Christian End, assistant professor of psychology and sports psychologist
Q: Last weekend during an NBA game, an on-court fight led to players charging into the stands and fighting with the fans. Last summer, a player threw a chair at a fan during a Major League Baseball game. Are fan-athlete altercations a new concept? Is it just a microcosm of today's society in general? Is this the direction we are headed? A: Fan-athlete altercations are not new. Some early accounts involve baseball greats Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. These and other such events suggest that sports violence is less of a reflection of the state of society and more likely an effect of the sporting event context.
I think there is a widespread belief that the rates of fan aggression are at an all-time high, although several factors may distort our estimates. As a result of expansion teams, new leagues, new sports, etc., more sporting events occur today than 30 years ago. Therefore, we may be seeing an increase in the total number of incidents, but not an increase in the overall proportion of incidents to sporting events. Additionally, video cameras now capture every fan incident. They then wind up in the hands of the media and are rebroadcast every half hour for a week on all-sports/all-news cable networks.
When we're asked, "Is fan violence a social problem?" images of these highly publicized attacks rush to the forefront of our memory, despite the fact we know that millions of fans attend sporting events each week and don't behave in this antisocial manner. I'm not claiming that isolated events are not problematic—they are and every attempt should be made to prevent injury to any party attending a sporting event—I think we have to be leery thinking that there is a 50/50 chance fan violence may erupt at any given sporting event.
Q: What is it about sports that stirs this kind of emotion? A: Social identity theory posits that an individual's group memberships (social identities) are important aspects of one's self-concept. In instances of group success, a member experiences a positive social identity, including enhanced personal self-esteem. On the other hand, when the group fails, a group member is forced to utilize a coping mechanism to defend oneself from this social identity threat in order to protect his personal self-esteem. This relationship between one's group's success/failure and their feelings about their self can help explain why sport outcomes take on such importance for some people.
Q: If sports are such emotional events for both athletes and fans, it seems like when the two are combined the situation becomes a powder keg waiting to be lit. Is there a way to defuse this without going to a "Rollerball" mentality where nets and cages are needed to separate the fans from the athletes? A: Research has demonstrated that an emotional attachment is a critical component of one's identification with a sport team. Additionally, highly identified sport fans experience more intense emotional experiences than low-identifying fans. We also know that aggression is an emotionally charge response to some events. Thus, it should not be surprising that research has found that higher levels of team identification have been linked to fan aggression and intent to aggress.
Effective solutions: reduce aggressive cues, identify characteristics of sporting events that are associated with fan aggression, create the perception of accountability, minimize the rewards associated with fan aggression and emphasize the negative consequences, increase the salience of a "shared fanship" between fans, encourage other fans to communicate nonviolent expectations and stop selling alcohol.
There are several theories of learning that could teach and encourage fans to behave appropriately, while discouraging fan aggression. We know that one's behavior is often influenced by the behavior one observes (social learning theory). You can use these principles to curtail violence by providing examples of pro-social behavior (fans behaving in socially acceptable manner increases the probability that fans will behave in a socially acceptable manner) and by providing training for security officials that discourages the use of aggression when handling fan's aggressions, which has the potential to prime fan aggression. One could also identify characteristics of the sporting events that are associated with fan aggression (long-standing rivalries, extremely aggressive games, etc.) and increase the presence of security at those events. The increase in security would send the message to the spectator that they will be held accountable for their actions. Research has shown that a sense of a lack of accountability often is associated with an increase in anti-social behavior. Because the athletes' aggression models aggression, thus increasing the probability that fans will aggress, sporting venues should have reserve security personnel "on call" so that they can report to work if the event itself is highly aggressive.
Operant conditioning would suggest that the consequences of fans' misbehavior will greatly impact whether or not a fan aggresses. Therefore, sports organizations should make an attempt to publicize the consequences of fan misbehavior. Currently, fan aggression is highly publicized, while the negative consequences are neglected. The media coverage of the offense may actually reinforce and encourage the antisocial behavior, and because the negative consequences of the behavior are neglected, they can't serve their function as a deterrent.
Sports organizations could also discourage intergroup violence by making the more superordinate identity of "football fan" more salient than the lower level identities of the specific teams. Instead of fans categorizing themselves as an "ingroup" and "outgroup" (based on team identifications), which would increase the probability of intergroup hostility and discrimination, fans would be encouraged to categorize themselves under the more inclusive identity of "football fan.” In addition to there being a lack of accountability in large groups, large groups increase the salience of one's social identity and diminish the salience of one's personal identity. When one's social identity becomes salient, an individual turns to other members in their ingroup to inform them what is considered appropriate behavior. Therefore, organizations have to eliminate the ambiguity of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. They have to provide guidelines for behavior and encourage nonviolent fans (the majority) to communicate to others that pro-social behavior is appropriate and violent behavior is inappropriate.
Fans are motivated to distance themselves from rival fans. Organizations can use this motivation to curtail fan violence. Sport organizations can emphasize instances when rival fans were aggressive and then send the message, "Don't act aggressively like a rival fan.” The potential of being representative of or confused for a rival fan may be enough to discourage aggression.