Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Checking violence in sports

Just another day on the job: working hard, trying to live up to what the boss expects by outmaneuvering the competition -- working just as hard inches away. It's a tough business, and tempers uncork easily. And when they do, someone throws a punch.

Fistfights in most businesses are nearly inconceivable. But in the business of sports, fistfights -- and a plethora of other types of violence -- are not only expected, they are tolerated and even condoned.

About these ads

It's one of the few places in society where one can commit assault and battery and not wind up in court. It's behavior that is tolerated nowhere else. The rules of conduct on the sporting field are different from the rest of the world.

Most sports have elements of controlled violence, assertive action that hasn't stumbled over the line into aggression. But increasingly, contact sports are becoming combat sports.

Paragraphs of tiny type crowd the sports pages each fall, listing the names of professional football players injured on the job. Hockey brawls interest fans as much as the game itself. Basketball games get "physical" under the boards. Baseball players muscle up to umpires. Incidents like these stretch down into the amateur ranks also, through the colleges all the way to the littlest of leagues. They are even beginning to slowly creep into women's sports.

But that's only part of it. Violence in the stands is becoming as common as that on the field. Whether the two types are related is an unanswered question, although there is evidence that suggests they are.

The violence ranges from rioting, physical abuse, and property destruction to public drunkenness and petty theft.

What happens in the stands is much less tolerated than the violence on the field.

"Player violence is tolerated because "it's in the game,' but if it's in the stands, it's a breakdown of the normative order of life," says Dr. John Cheffers , a professor of education and coordinator of the human-movement program at Boston University. Dr. Cheffers has been studying violence in sports for nine years.

About these ads

Reactions from the professional leagues to player violence vary widely. "It's generally accepted that fisticuffs will take place because of the nature of the sport," says Frank Torpey, director of security for the National Hockey League (NHL).

"We don't think in professional sports -- except boxing -- there is any room for it [violence]," says John Joyce, Torpey's National Basketball Association (NBA) counterpart.

"I've always felt that violence on the field or in the stands is the only thing which could seriously damage professional or amateur sport," says Joseph Robbie, owner of professional football's Miami Dolphins. If one of his players was involved in an incident in which another was unjustifiably injured, he'd promptly suspend him, he maintains.

Mr. Robbie has been an outspoken supporter of legislation currently in committee in Congress. The bill, filed by Rep. Ronald M. Motti (D) of Ohio, seeks to cut down incidents of excessive violence on the field by making athletes liable to a $5,000 fine, a year in jail, or both. In other words, it would involve the federal government in assault cases which the states have only rarely prosecuted.

Support from other segments of the professional ranks has been hard to find. The general sentiment is that the leagues can handle their own problems.

Each league has its ways of dealing with the problem -- everyone has seen an irate player or coach getting a dramatic eviction notice from an umpire. And penalties for brawling in hockey have become stiffer in the last few years.

Now, the third man to join in a two-man hockey fight is evicted from the game. And any player who makes a move to join in gets a 10-minute penalty. These moves are intended to "prevent unsightly brawls," Mr. Torpey says, in which more and more players pair off in secondary fisticuffs.

NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien formed a commission in 1977 to look at the problem within the NBA. The result was a booklet of regulations and recommendations, outlining what the NBA considers the minimum security regulations in each arena. In addition, Mr. O'Brien reminds each player each year via letter that he will not tolerate any violence on the court.

"He does take action on it," Mr. Joyce says. And he should know: He's the one who conducts the investigation into alleged violations.

In their studies of sports, Dr. Cheffers and his associate Albert J. Meehand (also of Boston University) found that football, despite its gory reputation, spawns fewer unwarranted violent acts than soccer, Hockey, or baseball (basketball was not included in these studies). The critical word here is "unwarranted," since Cheffers defines player violence as "extreme or unnecessary use of physical force which is in excess of the rules governing such force." Physical force is inherent in football.

Of all "behaviors" recorded within the course of a game, 3 percent were classified as violent in football, compared with 5.7 percent for soccer, 7 percent for baseball, and 7.7 percent for hockey.

Cheffers is among those who see a strong link between player violence and fan violence. He and Meehan have filmed professional games and studied fan reaction to player violence.

His assessment: "If it's on the field, it will be in the stands."

The field "enraptures people," he says. When violence erupts there, the fans react.

Surprisingly, of the sports studied, hockey has the lowest correlation between player violence and fan violence: Fans reacted only 8.5 percent of the time with a fight of their own.

In contrast, soccer fans were triggered into violence 65 percent of the time, football fans 49 percent, and baseball fans 34 percent.

Cheffers attributes this to fans expectingm violent fights in hockey games, but not in soccer. He points out that in boxing, where brutal physical contact is the norm, fans might box the air, but they do little damage to the arena.

The league commissioners have devoted perhaps more attention to fan violence than they have to player violence. They attribute fan violence more to society in general, rather than linking it to the game itself.

"Our fans are very close to the action," says the NHL's Mr. Torpey, referring to the fans being involved with the game. "If there is an altercation on the ice, they're more interested in following that than socking the guy next to them."

He is concerned, he says, with preventing player-fan confrontations. To this end, the NHL requires a plastic shield between the stands and areas where the players sit.

"If you have violence on the streets, it's going to spill over into our arenas," the NBA's Mr. Joyce says.

The NBA regulations require an announcement before each game warning fans not to get out of hand or they will be ejected. In addition, the league requires that a certain number of security guards accompany officials and players on and off the court, and stay near the bench.

"Who'd be crazy enough to assault a 6 ft., 8 in. player," Mr. Joyce muses; "but we have had incidents." He attributes them to "overenthusiastic or maybe inebriated fans."

Many of the efforts in crowd control in major league arenas concern alcohol. "An awful lot of fan violence in the stands can be directly attributed to the amount of alcohol consumed," the NHL's Mr. Torpey says. Within each league, various stadium officials have made attempts to control the consumption of alcohol by limiting the amount and time it can be purchased, outlawing people from carrying a personal supply from home, or by banishing it altogether.

Cheffers supports these measures, expecially ejecting troublemakers and making sure they can't return to future games. He insists games should be stopped as soon as crowd violence gets out of hand. Even a contrived injury can do the trick, as he personally found out as a young boy when a referee told him to lie down and play injured during a melee some distance away. The crowd stilled immediately, trying to figure out what had happened.

While Dr. Cheffers supports these efforts, he lumps them all into the "stopgap" category. They simply attempt to control an out-of-control situation without really changing anything. League statements about crowd control are "inadequate."

He says the rules concerning alcohol are just another challenge to the fans, another rule to break. And the presence of police, especially ones in riot gear , just tend to incite crowds once they are out of control.

What, then, is his solution? He backs up through several layers of measures to what he considers the most basic:

Much more can be done to change the "filthy conditions" of sports arenas, he says. People are herded into the stands, forced to sit intimately with the crowd, casting sidelong wary glances at the stranger who has his elbow in your ribs.

Games should intentionally be undersold, he says, to avoid crowding, and held in afternoon before people have a chance to start drinking. Cheering sections should be designated -- "Let 'em root!," he says -- to keep opposing fans segregated. Controversial calls should be explained quickly, via scoreboard or announcer or a "wired" referee.

The area around the stadium should offer more to early-arriving fans: perhaps a shopping area, or theater, or children's playground.

(He has even suggested, in the past, that rosebushes be planted around stadiums, a suggestion that met with much ridicule. "It can't hurt, can it?" he protests.)

And each fan and player must learn to control himself or herself. Dr. Cheffers thinks violence in sports is a combination of nature and nurture: We are all born with a bit of a violent side, he says, but it sure get helped along by our society.

Thus, the trend of turning players into "performing seals" must be reversed. "At $1,000 a pitch, if the pitch isn't a good one, you feel you've been cheated."

This is part of the "win at all costs" attitude he finds particularly repugnant. Fans come to have a "blind identification with the results, not the game." And since the results are paramount, any means to the win become acceptable -- and any reaction to a win or loss is acceptable. (In fact, Cheffers points out, victory celebrations are often more destructive than ones lamenting a loss.)

The long-tern solution is to reeducate fans and players and to resolve violence in the community, he says. Coaches must be better prepared to instill values of sportsmanship in young athletes. And the "good" models must be held up just as high as the brawlers in the public eye.

"People will be violent as long as it is fashionable," Dr. Cheffers says.

He would like to see schools, churches, and families all involve teaching values of sportsmanship.

"Society's values have changed -- they have women in sports." Thus he maintains that the values can change again.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.