What does it mean when major football tournaments increase incidents of domestic violence?

We need to understand the links between sport, masculinity and violence. 

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Last Monday, my sons went to bed in tears. While my seven-year-old had been taking the destruction of the UK economy surprisingly well, and my eight-year-old had responded calmly to growing anxieties over the UK’s leadership vacuum, the England football team’s defeat by Iceland finally sent them over the edge.

Obviously I tried to tell them it wasn’t all bad. If anything, the sheer ridiculousness of this defeat added a degree of comedy to the national crisis. And besides, if incompetence was to be our new speciality, couldn’t it be argued that actually, we were the real winners here? They were not buying this. “Football,” they told me, “isn’t just a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that.” (Okay, they didn’t say that. But they did cry, a lot.)

Elsewhere in England, fans big and small were absorbing the news that their team had been vanquished by a nation with no professional football league. There will have been disappointment and there will have been anger, not just at players and coaches, but also at fellow supporters and loved ones.

It has long been suspected, and more recently been proven, that incidents of domestic violence increase during major football tournaments. According to one chief constable, “many people drink, there is the emotional stress of the game, and there is a whole issue around competitiveness and testosterone levels. Most people will watch the game and will never do anything violent but a small minority will become deeply aggressive.”

Researchers at Lancaster University studied incidents of domestic abuse during World Cup matches in 2002, 2006 and 2010 and found a 38 per cent rise on days when the England team played and lost, and a 26 per cent rise when England won or drew.

It is not surprising, therefore, that police forces have tried to put measures in place to minimise the risk. During the 2014 World Cup there were billboards in Blackpool, Blackburn and Preston urging fans to “leave the striking to the players”.

While one can appreciate the good intent, one might question the appropriateness of this particular form of wordplay. As is so often the case with police approaches to implicitly gendered violence, one gets the impression that there is a genuine will to do good, but that the motivation is not so much empathy with female victims, but the knowledge that one ought to empathise with them, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Thankfully, evidence so far suggests that there was not a major rise in assaults in the immediate aftermath of the Iceland match. For instance, call handlers at West Yorkshire Police’s Customer Contact Centre received only 41 reports of domestic violence between 7pm and 2am, an 18 per cent drop from the previous Monday.

This prompted Detective Superintendent Darren Minton to “thank fans for their behaviour so far.” Again, one can appreciate the intent, but it is saddening that we are at a stage where a group of men – for we are really talking about men, as the mention of testosterone above suggests – are to be thanked, not even for not being violent, but for being 18 per cent less violent than the week before. Andrea Dworkin asked for 24 hours without rape; we’re reduced to giving thanks for seven hours with 41 reported assaults in West Yorkshire, on the basis that hey, it could have been worse.

Yet if we want to ask for more we need to understand the links between sport, masculinity and violence. Unfortunately, it is often hard to draw the line between understanding and excusing. In Stiffed, her 1999 study of masculinity in the US, Susan Faludi describes supporting one’s local team as “a way of fighting against marginalisation, a way of clinging to the idea that national destiny was still something played out by common men on a muddy field, even in an era dominated by skyboxes, television and Astroturf”.

This is a romanticised reading of the fan, as though he clings to something pure and essential, far beyond the randomness of play. It suggests a need that the non-fan – a wife or girlfriend – lacks, because she cannot think or feel quite so deeply. What is worrying about this is the way in which it positions the relationship with sport as meeting a need for violence rather than co-creating it. 

BBC Radio Four’s Thinking Allowed recently interviewed Jodie Swallow, a PhD candidate at the University of Chester researching women’s experiences of domestic violence surrounding major sporting events. In her work, Swallow speaks to women who have experienced various forms of abuse – physical, sexual, financial, psychological – at the hands of male partners during sporting events. Swallow is keen to stress that, “the abuse [the women] endured was not limited to sport, however they identified sport as a means through which their fanatical partners perpetrated [it]”.

Forms of abuse included dictating whether or not a woman could enter or leave a room when a match was on, or creating rules that women were obliged to follow in order not to be accused of causing the team to lose. Swallow describes the men who watched sport at home as creating a “sacred space”: “Men laid down rules within this sporting space which the women adhered to.”

What I think is especially valuable about Swallow’s research is that it moves beyond the idea of male aggression as an absolute quantity that must be managed (not too much alcohol, not too much disappointment, don’t enter or leave the room while he’s watching), towards an understanding of the way in which our models for managing male aggression perpetuate it.

The male-only space created by intense football fandom is neither a sanctuary nor a pressure release; it is a claustrophobic environment in which anxiety over self-definition thrives. It allows the pressure to build. There exists a complicity between abusive men and the culture of sports fandom. As Swallow puts it:

“Sport endures as an institution which promotes male practice […] major sporting events are utilised by male perpetrators as a preserve which allows them to inflict abuse and maintain control in their intimate relationships. […] The sporting element [is] more of a catalyst for the incidents of abuse, or an excuse for abuse on the part of the perpetrator.”

It’s not the football itself. There are routes to real joy through this. I’ve witnessed this with my own sons and their fandom. They support the England men’s team, but also their local club, Cheltenham Town, and the Manchester City women’s team. They genuinely adore the game, and during the matches I’ve attended with them, I’ve been struck by the warmth with which older male fans have received two noisy, bouncing little ones into the stands.

I can see, just about, football culture providing a space in which men can enact relationships of care and even love. The fact that this feels incredibly fraught and risky is, I think, a problem with gender as a whole, not just certain manifestations of it.

Following England’s defeat, my sons decided their new team was Poland. Once Poland lost on penalties, they moved onto Wales. I’m not sure which national team they’ll end up deciding was theirs all along but given the current political situation, who needs loyalty anyway? What matters is the joy and the passion, and being able to embrace it in a shared space that is free from anger and suspicion.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.