If sport is the opiate of the masses, then we have a major drug problem, suggests British sports fan Stephen Graham.
I remember when I was young, I’d listen to my Dad talking to my Nan during their weekly phone calls. He’d always ask how Grandad was, and she’d always give one of two replies.
“Well, you know, the Reds are winning so we’re alright.”
Or, “well, you know how the Reds are doing…”
The latter was always delivered in such a telling tone, with the deliberate ellipses to avoid speaking out loud of the horror that was Liverpool Football Club’s misfortunes on the pitch – and the subsequent dark mood that had been cast over the family home.
It’s a peculiar response to a routine question but it’s always stuck with me, largely because it fascinated me how football results could have such an effect on the emotional stability of the men in our family.
For many fans, watching their team is the cornerstone of social life and the local community. It brings together those who simply would have no other reason to be together on a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon in Carlisle, in the North East of England, other than to cheer on their team; hoarse-voiced, frozen-toed, meat pie in hand.
Sports fandom feeds a primitive need to belong to a whole, larger than the self, much in the way that military nationalism does. Hence the over-involvement emotionally. And, hey, that’s the business model – impassioning spectators into super-fans. We become emotionally charged evangelists for our chosen clubs, part of the atmosphere and drama, and we live the stories of the clubs in between games, making us far more likely to pay for merchandise and premium content.
Luckily, for Grandad and the fellow Graham men in my family, the plight of Liverpool FC at worst would merely induce a temporary grump at home and even then it was more of a self-deprecating wallow than bitter sulk.
However, many others sharing our terraces, singing the same songs we sing on the way to the match, cheering our team on as we do when they score a goal, are the same people that can’t detach themselves emotionally from the disappointment of losing. It’s a gruesome fact that domestic violence increases significantly when football matches are being played in the UK; when balls are kicked in front of crowds on a Saturday afternoon, there are men who then go home and beat up on their wives and girlfriends.
Studies conducted by the National Centre for Domestic Violence and the BBC in the UK revealed last year that during the 2010 World Cup cases of domestic violence rose by an average of 25 percent after an England match, win or loss. The same during the 2012 European Cup and 2014 World Cup, and similar results are predicted during the 2016 European cup this summer.
It’s not just in the UK either. In 2011, US researchers reported findings that calls to the police reporting men’s assaults on their wives or intimate partners rose 10 percent in areas where the local NFL team lost a game they were favoured to win, according to an analysis of 900 regular-season games.
It goes back to the old saying that sport is the opiate of the masses (forget what Marx said about religion, although they’re probably one and the same). For many of us, spectator sports can subvert from the real frustration in our lives, but for others, it can actually sublimate their more aggressive proclivities. This is where football hooliganism comes from, many instances of mob mentality, and to this discussion point, cases of domestic violence. So, if the clubs of the world are dealing such seriously strong dope then the only conclusion to be drawn is that we, as the sports community, have a drug abuse problem.
Now, I’m not suggesting it’s a club or leagues fault that a wife suffers at the hands of her husband after a match, but if that match is the spark that lights the fire then responsibility to help cannot be shunned.
Admittedly, clubs are fairly hamstrung – they can’t change how they go to market or the way we enjoy the games, it’s the entertainment business and we all enjoy the feverish drama and escapism supporting our teams offer. However, more must be done to change the culture in sport and the wider community. Clubs and institutions have the might and power to get behind the cause and drive the issue.
Players as role models and ambassadors coupled with bigger investment in domestic abuse charities and awareness campaigns would be a simple place to start. Many clubs are already active in the community, so let’s put domestic abuse on the agenda and – similar to the Let’s Kick Racism out of Football campaigns in Europe – we should be kicking domestic violence out too.
Some work has already begun in the US through the NFL and there was one ad that stood out for me during the Super Bowl this year – the No More campaign ‘Text Talk’, produced in partnership with the NFL, which donated airtime and production costs as a continued penance for its heavily criticised handling of player Ray Rice’s punching of his then fiancée and now wife in 2014.
It would be awesome to have seen such a charitable act come not just from a guilty conscience though, and the messy truth is that the NFL still hasn’t found a consistent way to adjudicate domestic violence cases – criteria varies dramatically nationwide, victims don’t always speak out for fear of retribution and Leagues struggle to act when players have only been accused, not convicted. So often known for its lock-step precision and discipline from the players on the field to the executives in the boardroom, the NFL has practically advocated domestic abuse through mismanaged responses to player cases in recent times.
Whilst it’s worth noting that the NFL has ploughed millions of dollars and a significant amount of time into figuring out how to address domestic violence in the past year, a ‘no tolerance’ policy on domestic abuse would be a simple and clear place to have started, potentially sparing the organisation from the reputation damage it has suffered. What example is set when the Dallas Cowboys resist demands for Greg Hardy to be kicked off the field and the Players Association help to reduce his sentence?
Sporting institutions across the world should learn from the NFL situation – failures and recent efforts to make amends – and take on the responsibility to act decisively and clearly on domestic violence. There’s a European Cup around the corner and there’s nothing currently to suggest that it will be any different from previous years where cases of abuse have risen in line with the fixture list.
We need to start now. Players need to be role models, clubs and institutions need to be the big voices for this issue, and we the fans need to do all we can to empower victims to speak up and abusers to seek help.
Image: Flickr Commons