Football violence is built into the game

c: | f: Sport / Society

Ask anyone for ten things they associate with football, and pretty high up on everyone’s list is the word ‘hooligan’. Turns out there’s a very good reason for this, and it’s not what you might think.

I love enlightening conversations over a pint in a pub. Not about world peace or how many people can shelter from inclement weather under Kim Kardashian’s arse, but honest to goodness exploration of information and its consequences.

I’d been playing table tennis one evening, a sport not known for its badly behaved fans (perhaps on account of its relative unpopularity), and the topic being explored in the bar afterwards was one of football hooliganism. Most notably, the fact that football — English soccer, not that girly American football with all the giant padded vests, helmets and cheerleaders — is regarded as one of the most violence-inducing sports in the world. The atmosphere during and after football matches results in fan frustrations often spilling out onto the streets, sometimes with tragic consequences.

The question, we postulated, was why?

The ill-informed (Wikipedia in this case) cite unemployment and social discontent as the main reason behind the tide of unrest surrounding the game. I’m not convinced. Never have been. Violence has been linked with the sport ever since its inception in the thirteenth century, to the extent that Edward II apparently banned the game. So there has to be something else at play. Something bigger.

Traditional psychologists build profiles of the people most susceptible to outbursts of aggression. There are ringleaders: the ones that incite violence for violence’s sake. And the easily-led who will go along with crowd mentality. And those that get swept up in the moment. These woefully inaccurate profiles form the basis of studies that influence stadium design, policing, camera system and a myriad other factors to try and curb incidences. They take a macro view of the problem and make recommendations on the basis that it begins with the individual or gang and escalates outward. That the minority spoil it for the majority.

What if that’s wrong? The entirely wrong set of questions to ask. The wrong assumptions from the outset.

After my chat, and some consideration, turns out the reason might not be the demographic or social class or instability of the supporters at all, but could be built into the very fabric of the game itself.

The rules createth the monster.

Goal difference is the problem

Not being a particularly competitive person, nor really caring about the outcome of twenty-two men kicking a pigskin around for ninety minutes, I’m going out on a limb here, but stick with me for a moment.

At a primal level, homo-sapiens — especially males — are governed by hormones such as testosterone and adrenaline. Winners get a hormone boost, losers witness a reduction. When encountering a perilous situation, such as being attacked by a bear while hunting for your dinner, adrenaline goes into overdrive to give you the impetus to run the hell away or kick it in the face and hope it’s already had lunch. Fight or flight.

It’s been studied that inflated hormone levels and aggression are linked in complex ways. Adrenaline, cortisol, testosterone and other androgens all play a part. While there’s not a conclusive correlation, I’m sure you agree that when you get annoyed, yelling — taking out your anger or frustration or elation — tempers the fire inside. When you’re mad at something, doesn’t it feel infinitely better to go into a room and scream? Or pummel a cushion? Or go out for a walk to a secluded spot and just yell to the heavens? The tension release is palpable. More people should do it as I’m sure it would cure many stress-related diseases.

But back to sports. Cast your mind back to stories of the days of gladiators in the Colosseum, with the emperor giving the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the poor sap in the ring. The crowds are bloodthirsty. Every blow, every strike is met with baying and excitement from the spectators, hundreds of times during the contest, and each one is a release of aggression.

At the conclusion of the match, the emperor knows that every once in a while he has to let one man go on merit so there’s some reason beyond pure blood lust for people to attend the event. People enjoy sharing the emotions of a winner or an underdog, after all. But the emperor also plays to this primal undercurrent — this human necessity — for the high of the kill. To punish the loser.

For generations since, and for all our supposed evolutionary behaviour traits, that need has never gone away. We still crave it, yet it’s been suppressed by societal norms. But during sporting events, such primal code surfaces; the lust for the kill in the modern interpretation of the gladiatorial arena. The crowd baying for figurative blood.

Every time your team score a goal, fans are ecstatic. They holler, scream, and dance, releasing tension in the process. Fans of the opposition naturally feel a reduced hormone level at that point, unless it’s a bad judgement call by a referee, in which case they might yell and scream too, but the net effect across the crowd is reduced tension.

So it’s not a major leap of faith to conjecture that the more opportunity there is to score goals in the game, the more tension is released by fans. Therefore, by the end of the game, most of the negative effects from the build-up of adrenaline, testosterone and cortisol (et al) have been smoothed.

Result: less violent outbreaks afterwards.

Game design influences aggression

Whether consciously or not, it seems American sports designers know this basic tenet of human desire. By design, their games can never end in a frustrating draw; so there’s always a winner, and always a loser. Also, unlike in English soccer which typically ends 1-0 or 2-0, US games are frequently 54-19 or something of that ilk. So instead of just one or two opportunities in ninety minutes to vent, American sportsgoers have upwards of seventy.

Is that simple fact why there’s less sports-related violence in America compared with here in the UK? Has everyone worked all the frustration out of their systems during the game, instead of it being pent up to explode afterwards?

There are rumblings that the Americans — for all their faults and ability to elect lunatics — want to make soccer goals wider to increase the appeal of the sport. The underlying reason? More opportunity to score, which leads to higher average goal differences, which results in happier fans. And less unspent aggression.

Is it time our national games were reviewed and the rules changed to give fans a real primal sense of supporting their team? To regulate the fight or flight. To encourage energy disbursement during the game, instead of after it. Given the number of football fans in the country, would that simple change lead to a happier, more balanced society overall? One in which people didn’t feel the need to beat strangers senseless or batter their spouses to vent frustration at their team’s performance.

Since it’s the most prevalent sport in English society, I call upon the Football Association to be the pioneers; to consider this unscientific yet rational reasoning and take steps towards reducing the propensity for violence from the game itself. Not only will the fans get more out of the games, it will improve the sport’s image, draw a new legion of supporters to its gates, and reduce the primeval urge to beat the crap out of one another in the aftermath. Win-win.

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