Fan Rage: How Home Team Losses Contribute to Domestic Violence

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Jonah Light

Any diehard football fan can relate to post-loss blues — when your beloved team is outscored by a rival, it’s hard to keep your spirits up or put on a happy face after the game.

And while it’s easy to dismiss such disappointment as nothing more than fan frenzy or simple fanaticism, the latest research suggests that negative emotions triggered by events such as a football loss can lead to more serious crimes and behaviors like domestic violence.

In a comprehensive survey of domestic violence calls recorded by 763 police departments in half a dozen states, economists David Card and Gordon Dahl report in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that NFL losses can result in a 10% spike in domestic violence reports in the hour or so after a local football team has just suffered a loss. The volume of calls doubles when the team loses to a traditional rival, and also surges if the football team loses during the playoffs.

Card and Dahl analyzed the relationship between domestic violence and football losses in order to better understand the factors that contribute to domestic violence, which is the leading cause of injury to women in the U.S. Violence in the home runs counter to the idea that the family is a source of support and in need of protection, and sociologists and psychologists speculate that apart from cases of mental illness, many cases of domestic abuse arises from the need of one partner to exert control over the other.

Even so, says Dahl, the prevalence of domestic violence suggests that other, perhaps more transient factors, may be contributing to cases as well. “A lot of domestic violence doesn’t happen because people like to hit or control people,” says Dahl. “It seems like there is a role for some people basically losing their temper, and hitting an emotional cue that allows them to do something in the heat of the moment that they later regret. That’s where our paper comes in. It doesn’t excuse domestic violence or say that domestic violence is a good thing, but it does help us understand what we can do to help stop it.”

The key, say Card and Dahl, is managing expectations. Their study provided a window into the importance of expectations in modulating emotions, an understanding of which could help address some of the triggers of domestic violence. They correlated domestic violence reports with the days that local teams were playing, as well as with projected betting odds to determine whether the local team was expected to win or lose. In the study, the “key thing wasn’t whether the team won or lost the game, but whether they won or lost unexpectedly,” says Dahl. “It doesn’t matter whether you lose the game, but it does matter in your emotional reaction when you lose the game when you thought your team was going to win.”

In other words, the loss is more emotionally salient if you were expecting to win, and therefore more mentally disturbing and likely to trigger a temper flare and even violence against loved ones. Interestingly, Card and Dahl found that there was no increase in domestic violence reports when teams were expected to lose and then lost. There was also no beneficial effect of lower violence rates when teams won when they were expected to lose. “Upsetting bad news is really bad, and upsetting or unexpected good news is okay, but doesn’t have the same positive effect as unexpected bad news has on emotions,” he says.

Card, who has been studying factors that contribute to domestic violence, notes that in the analysis, he was not able to glean much information on the families affected by violence following football losses because he was only able to collect basic information on reports of domestic violence from police databases, and not from arrests. “We don’t know anything about these families — what kinds of jobs the spouses held, how long they were married, whether they had kids. All of these would be extremely interesting in learning more about who might be most vulnerable to this type of influence,” he says.

Based on the limited amount of data that was available in the police reports, however, Card says the trend appears to cut across racial and economic lines, and apply pretty universally to all types of families. Teasing apart further details on how such temporary emotional triggers can set off domestic violence, however, could lead to improved interventions that could eventually lower rates of abuse, which can have lasting and harmful effects not just on the victims but on entire families as well.