Why Aren’t U.S. Sports Fans More Violent?

In Sicily last Friday, during a soccer match between Catania and Palermo, fans rioted outside the stadium with bombs and steel pipes, resulting in the death of a police officer. As a result, most soccer matches throughout Italy this weekend will be played in empty stadiums. That’s right: fans are being barred from soccer games until the authorities can figure out how to stop them from killing people.

Soccer hooliganism is no surprise to anyone who’s followed the sport, or read Among the Thugs, or even How Soccer Explains the World. “We are talking about a cancer, not a seasonal flu,” one soccer commentator wrote after this latest example of soccer violence. But reflecting upon this recent killing, I am surprised to think about how U.S. sports fans are, relatively, so much more non-violent.

I have seen plenty of fights break out at live sporting events here, but they usually amount to a few sloppy punches, some backward staggering, a bit of cursing over the beer that was spilled. And then things settle down. Sometimes a fan or two is ejected, or even locked up. (I have heard that Yankee Stadium has its own little jail cell for this purpose, but I’ve never seen it.)

So why, in a country with a higher rate of violent crime than in nearly every other developed nation, do we suffer so much less fan violence at sporting events? Here are a few theories:

1. Many soccer matches are more local affairs than U.S. sporting events, thereby attracting a lot of fans for both teams, who are more likely to mix it up than if 95% of the fans are rooting for the same team.

2. We have better security.

3. We drink less; many U.S. stadiums and arenas now cut off the sale of beer, e.g., before the end of the game.

4. Perhaps the audiences at U.S. sporting events don’t include the criminal element — the result, perhaps, of high ticket prices.

5. For years, there has been talk of how American sports, particularly football, are a proxy for war and true violence; maybe this is actually true.

What are your thoughts?


Like dpalermo said, here in Brazil it's definitely explanation number 1. Most fan violence happens in games between two local teams. Away teams have small crowds and the rivalries are weaker.

However, I'd say that number 4 has quite a bit of weight, as well. Tickets here aren't expensive and a lot of unsavory types get in, including pickpockets. A lot of fights have nothing to do with the game at all, but with the crowd reacting to something that happened in the stands.


Did someone get caught/arrested for the death of that policeman? In the United States, the punishment for killing a policeman is extremely harsh.

I would think that US fans have more to lose at any given moment, and therefore act more rationally.


I don't really have an answer, I'm Italian so I want to clarify that
1 - the riots outside the stadium were more against the police than between fans
2 - at the moment the guys arrested for the murder were really young (15/17)
3 - these guys were part of a fascist/nazi organization

The only point I think is wrong in your list, Stephen, is number 3, drinking is allowed in the stadium but is "less important" in Italy than in the US (or in north Europe). It's funny, drinking is allowed everywhere in Italy and almost anyone can drink (if you are more than 14) but my impression is there are less drunk people in our streets.


"Soccer matches are not family events in Europe, whereas they are far more likely to be in the United States."

Interesting point indeed! Soccer is mainly watched by men, some women and very rarely families indeed.

But it's also true that hooligans often include a lot of neonazis and skinheads. For them soccer is a good excuse to fight and forget their pathetic loser lives for a few moments.

Innocent Bystander

I would argue that perhaps larger answers are unnecessary and "tradition" is all that's really needed to explain it.

Americans have a strong cultural taboo against violence in public gatherings. Not just sports, practically all gatherings. When they DO degenerate into violence, it's seen not just as bad news, but a national tragedy worthy of lengthy remembrance. (Altamont, anyone?) And likewise, whenever especially large numbers of people gather peaceably and accomplish a goal, that too gets enshrined in the national consciousness. (the words "Million Man March" just popped in your head, didn't they?)

Europeans, as far as I know, have no such strong taboo in their culture. Riots at sports games now receive as much anger and outrage as, say, a murder. It's nearly so commonplace as to be accepted, or at least tolerated.

So I think the answer to the question does not lie in ANY conditions *now*, but rather in the past. Probably a fifty years, maybe even a hundred. We'd need to find the point that Europeans began to stop being quite SO outraged over mob riots. Because I believe that is the point of divergance, and everything that's come since is just the natural progression of two societies down different paths.

Alternately, I suppose you could ask, "Why are Americans so accepting of violence in EVERY OTHER area of their lives BUT public gatherings?" but I suspect that answer, too, has its roots in the past. It's just traditional.



I think it is related to the absurd price of a beer in our stadiums! You don't want to do anything that will spill your beer after you've paid that much for it!
Actually, no - I'm not serious.
I think a major factor may be number 4 - our ticket prices are so much more expensive than a European soccer game.


I'll give you that, snubgodtoh, and raise you this,

If soccer is all it's cracked up to be
With all it's heroic individuality
Then why is the life of it's fans
In the hands
Of the mob in the stands?


Having attended some "Football" matches in the UK back in the bad old days (before they cracked down on Hooligans), I cannot say there was any tribalism or any such. I saw 4 obvious problems: (1) fans from opposing teams were mixed in the stands, not separated; (2) most of the "lads" had plenty to drink before they got there; (3) many fans in the UK are willing to drive to away games, often do not have a hotel to stay in, and so are sort of milling around after; (4) most fights took place outside the stadium, after the middle class people had left. The latter one is sort of interesting, and I saw that in Toulouse France as well. There seemed to be an understanding between rival (gangs) that they wait a bit for people to leave, and then have at each other.
The main approach to cracking down in the UK was a combination of recording the faces of trouble makers (and not allowing them back in), separating them in the stands, and dispersing people right after a game. Pubs also are quick to bring the police if rivals show any sign of trouble.



I'd go with number one... Here in Brazil it is very common to see violence in matches between two teams of the same city, but when you have a 'visiting' team coming from a distant place things tend to be rather quiet. Same happens when a national team plays against some foreign one - never heard of problems on those ones...


I would suggest the possibility that the violence is over other issues that have nothing to do with sports i.e. local rivalries in Italy which an outsider would be oblivious to. Soccer is merely a proxy.

In America today there aren't any geographical rivalries that come to violence at this time, no matter how much red state vs. blue state conflict the media tries to exacerbate.


Very interesting observation indeed. The US generally acts more aggressive on a global level while Europe is more aggressive on a local level ...

The Hooligans in Europe though are mostly low-class, anti-social, marginalized 'losers' who use soccer games to release their anger and frustrations. The alcohol surely amplifies this even more.


I've never been to a soccer match in Europe but could it be that sporting events in the US have a lot of families in attendance? I've been to several events where potential fights were broken up by a dad who doesn't want his kids getting hurt. Just a thought.


A few other options:

1. Soccer is a game fraught with increasing tension. Games last 90 minutes and only 1 point might be scored. Basketball, baseball etc. all have scores on both sides throughout the game. There might be 90 minutes of increasing tension with no release as neither team scores.

2. A more flippant answer - U.S. being more violent has no need for the 'excuse' of a sporting event.

3. Europeans are much more used to town/city/tribal differences than Americans. Centuries of conquests, infighting and rivalries.

rob lewins

Here in England, violence in sport has always been the preserve of football 'fans'. I have no clear answer as to why this is , but I tend to side with the historians view, which relates hooliganism to ancient tribal warfare in a country with a rich tapestry of invasion and civil battles.

The sociologist, and probably the economist, will suggest that this is demographically untrue and raise the very valid point that Rugby, where the fans and players are gargantuan by comparison, rarely resort to off-field violence because of their education and middle class gene pool. Judging some of them myself I think it's just a system of 'Mutually Assured Destruction'!!

In England 'tribes' are easily detected away from home as our dialects are distinguishable within less than 10 or 20 miles. So it is very easy to spot an infiltrator, even when the colours of the opposing team aren't on show.
If ever your are in a 'foreign' town and a group of fans ask you for the time, you can be sure that they are wearing watches and scratching just below the surface is the question of 'What Tribe are you from'?? This is a pre-cursor to violence.

But how different is this to the colours of the 'Bloods & Crips' ? And are their tribal alliances detectable just by the red's or blue's they wear ? Could one of your bloggers tell within 10 miles of say L.A. or N.Y.C. what district someone comes from as we can in England ??



There is a similar problem in France with soccer (a little less violent I think but there are deaths related to it every now and then).

1. As far as the first league is concerned, in France, Rugby matches are more often local affairs than Soccer matches (because most of the big teams are from south-western regions) and there is no such thing as hooliganism during Rugby matches.

Antagonism beetween cities isn't related to the distance beetween them: Paris vs. Marseille matches nearly always go badly even thought they are 800km apart.

2. When there is a match beetween cities who don't like each other (Paris vs. Marseille again), there usually are hundreds of republican guards to maintain order and prevent violence.

For other sports, even for finals or derbies, I have never seen a lot of policemen and despite their absence (or discretion), people don't fight or break everything they find at arms length.

3. Rugby supporters are known for drinking a lot and even when supporters from different teams are mixed in stadiums, you don't see drunk people fighting each other.

4. As far as I know, soccer tickets are not cheap compared to other sporting event. So it cannot (IMHO) explain the difference beetween audiences of different sports in France.



There is some significant differences between US pro sports and soccers in Europe.

1. In Europe clubs often pay other club's money to get some players they want, while in US they exchange players. Money really raises some concerns about the particular player. The rivalry between FC barcelona and Real Madrid earned Figo, who move from Barca to RM with a real pig head from fans in Nou Camp.

2. It is especially interesting to watch the derby games or games between great rivals in soccer games. The players often act as they are playing a real tough physical ice hockey game like some NHL games. This is particular evident in England. Such acts in the field definitely can raise the blood level of the fans.

3. The income difference between top and bottom teams in a league is very high in soccer, this increases the chance minor ones play tough against top teams. Ask Arsenal's coach about this.

4. The tickets prices are very high in US pro games compared with soccer, I don't think middle classes want to behave like teens, they don't want to go to local TV under title like "Mr. Foo Bar throws his seat to Axxst in last night's NBA game".

5. The US pro games have more referees in the field or the game field compared with soccer is quite small. Soccer games only have three referees while players are not intense packed in a small area of the field. This ease the chance of misbehaves of players on the field flew from punish of the refs while the fans can see these. Such acts also increase the chance of conflicts between fans supporting different teams.

6. Finally I think the games between given two teams in US pro sports (excluding football) are too much compared with soccer in Europe. There even is playoff games! Such things lessen the chance the results can be determined by some accidents. A team in major soccer leagues in Europe only plays 38-40 matches. Such difference is huge. And a bitter memory can turn to a sweet one in just three days in US pro sports. Net's Vince Carter can tell you this.

The US pro games are too "pro", there even is "trash time", while the soccer teams represent a town or community, they often fight for a glory in the last minutes in a game they are 0-4 behind. You can't be happy with the ones just humiliate you, right?



Although not originally my own thought, I believe the combination of the design of the stadium and the profile/composition of the supporters determines the amount of violence. In Europe, many stadiums are designed in ways more conducive to a bunch of lads who want to "get pissed" and have a time of it as animals in effect. As Buford pointed out in "Among the Thugs," many of the stadiums actually look like animal pens. Soccer matches are not family events in Europe, whereas they are far more likely to be in the United States. Perhaps that is just a proximate cause (for, why then are soccer matches not family matches in Europe?), but I believe the ultimate cause has more to do with the development of the culture of spectator sports in the US and Europe than it has to do with the direct causes of violence at sporting matches in each.


I dont know. Go to any college town the weekend of a big game and go to the local college bars... plenty of intense fights will break out late at night.


Thirty years ago a Cleveland Browns v. Pittsburgh Steelers game was usually pretty rowdy at either town. I think newer high priced stadiums with PSLs and mega ticket prices has brought a different fan profile. Also security at stadiums since 9/11 is pretty tight.
The Indianapolis 500 used to be a wild and wooly event also with the "snake pit" in the infield. Now due to aggressive law enforcement, particularly for drunk driving and underage drinking, it has about the same profile as a church picnic.


In the UK in particular, authorities have been fairly successful in cleaning up casual violence at football matches. Unfortunately, this leaves it up to the professionals.

There are gangs of 'fans' who are actually more into the fight than for the game - in other words, these are touring gangs who use football fixtures as an excuse to schedule fights.