When sport turns tragic

February 3, 2012
A soccer ball on the field

The recent soccer riots in Egypt remind us once again just how vulnerable sport is. While the situation and tragic results of the riots in Port Said seem to be more about political unrest and political regime change in the wake of the “Arab Spring,” they do nevertheless shine a spotlight on spectator behaviour at sporting events and they have certainly given sport another black eye.

Still, soccer hooliganism does have a long and rich history, dating back to the 13th century in England. In many respects, we might refer to soccer hooliganism as nationalism or tribalism “gone wild.” But soccer matches – and this is not unique to soccer, let’s not forget our own recent Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver –  create a context and provide a forum for all kinds of groups to express their outrage and to engage in anti-social behaviour and to potentially get swept up in a mob mentality.

In soccer, this goes back centuries to when soccer matches were used to settle disputes between rival villages; disputes over things like land claims for example. The sporting event back then had little or nothing to do with entertainment and it certainly wasn’t about the character development of the participating athletes, it was simply a means to settle a dispute. While we’ve come a long way from sport as a method of settling societal disputes, to sport as a public asset that builds character and strengthens communities, the history of fan hooliganism is sometimes hard to shake.

People at a sporting event get caught up in the violence for a variety of reasons. It may provide an outlet for their frustration, anger and outrage related to political, religious, economic or other issues. Often there are professional activists and agitators around to stir things up and to throw a match on the burning embers of discontent. Or, some people may have little else going on in their lives that their emotional investment and life purpose is tied up in the wins and losses of their team.

It seems to me that in light of the tragic riots in Egyptian soccer, we ought to see what we can extract from it to insulate our sport system in Canada from similar occurrences. First and foremost I think parents can use a situation like the Egyptian soccer riot as a teachable moment – a teachable moment for their children and just as importantly, a teachable moment for themselves. We want sport in Canada to reflect and reinforce our values – in sport. In Canada, we call these our True Sport values. When it comes to spectator behavior at sporting events, the two most salient values are those of respect and athlete safety.

As with many things we witness in professional sport, whether it  be doping, harassment and abuse, violence, racism or as in this case spectator violence in the form of a riot, the seeds of these behaviours are sown in our community sport system. Sadly, we have allowed spectator abuse of officials, players, coaches and other spectators to be normalized and to go un-checked.

As a parent at our children’s sporting events, including soccer games, we have a responsibility to be positive role models for the values and principles of True Sport. These include in particular modeling respect for the opposing team’s players and coaches, respect for the officials and respect for the opposing team’s fans. It also means modeling practices that help ensure the mental and physical well being of the athletes – athletes from both teams. Sport officials need to have and to act on the authority to remove unruly spectators from the field of play and surrounding spectator areas at the first signs of disrespect – we need to take a zero-tolerance approach to these outburst so that the message gets through and the situations don’t have a chance to escalate. Parents need to be educated on how they can participate as spectators in a positive and supportive way in their children’s sport and they have to understand the harm that their negative spectator behaviour can cause their children and their sport experience.

Sport has the potential to be a powerful public asset in Canadian communities and for Canadian society. But it will only be this positive public asset if it is based on and driven by the values and principles of True Sport – the sport Canadians want.

One of sport’s many benefits is that it can create social capital – it builds positive relationships between people. We like to say that sport can bring us together as neighbours and we leave as friends. Far too many Egyptians recently came together as countrymen and women and left as enemies, many dying in the process.