I’ve been wary of sport and the link to violence since my years working in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s Balkan wars. I remember the Serbian war criminal Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, who handpicked paramilitary killers from his Red Star Football fans. Known as the "Tigers" or "Arkan's Tigers" committed some of the most brutal "cleansing" during the wars.
It started at the matches that encouraged nationalism. The flags, the chants, the crowd-heightened emotion led to unspeakable evil. I feel the same revulsion when I see Betar Jerusalem fans chanting anti-Muslim slogans; the Red Sox fans in the US who overturn cars; or more recently at the final of the Euro 2020, some English football fans beating up Italians.
But there is a hidden aspect that sporting victories and losses also conjure up: domestic violence. Research suggests that the emotions associated with that violence is not linked only to post-match public riots: it goes directly to people's homes.
In a 2014 study done in the UK, at the University of Lancaster, researchers analysed reports of abuse in the northwest of England after three World Cup matches. Abuse increased by 26 per cent if England lost or drew, but it was up by 38 per cent when they lost.
This month, the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) at the London School of Economics published a report titled 'Football, alcohol and domestic abuse' that said alcohol is a key factor in this cycle of domestic abuse. Social scientists looked at when the abuse occurred. It seemed to peak 10-12 hours after the matches ended. These cases are almost entirely driven by alcohol. The worst cases of beatings seem to happen after all-day drinking binges.
One out of three women globally report having experienced domestic abuse at one point in their lives, according to the World Health Organisation. Many of the cases are a result of drastic life changes. But the CEP report says there can be triggers such as “exogenous events… one of them being sporting events. Police forces around the world have identified surges in domestic abuse reports following big sport events in national and international competitions like the football World Cup.”
Domestic violence is a global epidemic. Last year, researchers at the Canada’s University of Calgary found that calls to a domestic violence hotline in Alberta rose by 15 per cent when the local football team was playing.
A 2011 study in the US looked at 900 games of the National Football League (NFL) games in an 11-year period and found that domestic violence reports went up by 10 per cent when local teams lost. Worse, many studies showed links to violence by the actual NFL players and their intimate partners. Forbes Magazine reported: “NFL players are about four times more likely to be arrested for domestic abuse than you'd expect, based on their overall arrest rates."
Despite these alarming figures, it is estimated that only half the cases are ever reported.
Aside from raising awareness through campaigns, one way to curtail the spike in violence is to reduce the tie between alcohol and sport. In France, for instance, there is a limit on the sale of alcohol at sporting venues. The 1991 Evin law prohibits the sale, distribution and introduction of alcoholic beverages in sport and physical activity establishments.
In July, 2019, when a bill tried to relax the law, the then then-Minister of Health Agnès Buzyn, a doctor, was firmly opposed: “I think that sport is an ideal time to promote health, to make young people want to have good habits” she said “and so that’s not the time when you want to see acute alcoholism or even violence.”
Countries could also look at the many benefits of playing and watching sport and push for it to promote healing rather than awakening violence. In post-conflict societies, sport often is a way to promote social cohesion: “Sport for Development of Peace” projects are launched to great success, particularly in Africa.
In Sierra Leone, the DDR or the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration following a brutal 14-year-old war helped young soldiers understand the roots of violence, but also taught them leadership, team spirit and trust.
Sport can also save lives. At the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016, I met a young swimmer, Yusra Mardini, who along with her sister escaped from Syria, travelled through Lebanon, Turkey and Greece before finally braving a Mediterranean crossing to reach Europe. When her dinghy broke down between Greece and Turkey, she jumped in the water with her sister – also a swimmer – and pulled others to safety.
Yusra was later discovered in a refugee camp in Germany. She used her talent to make a new life and began to train for the refugee Olympics. She wanted to use her story to help other refugees. But what I remember most is that Yusra told me that sport had “saved” her.
Perhaps if we can turn the focus of Euros or World Cups around to see the true meaning of sport – teamwork, determination, focus – instead of the violence and anger, we can reach more people with positive wins, instead of more disastrous losses at home.