The one play of my football career that my father remembers most fondly came in my very first game, when I was eleven years old. Younger and smaller than the other players, I was positioned out of harm’s way at outside linebacker. But on one play, the opposing running back caught a pitch to my side and turned to run up-field, seeing only me blocking his path to the end zone. Fearlessly, I charged across the line of scrimmage into the offensive backfield. The tackle was textbook perfect: I lowered my shoulder pads into his thighs, wrapped my arms around his legs, and stopped the bigger player in his tracks, bringing him down for a loss.
My proudest moment in watching my dad on the football field came years later. He was the referee for a youth game, and I was assisting him, as an official-in-training. At halftime of a close game between rival neighborhood teams, the coaches from both sides converged at midfield, shouting and swearing. My dad stepped into the middle of these half-dozen fuming men and berated them for their behavior. The coaches retreated, a bit cowed but still pointing fingers and hurling oaths at each other. Watching from a few yards away, I knew that, if not for my father, this Saturday-morning game of 14- and 15-year olds would have ended in a fistfight between the responsible adults.
These episodes reveal the two sides of violence in our games. On the one hand, a clean hit to the body—an act forbidden in normal, everyday life—is an integral part of some sports. A good hit is exciting for fans and exhilarating for players. But on the other hand, the competitiveness in sport often leads to hostility, fueling uncontrolled, deviant actions among players, coaches, parents, and fans. Just this week, for instance, a viral video showed a youth hockey coach in British Columbia deliberately trip a player on the opposing team during the postgame handshake, causing the 13-year-old boy to break his wrist.
Kevin Young understands this complex dynamic of aggression, contact, and violence in sports. Like me, Kevin has fond memories of hard tackles on the field, having grown up playing rugby in northern England. But as sociologist who did his student research work on soccer hooligans, he also knows that sporting matches are regularly scenes of illegitimate and even criminal violence. His book Sport, Violence and Society (Routledge, 2012) is the product of more than two decades of research on the topic. Looking at episodes of player fights, fan riots, and abuse by coaches and parents, in Europe and North America, Kevin discusses the characteristics of sports-related violence and the sources of such actions. As a fan and a former player, he knows that we cannot remove hitting from our games—nor does he want to. But as a scholar, Kevin recognizes that we, the fans and commentators, do need to change the ways we watch and describe violence in sports.