Thursday, May 14, 2009

Violence and Sports


I recently reread the introduction of Quest for Excitement by Norbert Elias (pictured) and Eric Dunning. In this introduction Elias theorizes (among other things) that sports grow out of regulated societies where violence is reduced to a minimum because disagreements are resolved politically. Sports function, in these societies, as a "relief-institution," a "mimetic battle" that allows people to achieve fulfillment and catharsis without "acts of violence . . . the infliction of physical injuries or of death upon other human beings."

Since sports are close to violence, however, it is also in the context of sporting events that violence tends to manifest itself first when society (because of unemployment, poverty, discrimination, etc.) begins to break down. Hooliganism is one example Elias gives of this phenomenon.

Of course, when social structures break down even further, sporting events sometimes cease all together. But sporting sites continue to be associated with violence. Soccer stadiums were used for public executions by the Taliban in Afghanistan (Khaled Hosseini describes the stoning to death of an adulterous couple at halftime of a soccer match in his novel The Kite Runner). The French used a velodrome as a rounding up spot for Jews being deported to concentration camps during World War II. Frank Foer, in his book How Soccer Explains the World, details how the fans of Red Star Belgrade became "Milosevic's shock troops, the most active agents of ethnic cleansing, highly effectient practitioners of genocide." Perhaps you can think of other examples.

The point is that sports, consciously or not, stand at the limit of socially acceptable violence. And when that limit shifts in society, the shift may first be manifest in sports or at sporting locales.

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