Popular sporting occasions have long been associated with violence and it was long assumed that assaults were more likely to be initiated by losing fans taking out their frustration. This has been contradicted by recent research that suggests it is fans of the winning team whom are more likely to be violent.
These studies are from the Violence and Society Research Group at Cardiff University who have an interesting history. The group was started by Jonathan Shepherd who is not a psychologist, sociologist or criminologist but a facial and dental surgeon.
He noticed that many of the injuries that he was treating were due to attacks, as the face is a common target of attack, and wondered if he could go about reducing facial injuries by reducing violent incidents.
The medical school is near Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium, one of the biggest sporting venues in the country, and so the group had the opportunity to study the effect of sporting events on assault and aggression.
In an initial study they found that violent incidents rose when the home team, Wales, won, rather than lost, regardless of the sport being played. A subsequent study evaluated fans on measures of aggressiveness, happiness and intention to drink alcohol before and after the match.
It turned out that aggressiveness was increased in winning fans but not losing fans. A win did not increase happiness but losing or drawing decreased it and intention to drink was not affected by the match result.
This concurs with the results of a somewhat disturbing study on domestic violence that found that assaults against women in the Washington area specifically increased when the Washington Redskins American football team won.
This is interesting in light of one of the main theories of violence, proposed by James Gilligan in his influential book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, that says violence is typically a response to humiliation and serves to restore a perceived loss of status.
We don’t really have a good analysis of what triggers these specific violent incidents and it could be that winning sports fans are more sensitive to self-perceived humiliation, in line with the theory, but these sports violence studies could equally be evidence against this idea – with the rather unpleasant possibility that assaults are partly the result of a form of post-win triumphalism.