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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.

"When we're less accountable we tend to behave in ways we wouldn't," he said. "If I'm among thousands of celebrating people and I were to throw a beer bottle against a brick wall, you'd have a hard time picking me out."

Real-world examples of such anonymous and abnormal behaviors can be seen each year on Halloween. The holiday also carries an expectation of mischief that may be increasingly prevalent at championship-level sporting events.

My Team, My Life

Experts say fan identification with sports teams is psychologically important for many people, particularly in our increasingly transient and insular society.

Grieve, of Western Kentucky University, said the thinking is akin to "I have a group of friends who are like me because we root for the same team—that gives me a network of valued connections."

"Identification with a team gives you a kind of social support network that provides a buffer from things like anxiety, loneliness, and depression," he said. "There's also evidence that people who have established social support networks have some protection against physical illness. There are a whole host of benefits."

Such group identities can become especially intense in the crucible of a big sporting event when the entire group is charged with adrenaline.

"When tens of thousands of people are chanting 'We're number one,' wearing team apparel, our group identity is strong and we want to fit in," End noted.

"So if we see someone throw a beer bottle and it draws cheers from our group members who we're really identifying with at the time, we might be apt to match that behavior or up it," he added.

"You can see it with heckling, if people laugh and provide reinforcement, others act out that way."

In this way actions can escalate from to cheering to criminal behavior.

While alcohol is also often cited for its role in such incidents, it may not be the most important factor, End believes.

"Alcohol plays a role, and sometimes it's pointed out as the ultimate villain, the sole contributor," he said. "But there are a lot of other things going on. They serve alcohol at church socials and in the theater, but you don't see these kinds of behaviors."

It's worth noting that while riots tend to paint sports fans in a bad light, millions of fans enjoy games each year without ever becoming involved in destructive activities. In fact, there is question about just how many rioters are fans at all.

"What we typically define as a sports fan is someone who has a psychological connection to the team," End said. "Now we don't go to a place where a riot is happening and ask people questions while they are flipping over a car—so it's hard to know" whether the rioters are all fans. "But some people are likely taking advantage of an opportunity. It has happened in the past," End said. He added hypothetically, "There's a TV store down by [Detroit's] Palace at Auburn Hills [arena] and [rioters] want a flat screen TV, so they are going to get one."

"If you look at the stats of violence in society right now, [sports] parallels what's going on in society," noted Najimy of Northeastern University. "The more violent society gets, the more violent sports get. It's tragic, it's horrible, but it's not surprising."

Prevention

So what can be done to ensure that the euphoria of victory isn't marred by violence?

Experts say anticipation and law-enforcement planning can help control riot situations. But once riots begin, they are notoriously unpredictable.

It may be the fans themselves who can best prevent such incidents. Peer pressure can curb unruly behavior before it begins to escalate.

"If the group says, Hey don't do that, if they point you out to security, you're gaining disapproval from this group that's very important to you," End said.

"I think the fans, as well as the coaches and players, have to communicate that this isn't the appropriate way to cope, and that if we see it happening, we're going to hold you accountable," he added.

The media may also play a role. While networks endlessly loop sensational video of rioting fans, they rarely follow up to ensure that the public is aware of expulsions, arrests, and other real consequences of such behavior.

Perhaps the best advice is for fans to simply relax a bit—easier said than done for some.

"You're finding satisfaction in a team that you're not finding in your own life," Najimy said. "When people lose perspective, that's when the trouble starts. Don't take the game too seriously—it's not your win or loss, it's the team's."

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