Sports Riots: The Psychology of Fan Mayhem

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 20, 2005

The images are familiar: Screaming fans. Broken glass. A dangerous mob. And, too often, tragedy. Why is it that major sporting events, such as baseball's World Series, the NCAA men's basketball championship, or even the NBA Finals, can provoke acts of mob mayhem?

"Fans become passionate about their team and try to find personal satisfaction in their team's wins," said Allyce Najimy, senior associate director at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

"You add the adrenaline, the alcohol that's often being consumed and in a highly charged atmosphere things tend to set people off more than they would in a calmer environment," she said.

Researchers like Najimy are striving to decode the psychology of rioting sports fans and determine how to prevent outbreaks of group violence.

Fans Get Loud, Proud

Christian End, an expert in sport fan behavior at Xavier University in Cincinatti, Ohio, notes that the environment at major sporting events allows, and even encourages, many behaviors well outside the norm.

"Face painting, at the stadium, is socially acceptable," the psychologist said. "People yell things that they definitely wouldn't be yelling in the boardroom or if their name and home phone number were available."

Many sports fans are subject to "bracket morality," notes Rick Grieve, a psychology professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. The phrase describes the idea that during a game athletes will do things to win that they wouldn't necessarily do outside of the game.

"I think it's a shared experience or phenomena, because we can look not only at aggressive behaviors but superstitious behaviors, rituals, the things people say and chant, all those things that are supposed to help the team win," Grieve said.

"But sometimes being in that crowd allows some people to push it," he added.

The Madding Crowd

Christian End, of Xavier, notes that people in a crowd experience a process of "de-individuation," in which individual accountability diminishes.

Continued on Next Page >>


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