Does College Football Cause Higher Crime? A Guest Post

A few days ago, Levitt blogged about an interesting study finding that violent movies reduce crime (at least in the short run). The reason, according to the study’s authors, Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna, is simply that more violent movies means fewer drunken louts on the streets. It is simply an incapacitation effect.

One way of testing this hypothesis would be to look for the opposite type of experiment: What puts more drunken louts on the streets?

Two words: college football. Or, at least, that is the focus of a new study by Daniel Rees and Kevin Schnepel linking crime and sporting events. They analyze daily crime data, but instead of analyzing the changes around the release of new movies, they look to see what happens on game day. Their findings are quite striking, and they report large rises in assaults, vandalism, and disorderly conduct on game days. As might be expected, this effect is large in the city of the home team, but basically non-existent in the city of the visitors.

You might be worried that this rise in arrests reflects more police on the street on game day (and hence more arrests per crime), rather than simply more crime. But the authors provide a clever response, noting that upset losses by the home team have a particularly large effect on violent assaults, while expected losses have little effect. Unless police chiefs are also successfully forecasting football outcomes, it seems that this alternative explanation doesn’t hold water.

The effects here are pretty large, and the study is quite convincing. It is worth noting that these results occur despite the fact that the football programs they analyze ban the sale of alcohol in the stadium.

There’s a nice back story here, too. Schnepel is an undergraduate student, who got to thinking about this question while sitting in Rees’ class on the economics of crime. Soon enough, an idea became some explanatory regressions, and then a co-authorship, and now, an interesting paper. And all this happened in time for Schnepel to boast about it on his grad school application (which I look forward to reading!). [Correction: Schnepel is in fact a current graduate student in economics at the University of Colorado, Denver. Though we’d still love to get a look at his application.]

Putting the Rees-Schnepel and the Dahl-DellaVigna studies together, the policy implications seem pretty obvious: we want to engage aggressive young men in activities that amuse them (like movies), but don’t provide an outlet for violence (like a football game). This seems pretty obvious, but then it got me wondering: why do violent movies lead us to sit quietly and stare at the screen, while football leads us to get out of our seats and begin the biffo? A general theory here may well suggest broader policy implications from these sorts of studies.


If people 50- 100,000 people were tailgating for movies and sneaking large quantities of alcohol in then I doubt people would sit quietly and watch the screen.


Movies are shown to smaller groups of people throughout the day. Just as one group is leaving, another is going in for two hours. Games are shown to a very large group of people (the crowd attending the game + the television/radio audience) all at one time. When the game is over, they all hit the streets at once.


I wonder what the comparison is at college football games where alcohol is not allowed and NFL games where alcohol is allowed.


Heh. Deliverator makes a good point. Smuggling booze into the movies is even easier than smuggling it into a college football game, too.

Personally, I think the booze and the larger numbers of people are the most likely explanations.


It's also possible that one (or both) of the studies is flawed or that they are not comparable for some reason. Is one of the professionals going to do the dirty work of sorting this out? We amateurs can then stick to entertaining ourselves with speculations.


I don't quite remember the actual fact/source, but I believe I've read something about sexually active young men committing fewer crimes. Perhaps we should legalize brothels that hold competitive sex games on Saturdays?


If you think banning the sale of alchohol at college football games means that people aren't drunk, then you haven't been to the same college football games that I have.


Good points, previous posters. I seem to agree with tailgating, attending in large groups, and the outcome of the game as being the major differences to the movie scenario. I would like to add there has been way more criminal activity and violence when my school would unexpectedly lose a basketball game, not football. Two more points: Lots of college kids are already drunk going into the game, so the lack of alcohol availability isn't really a factor. Also, if you can't get tickets (more so for the basketball games where I went to school) then you just watch from the local bar or house party, where alcohol is available. It seems as simple as alcohol and an upset don't mix with a group of 20 year olds.


I doubt there's a correlation between the event. As someone said earlier, I'm sure a study would show that 50,000 drunks attending a violent movie would have a higher rate of crime as well.

Things to consider:

1. What's it like at a BYU home game? They are the most sober school in the nation.

2. If there is an increase in crime, is it the BYU fan or visitor who committed the act?

3. In the previous study, is there any correlation between those arrested and whether or not they actually attended the game? I'm guessing not, but probably between their behavior and alcohol consumed.


So based on this evidence, should we have age restrictions for football games? 18+ only?


I would guess, as well, that alcohol and large group behavior should be investigated as potential causes. Probably the former more than the latter. This is a very interesting finding, however; are there any studies that anyone knows of investigating smaller groups than football game audiences that exhibit this effect?

How about audiences at completely (or mostly) sober games?

Also, to the above comment, only if the Barbies are drunk and in large competitive groups.


I think the crime potential in going to a movie and going to a ball game are pretty obvious.

Ball games usually involve tailgating or hitting the local pub before and after the game. Usually with very large crowds (mostly young men). Most of the crowd is identified with the home team or the away team which can lead to a natural us/them attitude and lots of cheering and booing and the accompaning aggresion that probably brings. Having your team lose to an underdog also leads to some frustration and probably drinking that also leads to anti social behavior.

Movies on the other hand are much more sedate (not much audience participation even at action films). There are no large crowds that hang out before or after the film, no us/them identification and no frustration (unless the film was really bad).

I'm guessing any event that brings out very large crowds would spike the crime rate - state fairs, outdoor music festivals, etc.. I wouldn't think it's not restricted to football.


check your pants

check your facts buddy--

"Daniel I. Rees is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Colorado Denver. Kevin T.
Schnepel is a graduate student in the economics program at the University of Colorado Denver."

Don't think you'll get to read his app unless its for a phd program.

John Doe

A football game is live with an uncertain outcome.
A movie is pre-recorded and the outcome has already taken place. There no upsets at movies.

Maybe we should just reenact old football games instead of playing new ones?


"we want to engage aggressive young men in activities that amuse them"

Wow, where do we take this?


I think it could be the group behavior. Most movies don't invite this behavior and then combine it with a dissatisfactory outcome.

I could see that watching the dissatisfatory outcome of "The Sopranos" with my friends may have been be dangerous if the writers were in the room


This overlooks something important. In many college towns 50k to 90k visitors come for the game. It does not strike me as noteworthy that a college town with a population of 50,000 has more crime when its population swells to 125,000 for the Saturday game.


I went to state university with 20,000 students in a town of 7,000 people. As the games started in the afternoon or evening, people had all day to drink, regardless of what was sold at the stadium. There are also lots of parties set up on game days, lots of visiting alums looking to cut loose and relive their glory days. The fraternities help fuel this.

What's the comparison between colleges with Greek and without Greek systems?


This is one of those cases where data proves quantitatively what many people (especially those of us who live in towns with a strong university football team) already know intuitively. Which is to say, "well, duh."

In fact, as you say, games only affect crime rates in the home team's city, where thousands of people witness simultaneous actions with the same personal commitment to the outcome--not to mention the contributing effects of alcohol and tailgating and pep rallies. The "distraction" effect of a movie (for which almost every city is the "visitors" city) is a totally different scenario.


Water also runs downhill. Have these guys ever been to a game???