Overwhelmingly about sports-related violence

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David Wästerfors
 Associate Professor in Sociology
Dept. of Socioloy, Lund University, Sweden


Kevin Young
Sport, Violence and Society
220 sidor, hft.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2012
ISBN 978-0-415-54995-0

Sport is a splendid example for method courses in sociological criminology, especially when students are about to practice interviews and observations.  Just enter any sport context as a field worker, and equip yourself with an interest in deviance and social control, and you will find a fascinating world, filled with norms and violations, conflicts and sanctions, lifestyles and subcultures, masculinities and femininities. You will not only get easy access to personal accounts on how to make or break a rule, how to carry out controversial strategies or manage a conflict, how to judge a wrongdoer and how to rehabilitate him or her, you may also find enough data to apply and complicate almost any criminological theory. And you will find violent stories, if that is what you are looking for: stories of aggression, injuries, hate and revenge.

But, as the Canadian sociologist Kevin Young argues in his book Sport, Violence and Society, the fact that sport stuff often makes up valuable data for sociological analyses is often overlooked. Sports-related violence – Young’s specific topic – has basically been ignored by conventional sociology. “The absence of ‘sports violence’ from the colossal mainstream literatures on studies of aggression and violence is conspicuous, frustrating and, ultimately, asociological”, Young writes in a characteristic formulation.

Kevin Young has certainly made a tremendous effort to change this. Sport, Violence and Society is a comprehensive overview and instructive discussion of countless aspects. After all, Young finds himself in a quite lucky situation since even though mainstream sociology has failed to notice sports-related violence there is much to pick from the sociology of sport. Sport, Violence and Society is sprinkled with findings from sport studies that Young assembles, categorizes and theorizes (some of the studies he has conducted himself), so that sports-related violence really is drawn into sociology.

First, Young addresses player violence (especially in North American ice hockey) and its “drift to criminalization”. Despite the fact that violence often is seen as “part of the game” and neutralized as ritualistic and harmless, and despite the fact that the concept “implied consent” tends to excuse and accept injuries (and even death) in games and competitions, Young reports increasing evidence that courts in a number of countries are more and more willing to hear player violence cases. Still there is a lingering “degree of immunity from criminal liability”, as Young puts it, which turns the worlds of sports into special ones in relation to the rest of the society.

Second, Young addresses crowd violence, mostly typified as “hooliganism” in a British context but here the picture is wider. “Missile throwing” is for instance included (and you do not need to be a hooligan to throw a bottle onto the playing surface), as well as “field invasion”. Soccer hooliganism cannot be treated as a “British disease”, Young concludes, since crowd violence during sport events is much more widespread and has a longer history than such a term imply.

Then Young goes on to present his major contribution: a scheme of “formations of sports-related violence” with 18 “cells” in an effort to “move beyond the limiting and de-contextualizing inclination of existing research”, that is to say research that mostly focuses on players, crowds and isolated episodes. Sexual assaults within sports are for instance included, as well as offences by coaches, administrators or medical staff, “violence against the self”, etc. The result is a wide-ranging map of phenomena that Young argues should be included in the topic, and a graphic “sports-related violence wheel” trying to interrelate them all.

Further, Young dwells upon risk, pain and injury in sport – including some fascinating stories of how to endure pain as an athlete, and how to account for its normalcy – and then moves on to “sport in the panopticon”, that is to say sport and social control. Young reviews society’s attempts to control sports-related violence in all its variety. Since sport is based on conflict, competition, physical force and the notion of dominating opponents, “sport could not exist without some degree of internal restraint and external control”, Young argues. Still “hazing”, for instance, shows no signs of going away, despite many anti-hazing policies and education campaigns.

Then Young turns to media and finds that journalists typically dramatize and stress “potential rougher elements” in sports. He also reviews the social stratification of sports-related violence, mainly referring to the masculine dominance but also other ways in which these phenomena are stratified, for instance age.

I think Randall Collins and Jack Katz have done a remarkable job to answer that question, but unfortunately Young does not refer to their works, maybe because they are seen as “too micro” (which they are not).

The result is quite an overwhelming amount of data and fields, concepts and theories. In the introduction, Young presents a set of sociological approaches to violence in general – social learning theory, techniques of neutralization, subcultural perspectives, figurational sociology (Norbert Elias’ processual perspective) and victimology – and his way of reconnecting to these approaches throughout the book works very well. Young’s preference for reporting various findings work very well too, although the lists and points eventually turn out to be too many. It happened more than once that I wished that the author could have skipped this or that example and instead stayed with the previous one, in order to portray processes in greater detail and deepen our understanding of cases. Sport, Violence and Society contains too many lists and points and too few fleshed-out case studies. When violence occurs in sports (and in other contexts), how does it happen? I think Randall Collins and Jack Katz have done a remarkable job to answer that question, but unfortunately Young does not refer to their works, maybe because they are seen as “too micro” (which they are not). Fleshed-out cases could also have helped Young to develop more arguments regarding which theories that he thinks do not fit these phenomena, like he is doing vis-à-vis hooliganism and the lack of data supporting the popular view that it would be a response to changing working-class traditions and values.

This critique also involves Young’s 18 cells within his “formations of sports-related violence”. As he says himself, the cells and the wheel “do not really mean very much in and of themselves” but serve as an overview and, I suspect, a way to satisfy a wish for pedagogical control. The problem is that when Young tries to achieve this control, he also tries to boast the topic’s relevance by including things not necessarily unique for sports, for instance partner abuse, parental abuse and “offenses against the environment”. Young is certainly welcome to broaden the picture but he may also, ironically, narrow it. By treating athletes’ partner abuse as belonging to sports-related violence, it risks being de-contextualized from other persons’ partner abuse, and thereby detached from non-sports-related research.

The problem is that sporting individuals’ sport identity may start to get treated as a “super identity”, overshadowing other identifications, without necessarily showing empirically that this is the case.  When the Canadian wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his wife and his son and then hanged himself, is that to be treated as a case of sports-related violence or, say, masculinity related and emotion related? What if Benoit would have been a taxi driver, would that make this case into an instance of taxi related violence? Without a more detailed account we can merely speculate.

I also think Young could have taken the play element in sports more seriously, since it may very well provide keys to understanding sports-related violence as interactions. I do not mean merely in terms of accounts and neutralizations (“it’s just a game!”) but in terms of ethnographically depicted situations. To be engrossed in a play frame, to use Erving Goffman’s term, may make us do things we otherwise never do.

With that said, Sport, Violence and Society undoubtedly will serve as an excellent introduction and exhaustive guide into this complex field. Kevin Young is clearly an expert with an encyclopedic view over sports-related violence, and I think he has written a book that no one with overlapping interests can sidestep. Researchers and students will find it more than useful; they will find it inspiring.

Copyright © David Wästerfors 2012

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