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Does Sport Make Violence Socially Acceptable?

Rugby players charge, covered in dirt and blood
With rugby and American football fans, players and media treating games like warfare, does on-the-pitch violence become more acceptable?
  • Sports such as Rugby embrace the violence in games, using war imagery to portray players as “warriors”, the pitch as a “battleground”, and fans as “armies”
  • Similarly, mocking chants and pre-match displays undercut the drama of violence, making it easier to stomach
  • Cameras are positioned at a distance from injured players, creating the illusion of a non-violent game

Savagery in a pub car park is illegal; on rugby pitches it is a matter of national pride. Rugby, in particular, is characterised by high-speed running and physical collisions. However, other contact sports such as American football, lacrosse, boxing, MMA, and wrestling might also spring to mind as examples of when violence, far from being condemned, is praised and enjoyed.

In 2020, Eddie Jones, coach of the England national rugby union team, was quoted in The Guardian saying, “France can expect absolute brutality from England, we are going to go out there and make sure they understand what Test rugby is. It is about being brutal, it is about being physical and it is about dominating the set piece.”

So, how do people distinguish violent clashes in contact sports from other “bad” forms of violence? Delphine Dion, Professor of Marketing at ESSEC Business School, with colleagues from KEDGE Business School and NEOMA Business School, published research which finds that celebrating and mocking violence both make it more socially acceptable in the context of rugby games.

According to their study, consumers, players, and reporters dramatize rugby matches as war scenarios rather than civilian ones. For instance, the language around rugby relates the pitch to a “battlefield”, the players to “warriors”, and the fans to “armies”. Pre-match rituals like the haka have their origins in martial traditions. Transported into this alternate reality, the game takes place in a situation where enacting and receiving violence is accepted.

Simultaneously, grotesque live performances and amusing songs undercut the drama of violence, making it easier to process. In 2010, a game between Toulon and Stade Français opened with four bare-chested gladiators in pink leopard-print loincloths and ostentatious nipple-piercings dragging a carboard boulder across the pitch, out of which jumped a topless woman to present the match ball. Since 2005, Stade Français has regularly released outlandish new jersey designs, earning the team its nickname: “The Pink Army”

“There is a tension between celebrating and mocking war at the same time, meaning violence can be perceived as fake or funny. Far from questioning violence, these practices are a way of avoiding criticism and strengthening the worthiness of violence,” says Dion.

Her research finds that consumers and professionals also justify in-game violence by defending its adherence to the rules of the sport. Spear tackles, where one player lifts another and drops him so that he lands on his back, head, or neck, used to be legal. In 2009, World Rugby ruled that they should receive a straight red card. Where fans had once cheered spear tackles, many now regard them critically, and might think of the offending player as a coward to some extent, for breaking the rules.

You need not tax your imagination too hard to picture the injuries that could result from such a manoeuvre. Broken bones, dislocated joints, spinal damage. Injuries are a feature of all sports, especially contact sports. In rugby, they are common. Three years of professional rugby games in France resulted in 2,208 injuries, an average of four injuries per match. Yet fans continue to flock into stadiums. Final round games in French Rugby Union League competitions regularly attract up to 80,000 spectators.

Sportscasters deliberately aestheticize interactions on the pitch, to make them appear more spectacular and dramatic. Cameras avoid showcasing bleeding or injuries, viewing severely hurt players from a remote distance. In the case of confirmed or suspected concussions, medical protocols are conducted in the changing room, away from the public. On the field, injured players are surrounded by medical staff and covered with a sheet. Off the pitch, journalists, spectators, and players themselves avoid using terms that highlight the pain these athletes endure, the researchers suggest. Words like pain, suffering, and hurt are taboo. In combination, these factors create the illusion of a non-violent game.

Should attitudes be adjusted? The researchers believe so, and have some suggestions as to how this might be brought about.

“Our findings enable us to offer some recommendations to all firms that participate in competitive sports organisations, such as governing bodies, producers, broadcasters and sportscasters, to avoid or limit the justification of violence,” says Dion.

Media and competition organisers should avoid making war references in relation to rugby, and provide content on injuries, consequences, rule changes, and protective equipment, to create a more truthful and less glamorous portrayal of violence on rugby pitches.

However, some might argue that the illusion is the point. That, without an element of danger, the thrill of watching sports is much reduced. After all, the violence is limited to the pitch and the confines of the game, so what harm could it cause?

But we’ve all seen instances where passionate fans clash, especially after games where the stakes, and emotions, are high. In December 2022, French and Moroccan football fans clashed in cities across France and Belgium. Riot police were called in. In Montpellier, a 14-year-old boy was hit by a car. Outside of those carefully-constructed alternate realities, when it is not a game, the simple truth of violence sets in.

And it is ugly.

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