Examining the Psychology of Sports Rioting

A topic of great interest to sport psychologists, as well as many sports fans, is the question around why fans sometimes resort to rioting in the aftermath of significant sporting events?  Interestingly, sports fans have shown in the past that they will riot after losses — as well as wins — so what gives?  Some of the more memorable sports riots over the years can be read here.

It goes without saying that sports riots can lead to a number of dangerous (and sometimes deadly) outcomes.  In addition to the risks to people in and around a sports riot, there are also concerns around vandalism, looting, and long-term consequences to sports teams who may see a decline in the number of fans interested in attending future games because of the perceived dangers associated with going to the stadium.

So why do sports riots occur?

Probably the first big reason has to do with the sheer number of people centralized to one location.  Of course, having a lot of people attend an event certainly doesn’t mean a riot is guaranteed to break out, but when tens of thousands of people congregate the risks dramatically increase that a relatively innocuous “spark” (i.e. a lewd remark about an opposing team) could lead to much bigger problems.  Adding to this is the fact that many fans use (and abuse) alcohol, making it that much more likely for arguments to quickly escalate into physical fights.

Delving deeper into the psychology of sports rioting, most experts would agree that group dynamics are largely responsible for a riot developing out of an otherwise non-threatening argument amongst fans.   When people gather in groups and quickly realize there is an inherent diffusion of responsibility “built-in” when masses of people crowd together, they often think, act, and behave in ways in which they never would if held individually accountable.  Anonymity breeds in crowds, and often creates a false impression to people that their actions won’t be accounted for — so why not throw a rock, break a window, or jump on a car?

Fortunately, the vast majority of sporting events end peacefully and with few problems, fights, or arrests.  Still, enough sports riots have occurred throughout the years that make it important for us to better understand and prepare for dangerous crowds at games.