Fan violence and the dangers of encouraging passion

While MLS Commissioner Don Garber has been getting himself into trouble for not being tough enough in his condemnation of neo-Nazis -- criticism that he does not deserve -- disturbing soccer-related nastiness has been re-surfacing in England.

Nastiness that arrived at a wretched climax (we must hope that this is as bad as things will get) over the weekend during a game between Aston Villa and Birmingham. A second division game in which Jack Grealish, the Villa captain, was attacked on the field by a fan.

Probably you have seen the video, so no elaborate description is necessary. There has been across-the-board condemnation of the incident in England. I don’t think anyone -- yet -- has made a public statement in favor of the assault.

Even so, there is something about all this condemnation that disturbs me. Most of what we are reading comes, of course, from the soccer community -- players, coaches, administrators et al. And for my taste, far too many of them seem to be much more interested in bemoaning the damage to the sport, than in dealing with the rather smaller, human aspect of the incident: The fact that an individual, a human being, was attacked in a most cowardly way.

This is -- or should be -- a matter in which less means more. Is the fate of Jack Grealish, the victim, really of less importance than the fact that soccer has been made to look bad?

To illustrate, look at this comment from a former Birmingham City player, Darren Carter: “It is a rivalry and you get passionate, but you should never come on to the pitch. That is diabolical behavior.”

I’m being a little unfair to Carter in singling him out because there have been plenty of others with the same view: that the real outrage here is not that Grealish was attacked -- from behind -- but that the fan was on the field.

That I simply cannot understand. Of course, we all know that fans aren’t allowed on the field. Yet there are plenty of occasions when fans do go on the field -- either en masse to celebrate, or individually just for the thrill or to get close to a favorite player.

Soccer is supposed to make sure it doesn’t happen, but many stadiums seem designed to make sure that it does happen. Security is surely taken seriously these days. I don’t think lax security is the problem here -- certainly not the main one.

Take another look at that quote from Darren Carter, and ponder the word “passionate.” This is a word that, back in the day when I was a teenager attending games in the English Midlands (including Birmingham and Aston Villa games), was rarely if ever heard. Fans then were life-long or true or devoted or loyal, or maybe a bit crazy .. but passionate? No.

That was a time when rival fans did not have to be separated in the stadiums. They stood together, mingled on the terraces. They cheered and moaned -- and joked -- with each other. I know that because I was one of the cheerers, moaners and jokers.

But that was before Bill Shankly made his fatuous comment about soccer not being a mere matter of life or death -- “It’s much more serious than that.” And it was before the marketing mob sank their greedy claws into the sport.

Big time money entered the sport in the 1960s, and things started to get serious. The marketeers commenced their spoliation. Their mission, of course, was to get fans to buy mountains of shirts and scarves and other overpriced accoutrements and accessories. You needed to be passionate fans to do that, so the word passion became the marketing mantra. Fans were hardly to be thought of as fans at all if they didn’t show off their passion -- by loudly trumpeting the supposed merits of their team, by behaving loutishly as ultras , and by ... spending lots of money.

I still cringe when I hear Garber, an intelligent man, going on admiringly about all the “passionate” fans in MLS. How can he not be aware of the problems that arise from trying to harness, to exploit, a volatile emotion? (The lesser breeds in the marketing ranks are another matter -- they, in the pursuit of financial happiness, will believe any nonsense).

What is not being faced up to is the surely inevitable fact that passion comes in two varieties -- positive and negative. They exist together, side by side, in the same individual. The negative passion is called jealousy, or in its more virulent expression, hatred.

Stoking up a fan’s passion for his team will surely nurture a dislike of the team’s rivals -- a dislike that, inflamed by passion, soon enough distorts into hatred. Bad enough, but what we have in soccer is a situation where the antagonism is overtly encouraged. All the sledgehammer subtleties of marketing -- just look at those imbecilic scarves with their “CLODHOPPERS TILL I DIE” slogans -- are working to more or less ensure that the rivalries go beyond mere words.

Paul Mitchell, the 27-year-old fan who attacked Grealish, has been jailed for 14 weeks. He has been a Birmingham City season ticket holder for 20 years, but the club say he will now be banned for life from the stadium. According to his lawyer, “Mitchell cannot explain what came over him yesterday morning.”

If you’ve read this far, you will have an inkling about what might have “come over” him. He says he had not been drinking, but the video makes it very clear that he was enjoying himself, smiling, blowing kisses to the crowd as he was marched off. He gives every sign of being proud of what he has just done.

Most of the game was still to be played. Grealish stayed on the field and had his revenge by scoring Villa’s winning goal. A happy ending, then? Not really ... what must not be overlooked is that there were plenty of Birmingham fans applauding as Mitchell left the field. They might have been applauding the security guys, I suppose, but the feeling is strong that they were expressing approval for Mitchell.

A feeling that is strengthened by the way that Birmingham fans (not all of them) found it amusing to boo Grealish throughout the remaining 80 minutes of the game. So maybe there has been public approval of Mitchell’s aggression. Ugliness begets further ugliness. We have reports that Mitchell’s family has taken refuge elsewhere, having received death threats.

All very passionate, don’t you think?

So the marketing mafia has a problem: how to continue their promotion of passion without also fostering thuggery. It’s a problem that cannot be solved -- not because they are too dumb to come up with an answer -- but because they are too dumb to realize that there is no answer. They have got things wrong from the very start.

There is a neat parallel to this problem within the game itself. There are plenty of soccer adherents who believe soccer has become too “gentle” a game. They want to see more vigorous tackling, more physical contact, more collisions, and much more permissive refereeing.

Their problem is exactly the same one as the marketeers face: how do you control the passions that you are releasing? I do not believe it can be done. The advocates for a more physical game all profess to believe in the English credo of “hard but fair” (sometimes it’s even “hard but honest”). Nice talk, but it is nonsense. Once the rough stuff starts, you can be absolutely certain that it will get rougher until common sense, should such a virtue still exist, cries a halt. A halt to violent play, a halt to manic marketing.

Any chance? The answer ought to be yes. Soccer’s Rule 14 lists player actions to be punished -- most of them are some form of physical contact with opponents. The rules are clearly designed to keep rough play within reasonable limits. The sport played with unbridled roughness really ceases to be a sport at all, becomes simply a melee. It certainly ceases to be soccer.

One of the sturdy supporters of “hard but fair” soccer is English coach Sean Dyche. When his team, Burnley, recently played Liverpool there was plenty of vigorous slide tackling from Burnley, some of it not so nice -- enough to bring a protest from Liverpool coach Juergen Klopp.

Dyche defended his players, but his words ring hollow ... because during the game a Burnley tackle resulted in Liverpool’s Joe Gomez being stretchered off with a broken leg. The irony was that everyone -- including Klopp -- agreed that this tackle was fair. So ... how about “hard but fair, and passionately dangerous.”

Those who want more “commitment” -- i.e. passion -- from soccer players and fans are playing a dangerous game. When things go wrong, when the commitment escalates to mindless violence, the excuses (we never intended that, or we are not responsible for the actions of a few psychos) are to be scornfully dismissed.

Because the marketeers and the hard-but-fair advocates know full well what they are doing. Their laudatory talk of passion and commitment is meant to raise the temperature, to introduce hyper-involvement into the sport.

They have become pretty good at that. Not realizing -- or, more likely, refusing to realize -- that they are encouraging hatred. They are attacking the idea that the behavior of fans and players should be reasonable.

The marketing people, along with their brothers in advertising, have been trying for some time come to grips with a similar problem. How to reduce drunk driving. There have been a number of “drink responsibly” campaigns, but no one knows how effective they are. One thing not in doubt, though, is that they represent a genuine effort to conquer a major problem.

There is, of course, no sign of any campaign asking for fans to “Behave responsibly.” Nor does one seem likely. One is not needed for players -- they need simply to be told to obey the sport’s rules, and referees need to be told to enforce them.

But aberrant behavior by fans is much more difficult to deal with. A few hours after the Grealish attack, an Arsenal fan ran on to the field at the Emirates Stadium and shoved Man United’s Chris Smalling. Earlier in the week, in Scotland, Rangers’ captain James Tavernier had been confronted, on the field, by a Hibernian fan. And a Man City fan is recovering from a coma after being attacked by Schalke fans two weeks before that.

Not enough to assert that storm clouds are gathering, but these incidents loom as sinister straws in the wind. Something unpleasant is happening. It needs to be stopped. By putting fences around the playing area? By using more security personnel? By ruling that all fans must carry an official “fan-identity” document? By handing out severe punishment?

I suppose all of that will be considered, the usual Law and Order responses. But harsh responses do not help soccer’s image, so something less draconian can be expected. What will not happen is any attempt to rein in the marketing excesses, the demands for more passion. They have nothing to do with soccer values.

Fan groups know the problem, know the damage that can be caused. Fan groups do their best to promote responsible fandom. But their voice -- and it is generally the much needed voice of reasonableness -- is not the dominant force one would like it to be.

The appeal for responsible fans needs to be heard, to be listened to. The longer it remains unheard, the easier it is for the passion-mongers to spread their insidious message. What would make a lot of sense would be a move toward responsible marketing. Ideally, it would be the marketeers themselves who make such a move.

But I have no doubt that is expecting too much. Soccer itself will have to make the move. It can start by showing more concern at the fate of Jack Grealish, rather than worrying about the sport’s image. If the sport takes good care of its people, it will be all right.

6 comments about "Fan violence and the dangers of encouraging passion".
  1. beautiful game, March 12, 2019 at 6:05 p.m.

    Garber's mentality is for "a fi$t full of dollar$", he could care less about the game. 

  2. Ginger Peeler, March 12, 2019 at 6:52 p.m.

    Well, the article was about violence (from both fans and players) in England, not so much about Garber’s milquetoast condemnation of fan violence here in the US. But, we have the hate problem here,  too. Last week, a game in Illinois was halted for rough play and one of the soccer referees was attacked and injured by 3 kids! They learn to “become passionate” at an early age. So far the hatred here in the states is more concentrated on American football (especially college), as opposed to soccer. But it’s created by the same “us versus them” attitude that the marketers and other folks whip up to increase revenues. 

  3. R2 Dad, March 12, 2019 at 9:46 p.m.

    You're not going to be able to convince these "hard but fair" supporters that going to ground is a bad idea. Lots of good players have performed that way, but the Stuart Holdens and Jack Wilsheres  of the sport end up retiring early or injured often, delaying or denying their potential. And I think the argument that sliding tackles = early retirement is something Dyche should understand is the price paid by those players AND the club in lost productivity and lower sell-on transfer fees. Club ownership at the bottom of the table knows this but when it gets to the end of the season clubs near the drop don't care, really.

  4. Mike Lynch, March 12, 2019 at 9:56 p.m.


    Good article and overview of what sport should not be but yet is becoming the norm more and more as a several billion dollar industry in a culture that also turns a blind eye and thinks very lightly or negatively about virtue and ethics. With many defending the Leeds spygate as part of the game or the majority accepting Henry's hand ball putting Ireland out of the World Cup back in 2010 WC qualifying as part of the game, should we be surprised the game will continue to have dark episodes? Ironically, culture's misunderstanding of Sport Virtue and Ethics leads many to think it would lower competitive excellence when actually it leads to it. 

  5. Kent James, March 13, 2019 at 2:14 p.m.

    The thrust of this column is that too much passion can lead to violence, while I wonder if it may be the reverse.  Passion in sports can provide an outlet for tribal loyalties that would otherwise find an outlet in more dangerous ways (racial or religious violence, wars).  Sports can break down racial and religious, even national, stereotypes, and if done properly, helps everyone understand that much more binds us than separates us (this is why I love to see  the different national team and top club teams competitions, where players are teammates one week and opponents the next, and usually show plenty of passion about winning but still respect their opponents (and don't make them less than human, as truly tribal contests do).  While too much passion can get out of control, I think it is not the passion itself, but other factors (immaturity or closed mindedness on the part of the fans) that lead to violence. Passion is one of the entertaining elements of live sports.  I remember an Italian club's fans misbehaved a number of years ago, and a Champion's league match was played in front of an empty stadium, and it was bizarre....

    If the MLS wants to sucker people into buying expensive fan gear, I'm okay with that, as long as it means their will be a team to watch.  If they start requiring you to have team gear to gain entrance, then I'll join the oppostion (I've never bought any gear myself, though I'm a season ticket holder to a USL team; that stuff is expensive!).  

    I also think Gardner's concern about Graelish is misplaced.  Whle the fan coldcockd him, it didn't look like much of a punch (on the side of the head), so I was not surprised that Graelish continued to play.  And given he scored the winning goal, it would not surprise me if he considered it a pretty good day (one of the greatest soccer days of my life was getting knocked out in a game and coming back to score the game winning goal in overtime).  I've also been punched square in the face, and was surprised how little it hurt (I think I ducked enough so the punches landed on my forehead, and I'm sure injured my assailant more than me).  If the punch did cause damage, then of course, Graelish deserves our sympathy.  The fans who booed him for the rest of the game, of course, are a special kind of stupid....  

    The commentators concerns about a "pitch invasion" are not misplaced, they are efficient.  If he can't get on the field, he can't punch a player.  It's not insensitive to be concerned about overall field security.  

  6. Kent James, March 13, 2019 at 2:15 p.m.

    Finally, while slide tackles can be reckless, endanger and opponent, and all the horrible things PG assigns to them, if done property, they allow defenders to get to a ball they otherwise could not reach.  Any defender going out to purposely slide in unnecessary situations is a moron, because a slide almost always takes you out of the play, so if you don't get the ball, you are beaten.  Good slide tackles are done paralell to the path of the player with the ball (blocking a cross, e.g.), or if done perpendicular to the path of the player, create a wall in front of the ball (to make sure it is stopped), and done this way, pose no danger.  The dangerous slide takles (which should almost always be punished by a card) are slide takles into the player with the ball from the front (often done at the ball, but with force enough to carry into the player). I've played in leagues that ban slide tackling (indoors, e.g.), and they are not noticeably safer.

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