Many of us have seen rowdy sports fans whose passions quickly become unruly. From viral videos of Red Sox fans overturning cars to Kentucky basketball fans setting fires, the relationship between sports fans and violence isn't exactly a secret. But research suggests that violence isn't limited to public riots.
Several studies have linked major sporting events to an increase in reports of domestic violence. A 2013 study from Lancaster University found that domestic violence reports at a police department in the northwest of England rose by 38% after matches in which the English national soccer team played and lost (and a 26% increase even when the team won). Last year, researchers at the University of Calgary in Canada found that calls to a domestic violence hotline in Alberta rose by 15% when the local football team was playing. And in the U.S., a 2011 study looking at 900 NFL games over 11 years found that domestic violence reports increased by 10% in places where local teams lost.
But Rachel Goldsmith, LCSW-R, associate vice president for the Domestic Violence Shelter Programs at Safe Horizon, says that domestic violence is extremely underreported (the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that almost half of domestic violence incidents go unreported) and it actually can be difficult to get accurate statistics on whether or not calls to hotlines are linked to particular events.
"A person may experience domestic violence and then they may not be ready or in a position to reach out for help for weeks or months later," she says. "A lot of people, based on the safety of their situation or their own personal process, are going to take time to reach out. So it’s really hard to know with any accuracy that if a person made a call today, is it because something happened on this day? Or is it something happened a week or two ago?"
Often, calls to a domestic violence hotline have to do with seeing abusive situations on TV or on the news. Qudsia Raja, policy director at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, says that the hotline does sometimes see a spike in calls related to sports, but not necessarily sporting events. Rather, the hotline has seen an increase in calls when public figures — sometimes athletes — are in the news, being accused of domestic violence. When video footage surfaced of football player Ray Rice assaulting his fiancé in 2014, Raja says, the hotline "essentially broke" because there was such a huge spike in calls.
People who are abusive like to find ways to justify their abusive behavior.
Rachel Goldsmith, LCSW-R
"We see a spike because what’s happening with survivors is that they’re able to make a connection," Raja says. "When you see it happening on TV and the news, and you see the name 'domestic violence' tied to what’s happening, and you see it as something you’ve experienced as well, you think, wait, that happened to me."
While Goldsmith and Raja haven't seen more calls to their respective organizations after sports events specifically, they both agree that sports and sporting events don't cause domestic abuse, but they can exacerbate behaviors that are already going on. Goldsmith also says that abusers might use the strong emotions that come up during a sports event as a cover to take those emotions out on a partner.
"People who are abusive like to find ways to justify their abusive behavior," Goldsmith says. "When you have something like a high-stakes sporting event, you have emotions involved, you might have money involved for a bet, you have drinking involved — all of those things can give a built-in excuse as to why domestic violence occurs, but none of those things actually cause domestic violence."
And while the words "domestic violence" usually conjure up the idea of physical violence, domestic abuse is about power and control — and that's not always physical. An abuser might, for example, exert control over partners during a sports match by not allowing them to enter the room when a sports match is playing.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.