I think it is safe to say that most Canadians love hockey. But after recent events in Vancouver, it also seems clear that the citizens of “the True North, Strong and Free” much prefer the violence to occur down on the ice, and become very uncomfortable when it spills out onto the streets, as it did the other day after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup in game seven to the Boston Bruins. Ever since the Canuck loss (and the subsequent street-level melee), the Canadian airwaves and newspapers have been intensely focused on analyzing the riot in ever finer detail.
Was it just the work of a small group of hoodlums and anarchists, as the police originally claimed? Probably not. A great number of the rioters were wearing expensive blue Canucks jerseys rather than the typical anarchist black hooded sweatshirt. And what about the claims from the hockey apologists that the rioters were not really hockey fans at all? Again, the films of the mayhem clearly show that many of the miscreants were proudly wearing the team jersey. They sure looked like hockey fans to me!
But perhaps it was, as some claimed, a powerful-if-inarticulate political protest by disenfranchised youth who are economically excluded from being active participants in Vancouver’s extremely expensive existence. A sort of class warfare in the form of flipping and burning cars. Again, the pictures told a different story, especially the video of a very privileged young man (who, it turned out, also happened to be a member of the Canadian Junior Men's National Water Polo Team) trying very hard to light a police car on fire. This was not a riot of the dispossessed.
So elusive was the answer as to what caused the riot that one commentator on CBC radio actually stated that our inability to make any meaningful conclusion about the riot was in itself a meaningful conclusion about the riot.
Our lack of understanding somehow enhances our understanding?
I don’t think so.
Oblivious to the obvious. If you want to get to the right answer, you have to ask the right questions. And one glaring question that has been sorely missing from all of the analysis is this one: Why were the vast, vast majority of the rioters male? Why is it that regardless of their political worldview, their attachment to hockey, or their socioeconomic status, the one thing that most of the rioters shared was the fact that they were men?
And to all of the pundits who have been scratching their hands over just what it was about Vancouver or hockey (or Vancouver hockey) that caused the riot to occur, let me say that riots after sporting events are quite common around the world. They regularly happen in Europe, in the USA, in South America. And the game can be football, basketball or soccer, in addition to hockey. (I think we are still waiting for our first golf riot.)
And in all of these cases the riots themselves have been almost entirely male events. If we want to understand (and possibly prevent) these events in the future, we need to further examine this truth.
It must be the testosterone, right? We all know the pattern: we men watch a game, we get all revved up, and then we just have to do something with all that energy! So what’s a guy to do? It’s not like we can really be expected to behave in a civilized manner when the whole season is on the line! We get super excited, and then we just can’t help but act wild. It’s almost as if once the testosterone gets flowing, there’s no stopping us.
It all makes perfect sense!
Except for the fact that it’s not true.
This is what I call the “testosterone apologist” argument for excusing men’s bad behavior. It says that we men cannot and should not be held accountable because once the testosterone takes over, all bets are off. This argument is often used to justify a whole range of bad behavior, including domestic violence and rape. If you piss us off or arouse us (or both), this line of thinking goes, then we will act aggressively, and we are not entirely responsible for the consequences of our actions!
There are several problems with this argument, not the least of which is the fact that it is based on a totally uninformed notion of how testosterone actually works in the male body. To be sure, testosterone is an arousal hormone (like cortisol or adrenaline), but it is not a violence hormone, at least not in humans. And while winning a competition is associated with a subsequent – and temporary – rise in testosterone in the male victor (and in the male fans of the winning team), losing a game is actually associated with a lowering of testosterone in both male athletes and their male fans. So the “it’s the testosterone that made me riot” line of defense is a nonstarter.
If not biology, then what? Since the man-as-slave-to-his-hormones argument rather quickly falls apart, what else could explain this enraged, highly-gendered, violent response when our team loses? I think it has to do with two things: issues of male identity, and men’s often extremely limited emotional repertoire.
When it comes to male identity, many of us men connect very strongly with the sports team(s) we support. It is one of the few areas of life where we all have clear societal permission to get extremely excited, to dress up, to cheer and act silly, to dance around, to paint our faces, and to have a vibrant emotional experience. It is one area where we men are allowed to care, and to care very, very deeply. Where we can finally be utterly unabashed in our enthusiasm. For some of us, a championship game is like Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, Thanksgiving, and our birthday all wrapped into one. It’s that big to us, and we care that much. It is the biggest day of the year, perhaps of the decade, and for some men – depending on which teams are playing – one of the biggest days of our lives. The excitement is almost too much to bear.
Which brings us to an awful, horrible question:
What if we lose?
(Here “we” = the team. Many of us become so strongly identified with “our” team that it is no longer “they” who lose while “we” watch – it becomes “we” who lose.)
We have pumped ourselves up so much (often with the help of alcohol, and definitely with the encouragement of the massive money-driven corporate sports machine) that crashing back down to earth becomes almost unbearable. Because we have been raised as men in modern society – a place where a man is simply not allowed to lose – many of us have been left fantastically ill-equipped to deal with such “tragic” losses. Since we are not allowed to cry, to grieve, to mourn, or to weep, we find ourselves carrying feelings of great rage, anger, and emptiness. So what do some of us choose to do with these difficult emotions? We choose to strike out. To break a window. To light a fire. To flip a police car. To avenge the loss.
Where to from here? So how does this perspective on masculinity and sports help us when it comes to responding to (and hopefully preventing) sports-related violence in the future? There are several things we can do:
We need to reteach boys and men that winning is not everything. In any sporting event, one team is most likely going to win and the other is going to lose. The important thing is that a team plays its best. But these truths are lost when we focus only on the win-loss record. And when we lose sight of these truths, we take all of the fun out of competition. What is supposed to be just a game becomes way too serious.
We need to encourage boys and men to diversify the things that we allow ourselves to get excited about. Sports are fun, but they are just one area of life that we men can embrace. What about gardening? Art? Music? Poetry? Home remodeling? Our families? Protecting the environment? Working for gender justice for women? Let’s not limit our passion only to game day!
We need to encourage boys to maintain and men to rediscover a wide emotional repertoire that allows us to cry as well as to cheer. That enables us to react to disappointment in ways other than with just rage.
We need to encourage boys and men to understand that professional sports are in fact not just a game. They are a huge business. We are all being influenced by an extremely sophisticated and highly effective marketing machine that is actively working to attract our attention – and our resources. Although as fans we may care very deeply about our local professional sports team, it is a safe bet that the team only really cares for us to the extent it can extract money from our wallet. We often hear players say: “It’s all about the fans.” But it’s not entirely true. It’s actually all about the fans’ money.
We all need to consider the notion that professional sports leagues bear some responsibility for the impact that they have on society. If sporting events result in riots that cost the public millions of dollars, then maybe it is time to ask these immensely-profitable organizations to foot the bill for the police overtime, the emergency services, and the cleanup costs. Without the Stanley Cup, there would have been no riot in Vancouver. I think the NHL should help pay for the damage that its championship event brought about. If we start holding sports organizations financially responsible, you can bet that they will quickly put their marketing specialists and behavioral psychologists to work finding a way to end this post-event rioting once and for all.