War minus the shooting: violence in sport

If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill will that exists in the world at this moment you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Yugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators. George Orwell, The Sporting Spirit

Soccer is a paradigm of Sun Tzu’s war strategy of confusing the enemy and creating uncertainties. It is not necessary to annihilate the enemy team. Instead, the tactics of surprise, finesse and continual movement of the ball are employed in order to create strategic opportunities for goals. Football v Soccer: American Warfare in An Era of Unconventional Threats – November 2003 Armed Forces Journal  

Sure, there have been injuries and deaths in boxing – but none of them serious. Alan Minter, British boxer



George Orwell, whose essay The Sporting Spirit provided the quote for the title of this post, took a dim view of sport, seeing it a source of ill-will between peoples. Sport and violence have always been inextricably linked, In AD 532, the bitter rivalry between supporters of the Blue and Green chariot-racing teams in the Byzantine Empire sparked 30,000 deaths in the Nika riots. In the Middle Ages we had jousting – the martial spectacle of two knights riding towards each with their lances would remain popular until the seventeenth century. Along with jousting, the Middle Ages also gave us mob football in which two teams of the great unwashed would try to move an inflated pig’s bladder to their opponent’s goal, which was often miles away. The sport was characterised by having no restrictions on the number of players each team could field and few rules. As long as no one got killed, any means could be used to propel the ball. In 1969 El Salvador and Honduras fought a four-day war coinciding with the qualifying round for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. It thus became known as the Football War. The New Zealand All Blacks have been performing their war chant, the Haka, for more than a century. Was Orwell right?

If there is one sport that epitomises war this surely must be American Football. Baseball may be America’s “national pastime“, but the NFL is “America at war.” The chaos and mayhem on the football field is the sporting version of the fog of war I know it has become a cliché, but it is inevitable to make this comparison. Both war and gridiron are about tactics of manoeuvre; you concentrate your forces in order to  have your helmet-clad players penetrate the enemy’s lines and take possession of their territory. You have a ground game, the equivalent of the artillery. Commentators talk about games being won here in the trenches. To complement the running game, you can deploy aerial power when the quarterback throws the ball through the air. This is the air force and we talk of throwing bombs. The successful combination of these joint operations is the key to success. The coaching staff, who have carefully prepared each play, have, like their military counterparts, state-of-the-art telecommunications equipment and computer technology. The T-formation, which is used by the offence, is apparently based upon German Panzer strategies used during WWII. A couple of years ago Fox’s NFL pregame show went on the air from Afghanistan. While coaches and sportswriters have adopted military language over the years, the military has sometimes reciprocated with football terminology, as in Operation Goalpost in World War II and Vietnam’s Operation Linebacker. During the Gulf War Pentagon public relations machine would often use the vocabulary and imagery of sport. War reporting seemed to reflect the conventions of sports broadcasting. The press briefing room in the field was just like those used for NFL coaches’ press conferences. War is sport and sport is war.

Throughout the last century, many of the greatest sporting icons were boxers. The Rumble in the Jungle is one of those defining sporting moments. With all the different titles, I, and many others, have rather lost interest in the sport. The last boxer who I found worth watching was “Iron Mike” Tyson. This man was a force of nature. But his antics outside the ring would derail his career. There is a paradox here. On the one hand many sportsmen are paid huge sums of money for deploying violence in their particular sports. However this behaviour is unacceptable in the private sphere. Mike Tyson had severe difficulties in distinguishing between these two domains. Violence became pleasurable to him. Sports Illustrated quotes the former heavyweight champion as saying: “I like to hurt women when I make love to them, I like to hear them scream with pain, see them bleed ….. It gives me pleasure.” In the end Tyson went too far in the ring as well, taking a bite out of Evander Holyfield’s ear as he was losing a fight to him. And in 1992 Tyson was found guilty of raping Desiree Washington, and was sentenced to six years in prison, of which he served three. I do have serious doubts about that conviction. However what cannot be denied is that Mike Tyson was out of control. He admitted as much himself:

I’ll never admit to raping that woman, even if it lessens my time in here, because I just didn’t do it. However, there are about 5-7 other things I’ve done in my life which are far worse than that for which I am in prison for, so I feel I’m in the right place.

I can understand neuroscientists who are horrified by the pounding a brain receives in the ring or on the football field. However the idea of trying to tame these sports is anathema to me. There is a version of American football called flag football which involves no hard contact. Instead of tackling players to the ground, the defensive team must remove a flag or flag belt from the ball carrier. Boring or what? I love the physicality of the NFL.  Maybe we will look back in 200 years’ time and we will view such aggressive sports in the same way we view gladiatorial combats. But I strongly feel boxing with protective headgear is not boxing. American football without the hits is another sport. If you castrated these sports like this, it would be better to ban them outright.

English football has also seen its fair share of violence. Vinny Jones, who now lives and works in Hollywood, was known as one of football’s hard men. As well as being sent off twelve times in his career, he was once shown a yellow card after just three seconds! The most infamous picture of Jones shows him grabbing Paul Gascoigne by his testicles. He summed up his attitude very succinctly: “I’ve taken violence off the terracing and onto the pitch.” Joey Barton, who currently plays for Newcastle United, also has a colourful history. One famous incident occurred at Manchester City’s Christmas party, where he stubbed out a lit cigar in youth player Jamie Tandy’s eye after he had caught Tandy attempting to set fire to his shirt. Barton subsequently apologised for his actions and was fined six weeks’ wages. After another incident, City manager, Stuart “Psycho” Pearce made Barton undergo anger management therapy. It doesn’t appear to have been too successful. In May 2007 after a training session he assaulted his team mate Ousmane Dabo, who he sent to hospital with severe head, injuries, including a suspected detached retina. I haven’t heard the same stories about Spanish players. I can’t quite see Andrès Iniesta headbutting an opponent or Casillas trashing a flight cabin. And Spanish football is all the poorer for it.

Hooliganism has been called the English disease. Football violence is nothing new with incidents going back for more than a century. The 1923 cup final between West Ham and Bolton was marred by a pitch invasion and the Royal Box was wrecked. It does go through phases. There was a big spike from the 60s to the 80s. There has been a decline in the last couple of decades. My students often ask me about it. How can we explain this phenomenon? In her book Watching the English, social anthropologist, Kate Fox argued that two apparently contradictory features of Englishness, the stiff upper lip and hooliganism were really two sides of the same coin. She calls it social dis-ease, her shorthand term for all the English chronic social inhibitions and handicaps; she sees it as a congenital disorder, bordering on a sort of sub-clinical combination of autism and agoraphobia:

When we feel uncomfortable in social situations (that is, most of the time) we either become over-polite, buttoned up and awkwardly restrained or loud, loutish, crude, violent and generally obnoxious. Both our famous ‘English reserve’ and our infamous ‘English hooliganism’ are symptoms of this social dis-ease…

The spirit of Orwell has been very present in this post. In many ways Eric Blair was right. We have seen a lot of examples of the violence that pervades sport. But there is another side to this story. 1995’s Rugby World Cup in South Africa was vital in healing the wounds of apartheid. Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era was a trailblazer for the peaceful civil rights campaign in the fifties and sixties. In many conflict-riven places sport provides the only modicum of normality. Ultimately sport is reflection of what makes us human. We can’t expect sport to make war a thing of the past. Aggression needs an outlet, and sport, for all its many faults, delivers just that.


3 Responses to War minus the shooting: violence in sport

  1. Juan Zancada says:

    Probably pertinent to make a distinction between the sort of “violence” perpetrated on the pitch i.e. the aggression and intimidation employed by those players euphemistically referred to and reverred as, “uncompromising” and “hardmen” in English footballing parlance, and the headline grabbing variation performed off it. Spanish football has a rich history of the former – Migueli, Arteche and Goikoetxea to name but a few examples during my time here. To suggest that it is all the poorer for a dearth of Joey Bartons seems to be something of a “Chopper Harris” wind up, just to “picar”, get people niggled enough to respond……..oh.

  2. Alberto says:

    Nations or people that do not hate each other prior to a football match will no start to do it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: