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Fences Make Bad Fans: Is Football Violence Caused by Fan Segregation?

Patrick McCloskey argues that the problem of fan violence in football may in fact be perpetuated by the very people who claim to be offering a solution

Solutions often lie in paradox. In 1796, Edward Jenner devised the concept of vaccination. His theory was radical but simple. In order to prevent smallpox, he proposed that a weakened strain of the virus should be injected into the body. The pathogen is not strong enough to induce infection. But its introduction triggers the body’s defence mechanisms. The immune system learns how to produce the antibodies necessary to counter the virus. When it meets ‘the real thing’, the body – already accustomed to the process – produces these same antibodies to eradicate the disease. So to prevent a virus from occurring, we introduce exactly those conditions thought to induce that virus.

How, then, can we apply the principles of immunology to the virus of football violence? If our fear is rooted in the prospect of opposing fans coming into contact with each other, then why not allow that very thing to happen? Moreover, what if the cause of football violence is in fact the very act of fan segregation? What if the batons, barriers and riot shields are simply an inadequate solution to a problem they themselves create?  If the problem is premised upon paradox, then it seems perfectly sensible that the solution can be too.

The intuitive response to the idea may be to point to the prevalence and extremity of football violence itself. It may simply be observed that terraces are already violent places. Without the police to separate fans, they would tear each apart.

But this is tautological reasoning. It is circular. It presupposes the inevitable existence of football violence. If we assume that football violence is caused by segregation, then it justifies the segregation of fans by reference to the violence induced by that very same segregation. If separation of fans is to be justified, then it must be done by reference to factors independent of the phenomenon of violence itself. In other words, if segregation is to be justified, then we must take a look beyond the phenomenon of violence itself and ask why that violence occurs.

Segregation emerged in the late 1960’s in response to a particular trend of football violence. However, that doesn’t mean that segregation is necessarily justified as the correct solution to that problem. In fact, as we have seen with the erection of ‘peace walls’ in Northern Ireland, segregation may crystallise a pre-existent animosity, offering a physical instantiation of a less visible violence and hatred. Segregation was a solution very typical of the 20th century. Social engineering was preferred to integration. It was felt that certain classes of people could not live in harmony, and therefore must be disconnected from one another. Fan segregation was simply a particular manifestation of this prevailing ideology. Just like so many ruling establishments were wrong to think that faiths, races and classes could not co-exist peacefully, so too were the police and government wrong in crudely drawing dividing lines between opposing fans.

For many, the arguments for the continuation of fan segregation stem from an inherent class prejudice. Soon after its emergence on the playing fields of the public schools of Britain, football became adopted by the working classes as ‘their’ sport. It is easy to see how a class prejudice might infiltrate the argument here: as the age old saying goes ‘football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans’. If it is the case that the working class are predominantly violent, then football matches will themselves be violent. The fact that football endured a particularly vicious phase is evidence of this supposedly universal truth. Segregation is then necessitated in order to stop the proles from rioting.

But football is not the only sport traditionally played by the working classes. Consider, for example, martial arts and boxing. By the very nature of combat sports, one would expect crowds to be inherently violent in their behaviour. But comparable to soccer, combat sports do not have a violence problem. I myself grew up with the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland. Dublin’s Croke Park can hold 80,000 fans just as devoted to their teams as any Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool fan. And yet – violence is an extreme rarity. American football, martial arts and Gaelic football are sports which are just as working class and even more violent than soccer, and yet there no systemic separation of fans. It is not the case that there is no segregation because there is no violence. There is no violence because there is no segregation.

How then, exactly, can policed segregation cause violence? Game theory is a method of analysing human behaviour. It attempts to predict the conduct of rational actors by reference to mathematical understandings of behaviour patterns. Game theorists distinguish between ‘level one’ and ‘level two’ chaos. Level one chaos describes phenomena unaffected by predictions made in relation to the phenomena. Level two chaos denotes phenomena affected by predictions made in relation to that phenomena. The weather is a prime example of ‘level one chaos’. The weather is not affected by human predictions. If a weatherman states that it is to rain tomorrow, then it is no more or less likely that it will actually rain tomorrow. The prediction is merely a declaration of what we think will happen, but it has no bearing upon what will actually happen.

Patterns of human behaviour, by contrast, subsist as level two chaos. Predictions about human behaviour impact upon how humans behave. Thus, while the weatherman’s predictions about the weather have no bearing upon how the weather behaves, it will impact upon how humans behave. For example, in response to the prediction they may choose to wear a coat, to go to the cinema rather than the beach and so on. The segregation of fans is more than just a weather report. It is itself a prediction of violence which radically increases the probability of that prediction.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted at Stanford University in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo. It’s not an obscure study: it’s textbook psychology. Every law student knows Donoghue v Stevenson. Every maths student knows Pythagoras. Every psychology student knows Zimbardo. Essentially, the study concerns situational attribution – how our conditions cause us to act. Zimbardo simulated a prison environment. He recruited 24 participants. 12 were to act as prisoners. 12 were to act as guards. The prisoners were given uniforms and put in cells. The guards were given uniforms and batons. Both prisoners and guards were told to act as they would expect prisoners and guards to act for a number of days within the sealed environment. The results were remarkable. Within a matter of days, the ‘prisoners’ were revolting. They began to refuse to obey guard orders. Some attacked the guards physically. The ‘guards’ responded with similar extremity. They began to deny the prisoners access to food. Physical punishments were carried out. Extreme psychological abuse was inflicted upon the prisoners.

When the ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ adopted the uniforms of their respective roles, they adopted predictions about their behaviours. Their predictions about how prisoners and guards would behave soon became guidelines on how they should behave. The extreme behaviour of the participants was a product of the environment they were placed in.

Let’s apply this logic to the environment of the football terrace. Like the cells separating prisoners and guards in the Zimbardo experiment, the police enforced borders between fans clearly delineate the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The very act of separation is itself a cause of conflict. The politics of radicalisation is parasitic upon isolation. In Belfast, huge ‘peace walls’, great gates of galvanised steel, divide nationalist and unionist communities. The walls are designed to minimise conflict by separation. But the separation itself leads to conflict. The natural psychological interpretation of walls being placed between you and another is to regard that ‘other’ as a threat, as an enemy. Central to the Northern Ireland Peace Process is the notion of a ‘shared space’, of integrated communities. Distance is desensitising. It is easier to hate another if we do not know them. Think of the ‘keyboard warrior’ or the phenomenon of trolling. The internet is full of people capable of saying horrific things to others, knowing that will never see any reaction or hurt in their eyes. The phenomenon of the ninety-minute hooligan is facilitated by distance. Like the keyboard warrior, shouting abuse becomes inconsequential. Like the radical extremist, hatred stems from the clear lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Frenzy is whipped up within the walls of luminous police jackets – trapping, concentrating, infusing and intensifying hysteria.

At Gaelic football games, opposing fans sit down and talk to each other. During the summer, I travelled to Cavan with a few friends to watch Derry play Tipperary. It was a critical game. The winner would play in the Quarter-Finals of the All-Ireland Championship at Croke Park. The Derry faithful hadn’t had a day out in the spiritual home of the GAA since 2007.

Next to us in the stands was an old Tipperary fan. He was wearing a Tipp shirt that had seen better days. The royal blue and yellow had faded. It was mothballed. There were clearly many years, pints and poor dietary decisions between that day and the day of its purchase. It didn’t flatter his figure.

He’s what’s known as an ‘aul’ hand’. He’d been about the game all his life.  He’d seen it all, and was willing to tell everyone what he’d seen. At half-time, he told me about himself. He had a small second-hand car business in Tipperary. Since the downturn, things had been difficult. But he was getting by. He asked me about my life. How Derry football was. What the journey to Cavan was like. What I was studying at university. In the final stages of the game, Derry were losing by a point. Another Derry fan a couple of rows in front of us was absorbed in the drama. He screamed at the referee, accused him in colourful language of typical anti-Ulster bias. The tension between North and South of Ireland is by no means a trivial subject. But the aul’ hand was having none of it. He was surrounded by about 20 Derry fans. He singled out the accuser. “Shut your mouth” he said, “nothing but typical Northerners cheating until the very end”.

Nobody responded. Nothing unusual had happened. This kind of thing happens all the time at GAA matches. If anything, it’s part of the fun. It’s institutionalised as ‘slabbering’. In English terms, it’s ‘mouthing off’. The GAA’s Third Law is that every act of slabbering must be met by equal and opposite slabbering. I’ve seen people scream all kinds of things at each other at Gaelic games. And yet, even when teams are scrapping on the field, I have never seen anything even remotely resembling fan violence. Never. How could anyone be aggressive to the Tipp aul’ hand? It’s not just because he’s an old man – it’s because we can see that he’s human. He was right beside us. We knew what he did for a living. How much he loved the game.

That kind of rapport is built at every Gaelic game. Derry lost that day. Walking out, a Tipp fan, with his three children, jeered at me and my friends: “it’ll be a long drive home now, lads!” He was joking. We joked back. He shook our hands, wished us luck and said Derry did themselves proud.

Nelson Mandela said, ‘You can’t make peace with your friends – only your enemies’. Fan segregation exists upon the logic that rival fans – as enemies – must be separated. And yet walls are erected in order to counter a threat they themselves create. Like matador bulls trained to charge when seeing red, the barriers and batons of the police stimulate aggression. Aggression manifests as violence as fans cannot see each other as human beings until the moment close-contact fighting breaks out. And by then, it’s too late.


Patrick McCloskey is in his final year as a law student at King’s College, Cambridge. He is also a regular contributor to the podcast, A Team of John O’Sheas. If you enjoyed this article, you can read more of his writing on his website. He tweets @paddyroe95.




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