chandler, 164).
Violence in sports is a product of a society that accepts it. The perspectives of both hooligans and casual fans, parents and even the legal community show that the majority accept these actions as acceptable, necessary and even laudable despite research that shows its negative impacts. Perhaps the fans that oppose violence are simply not in attendance and therefore remaining quiet. If this trend is to stop, all fans must find their voices to oppose it.
Aicinena, S. “One hundred and two Days of Sportscenter: Messages of Poor Sportsmanship,
Violence and Immorality.” Educational Report for Educational Document Research
Service, 2000: 1-25. [published report]
Chandler, T. Sports and Physical Education: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2002
Ewalt, D. Bread and Circuses. Forbes.com. Accessed 10 November 2006 from
King, A. “Violent Pasts: Collective memory and football hooliganism. The Sociological Review,
49 (4), 2001:468-485 [peer reviewed journal]
Nicholson, M. and Russell Hoye. Contextual factors associated with poor sport spectator
behaviour. Managing Leisure 10, April 2005: 94–105 [peer reviewed article]
Goff, K.G. and John N. Mitchell. Should Courts Referee Violence in Sports? Insight on the
News 1999, March 29: 1-2 [trade newpaper]
Guilianotti, R., Bonney, N., and M. Hepworth. Football, Violence and Identity. London:
Rutledge, 1994 [book]