Unsportsmanlike Conduct, Off the Field
Domestic violence in the U.K. is said to spike every time England loses a football match. A BBC reporter and a statistician team up to uncover the full story.
Football in Europe is a world unto itself, less a professional sport than an exercise in 21st-century nationalism: stadia take the place of battlegrounds and players the place of soldiers, while fans and hooligans hold down the home front, anxiously awaiting news of their boys overseas. Victory can ignite a country’s passion and patriotism, while defeat can sour the national mood for weeks.
Nowhere is the mania more catching than England. Indeed, Brits are such fervent fans that domestic violence in the U.K. during World Cup play rises and falls with the fate of the country’s football team—this according to a recent study in Significance, the Royal Statistical Society’s bimonthly journal.
This may not come as news; the link between football—both soccer and American-style—and spousal abuse has long been a topic. In the U.S. it arises with the canard that domestic violence peaks on Super Bowl Sunday (although it does increase when the home team loses); across the pond it entered the national conversation in 2006, when a Home Office report, reviewing crime statistics from that year’s World Cup, first asserted a correlation. But the U.K. government’s analysis had plenty of critics—not least among them soccer’s more peaceable superfans—and the phenomenon remained something of an urban legend: plausible, if unproven.
Earlier this year, Rebecca Cafe, a BBC journalist, and Allan Brimicombe, a professor of geo-information at the University of East London, decided to review the evidence themselves. Parsing the 2006 report, the pair quickly spotted some unseemly flaws: first, its authors had compared World Cup playoff days, which occurred mid-summer, to control days in the winter, opening the door to seasonal variations. Too, the data came from predominately urban districts, and were collected during a special anti-abuse campaign. Finally, the authors didn’t differentiate between England’s wins and losses, even though conventional wisdom held that it was only defeat that inspired an uptick in violence.
Brimicombe knew he and Cafe would need better data—and more rigorous methodology—if their conclusions were to stand up under scrutiny. Because “domestic violence” is broadly defined under the law, and because the Home Office doesn’t list it as a separate offense in annual reports, Cafe had to request crime logs directly from local police forces using the Freedom of Information Act. All told, she filed some 208 separate FOIA requests—a small mountain of paperwork.
Brimicombe, meanwhile, suggested more appropriate control data; from past research he knew that domestic violence was cyclic. “It goes up on the weekend, and falls down during the week,” he told me. “There are spikes during the year, at Christmas and New Year.” It wasn’t enough, then, to simply compare June 27th, 2010, a Cup match, to June 27th, 2009, because they fell on different days of the week, potentially muddying the data. It was important, too, that the researchers collect figures from across the country, as local events or shoddy police work could produce aberrations in any one city.
In the end, Brimicombe and Cafe compared four 2010 World Cup match days—two draws, a loss, and a win for England—against four non-match days in both 2010 and 2009. What they found partially confirmed the Home Office report: on days when England drew, there was no spike in domestic violence; when they lost, reports of abuse rose 34 percent. And when England won? Here, the researchers were surprised. Instead of inspiring celebration and goodwill, victory portended just the opposite—violence jumped between 28 and 35 percent.
“I think it’s a matter of getting very worked up,” Brimicombe says. “I’m sure that drugs and alcohol can have an exacerbating factor. But it also, in the mix, requires a relationship where not all is well.” As the Home Office analysis was careful to point out: “Major sporting events do not cause domestic violence, as perpetrators are responsible for their actions.” Rather, they set the stage for abuse: heightened emotions, substance abuse, and late-night carousing.
I pictured a middle-aged, jersey-wearing lout getting soused at the pub and then heading home to pick at some longstanding marital scab with his wife—until Brimicombe complicated my mental image. According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, he told me, 60 percent of domestic violence victims are women, while 40 percent are men. “Women can lose their tempers just as well as men can,” he said. “But it tends to be female victims that become chronic victims. In other words, there is this repeat victimization over time.” And, of course, it’s female victims who suffer the worse physical abuse.
Brimicombe doesn’t care for football himself—he may be a minority of one in England—but, he says, the takeaway is simple: “You don’t hit the people you love. It doesn’t matter what the disagreement is. Just don’t do it.”