Hypothesis: violence among sports fans related to other social divisions

One sociologist suggests sports violence may not just be about the games but rather other social divisions:

According to a hypothesis put forth by sociologist Eric Dunning in his book Sports Matters, athletic events are realms in which other major issues in society, often related to class, religion, ethnicity, politics, regionalism, historic rivalries, etc. can play out among supporters. Violence, rather than just being about the sport, can be interpreted as an expression of contrasts between populations. That means the conflicts are best studied within the societies where they occur.

“Dunning’s hypothesis is that you can’t separate soccer violence from the wider situation—instead it manifests itself along the fault line in a particular society,” Frosdick said.

And, according to Frosdick, the hypothesis fits when we look at recurring incidents of violence. In Spain, regional tensions help intensify soccer rivalries, hence the divide between Barcelona and Real Madrid. In Italy, where the historic split is between the industrial north and the agricultural rural south, tensions arise when Juventus FC plays SSC Napoli.

“In Scotland, religious sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics represents the biggest fault line in society,” Frosdick said. “The manifestation of football violence therefore is when the Catholic Celtics play the Protestant Rangers in the Old Firm Derby.” In 1980, after the Celtics defeated the Rangers 1-0 at the Scottish Cup final, hundreds of fans rioted on the pitch. The incident led to the banning of alcohol at all Scottish stadiums.

This shouldn’t be too surprising given the importance of factors like social class and race in society. Yet, it would also be interesting to then look at how the sports violence is explained by broadcasters and other media. Based on the sports I’ve watched in my life, I would guess sports broadcasts tend to shy away from conversations about social issues or suggest sports bring healing rather than exacerbate existing conditions. While sports may indeed be “just a game,” it is important to many, interwoven throughout social life, and is big business.

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