Violence in Sports

All sports are inherently competitive and hence conducive to aggression and violence; however, in some (such as boxing, rugby, soccer [association football], and American football) violence and intimidation in the form of a “play fight” or “mock battle” between two individuals or groups are central ingredients. Such sports involve the socially acceptable, ritualized expression of violence,but just as real battles that take place in war can involve a ritual component, so these mock battles that take place on a sports field can involve elements of, or be transformed into, nonritual violence.

Ideally,modern sport resolves the contradiction between friendship and hostility. When people play too seriously, however, the tension level may rise to a point where the balance between friendly and hostile rivalry is tilted in favor of the latter. In such circumstances, the rules and conventions designed to limit violence and steer it into socially acceptable channels may be suspended, and the people involved may start to fight in earnest. In soccer (association football), rugby, or American football, for example, they may play with the aim of inflicting physical damage and pain. The standards governing the expression and control of violence are not the same in all societies, and in Western societies they differ between groups and sports and have not been the same in all historical periods. In fact, a “civilizing process” regarding the expression and control of violence has been central to the development of modern sports. Western Europe has experienced a decrease in people’s desire and capacity for obtaining pleasure from attacking others.One result of this complex phenomenon is an increase in socially generated competitive pressure, which encourages people to use violence in a calculated manner. This complex process can be illustrated by the development of rugby.

Rugby descended from medieval folk games in which matches were played between unrestricted numbers of people, sometimes in excess of 1,000. The boundaries of the playing area were loosely defined, and games were played over open countryside as well as through the streets of towns.The rules were oral and locally specific rather than written and instituted by a central controlling body. All the folk antecedents of modern rugby shared at least one common feature: they were all play struggles involving toleration of physical violence far more severe than would be permitted or regarded as desirable in today’s rugby.

The medieval Welsh folk game of knappan is one of those antecedents that demonstrates the levels of violence that most would find unacceptable in modern sport.With as many as 2,000 participants, perhaps on horseback, knappan was a wild affair, which is what one would expect in a type of game characterized by unrestricted numbers of players; loosely defined oral rules; the use of sticks to hit other players as well as the ball; the players themselves, not a referee, controlling the matches; and the absence of an outside body to establish the rules and act as a court of appeal in cases of dispute.

Such games were closer to “real” fighting than modern sports.Modern sports are more abstract, more removed from serious combat. After all, the people of preindustrial Europe enjoyed all sorts of pastimes— cock fighting, dog fighting, bull and bear baiting, watching public executions—that reflected “the violent tenor of life”in Europe during the “autumn”of the Middle Ages.

By contrast with its folk antecedents,modern rugby exemplifies a game that is more civilized in at least four senses. It involves
1.Written rules that demand strict control over physical force and that prohibit it in certain forms.
2. Penalties that can be brought to bear on offenders.
3. The role of referee, who, standing “outside” and “above,” attempts to control the game.
4. Centralized rule-making and rule-enforcing bodies.

Although the game was not entirely nonrational and highly emotional in the past, the balance has shifted to favor rationality. Because of the structure of modern rugby and the relatively civilized personalities of its players, pleasure in playing is now derived more from the expression of skill and muted forms of force than from the overt physical intimidation and infliction of pain that was characteristic of its antecedents. Nevertheless, rugby remains a very rough game. The limitations of the civilizing process are evident from the aggressive features that still exist in the game, such as the “ruck,” which provides the opportunity for kicking and stamping on players who are lying on the ground, and the tactic of “raking” one’s boot studs across their faces.

Rugby has probably grown more violent in recent years. It has certainly grown more competitive, as is shown by the introduction at all levels of cups and leagues and by its acquisition of openly Professional status in 1995. Growing competitiveness has increased the importance of victory, which, in turn,has increased the tendency of players to play roughly (within the rules) as well as to use illegitimate violence in the pursuit of success. They do not gain pleasurable satisfaction from such violence per se but come under pressure to use it as a means of achieving goals.

The civilizing development of rugby reflects the development of modern sports in general, particularly those that involve more or less explicit forms of combat. However, the growing competitive pressure that leads to more covert use of rational violence in sport is simultaneously conducive to overt violence, which occurs when competitors momentarily lose their selfcontrol and strike an opponent in retaliation.

Violence at sports events often involves the spectators in some fashion. Players may attack spectators, spectators may commit violent acts against athletes, or spectators may fight amongst themselves. Soccer (association football) has proven to be exceptionally problematic.

One reason that hooliganism occurs more frequently in conjunction with soccer may be soccer’s relative lack of overt violence, allowing spectators to release their aggressive feelings vicariously. However, spectator violence is a regular accompaniment of rugby in the south of France and occurs frequently in conjunction with American football in the United States. The popular conception that soccer hooliganism is more frequent than spectator violence in other sports may be due to the social composition of soccer crowds. Worldwide, most soccer spectators come from those lower-class segments of society in which aggressive behavior is the norm. In most societies, groups lower down the social scale are more likely to form intense “we group” bonds that involve an equally intense hostility toward “outsiders”—the opposing team and its supporters.

The association between hooliganism and soccer is also partly a function of the greater worldwide media exposure that the game receives. The media also tend to generate myth, which contributes to the public perception. For example, in the years up to the mid-1960s, the occurrence of soccer hooliganism in Central and South America, continental Europe, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland was regularly reported in the English press, together with statements to the effect that such behavior “couldn’t happen in England.” Spectator violence, however,had indeed been rife at English soccer matches before World War I and never died out completely. Similarly, following the 1985 Heysel tragedy, in which 39 fans died at the European Cup Final in Brussels, it came to be believed globally that soccer hooliganism was a uniquely English “disease”; yet, the worst recorded hooligan-related soccer tragedy in modern times occurred at the match between Peru and Argentina in Lima in 1964, when more than 300 people were reported to have died. Although its incidence varies between countries and within countries over time,no soccer-playing country has been spared hooliganism. Powerful groups with a commercial interest in spectator sports (e.g., sports organizations and breweries) may contribute to masking or distorting what is, in fact, a more serious incidence of sports spectator violence in North America than is generally acknowledged. Comparable interest groups in Europe, however, have not succeeded in similarly masking or distorting the problem of soccer hooliganism.

What is certain is that player and spectator violence in sport constitutes a worldwide problem and that, in its various manifestations, it represents a serious and threatening breach of the ethos of fair play.

Related Video: Violance in Sports

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