Sport&EU in cooperation with the Sport and Citizenship / Sport et Citoyenneté think tank launched a discussion on violence in sport in Europe. In an invited follow-up contribution to Bart Ooijen’s opening piece on the role and actions of the European Commission, Jonas Havelund and Lise Joern bring attention to some of the shortcomings of the existing regulation.  Jonas Havelund and Lise Joern are with the Section of Sport Science at Aarhus University and one of their articles was recently published in Sport&EU Review.

Sport&EU invites authors to contribute complementary or alternative views to this online debate.  The exchange will be reprinted in Sport&EU Review, the official journal of the Association for the Study of Sport and the European Union.


Categorisation of supporters: Beyond risk/non-risk

Violence and other offences in connection with sports events have managed to particularly attract the attention of the media, regulators and legislators. Special national legislation has been brought in to attempt to curb the problems in several cases by criminalizing what would otherwise be lawful conduct such as having a beer in a private rented coach on the way to a sporting event. Much of this special legislation has been developed on the conception that offences at sporting events are primarily committed by ‘hooligans’, who are out impossible to reach, and therefore there should be a crackdown on their actions. However, the reality often turns out to be something quite different, leading to individual voices, based on the ECHR, to question whether we are using the right tools to solve the problems.

One of the tools at the European level is increased police cooperation in the form of a pan-European training program for police officers, exchange of information in connection with international matches and the development of a common handbook for police action). The exchange of information with the National Football Information Points requires a standardized vocabulary such as that given in the handbook. However, this standardization is not unproblematic. For example, football supporters are categorized as being either “risk” or “non-risk”. What the risk is here is not specified, however, and the pair of opposites contains as few opportunities to communicate shades as do the colours black and white. But supporter culture is not black and white. It is many-coloured, multi-faceted and full of nuances. It is not one homogeneous group, nor even two groups, which are either “risk” or “non-risk”. There are a numerous of more or less fixed interacting groups with very different values and boundaries of acceptable behaviour – and the more insight you have into these dynamics, the better the possibility of marginalizing the unwanted behaviour. It has been documented many times that the presence of “risk supporters” is not necessarily synonymous with risky situations and escalation, just as the absence of “risk supporters” does not guarantee that an event will develop without the risk of unrest. But the concepts are still used in spite of the unintended consequence that stereotypical perceptions may frame the way that police perceive supporters. This leads to a considerable risk that the outcome will be confrontational, with a negative result to follow (For an overview, see Stott & Pearson (2007). Football ‘Hooliganism’. Policing and the War on the ‘English Disease’. Pennant Books). Risk is dynamic and the result of interaction between different parties, so it requires the ability to decode the “counterparty’s” modes of cultural expression in order to ensure a correct reading of a given situation and its level of risk. If not, there is a risk that actions may be seen as disproportionate and illegitimate, which can help to undermine public confidence in the police and the authorities. It is therefore essential that a greater focus is placed on the need to gain insights into supporter culture and use this knowledge in the drafting of legislation and, not least, in the handling of sports spectators.

As Bart Ooijen mentions in his article “Violence in sport: What does the European Commision do?” the EU Commission underlines the importance of investing more in social and educational measures to prevent violence in sport. In order to strengthening the quality of these measures it is crucial to base them upon research e.g. into supporter culture and its local, national and international cultural differences. Otherwise the measures, despite the intentions, risk missing the target. However, it is vital that there is a focus on how this knowledge can be applied and put into practice by the police and other authorities. And here it is essential that the knowledge-transfer between theory and practice goes both ways. The closer the exchange between theoretical knowledge and practical experience, the stronger the parties involved will be in overcoming the challenges they face.

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