He’s Coming Home: Domestic Abuse and the World Cup

When the World Cup began 3 weeks ago, an image started circulating on twitter that stood apart from the rest. It was not of a player or coach; it was a graphic displaying domestic violence statistics, an attempt by British organization ‘The Pathway Project’ to bring awareness to the side effects of England playing in the tournament. It warned of the massive 38% spike in reported incidences of domestic abuse when England lost a game, and of the 26% rise even when they win or draw. Similar campaigns have been launched during other sporting events– the now famous Super Bowl 49 PSA about domestic violence got millions of views when it aired and millions more post-game. Big team events necessitate extra efforts to prevent assault. But why? The numbers tell us it happens, but not the reasons behind it.

Disclaimer– this article is NOT intended to excuse domestic violence. Abuse happens for one reason and one reason alone: abusers. There is only one person upon whichpr to lay blame, and no statistics can offset the fault. In this article I will not consider why abuse happens, but why there are sharp increases around certain events, and how identifying risk factors is crucial to protecting as many women, men, and children as possible.

The 38% statistic was taken from data gathered by the police force in Lancaster, UK, but similar findings were reflected in other English cities. During the 2010 World Cup, Manchester police saw the number of calls go from 304 to 353, a 16% spike. The Home Office collected data from 33 out of 39 police districts in England, which Royal Statistical Society Fellow Dr. Allan Brimicombe and BBC journalist Rebecca Cafe, used to conclude that there was a 33% increase across England on days that the team lost. There were of course those who questioned whether the observed increases were in fact due to football, or if they had more to do with a generalized rise in abuse rates or other factors such as season or weekday, but Brimicombe’s study concluded that despite the arguments against football as a catalyst, the World Cup consistently caused increases compared to the control group.

The problem isn’t exclusive to England. Interestingly, it is also not necessarily tied to one sport. While data in the UK is primarily focused on football, other countries have found that other tournaments have similar effects. In Auckland, New Zealand, the 2011 Rugby World Cup coincided with a record number of calls to the Auckland Sexual Abuse Hotline in September, and though hospital admissions did not increase, police statistics reflected the jump in hotline calls. There is one glaring outlier that undermines the ‘big sporting events = more domestic abuse’ school. The Super Bowl, the biggest event in American football and in American sports, has no discernable effect on domestic assault. It was a myth long perpetuated, started by an activist group in 1993–that women should leave the house on Super Bowl Sunday, because more women were assaulted on that day than any other day of the year. The claims were not substantiated by any evidence, however, and were debunked around 2015.

The reason for the claims were simple: American football is an undeniably violent sport. The combination of the physical violence with an added competitive element is or seemed to be, in the advocates eyes, a recipe for disaster. And while their ideas were found invalid for the Super Bowl, when applied to the football World Cup or the rugby World Cup, they might just hold true. Both events are held on an international stage, making them inherently political. The BBC recently published a piece contemplating what would happen were England to win and be forced to send dignitaries to Russia, when tensions between the two countries are high. A Croatian player is in hot water over his comments about Ukraine. In the World Cups teams represent their entire nation to the world– what happens on the field could almost be looked at like a microcosm of war, wins and losses being taken indication of a country’s social or political standing. The Superbowl has none of that tension. While occasionally political, there is no pressure for one team to represent all of America, and no nationalist impulses among fans. The infrequency of the World Cups also differentiate them from events like the Super Bowl; the stakes are higher because victory can only be obtained every four years. During the World Cup all of the abusive men (and some, though many fewer, women) in the nation rally behind one team and ride the same high, which could explain (though again, ​not​ excuse), the statistical jumps.

The National Football League (NFL) is not by any stretch immune to domestic abuse, however. There is one trend that can be observed in all sports–football, American football, baseball, rugby, hockey, etc. Athletes have the power to abuse, and very often, they do. Chicago Cubs pitcher Aroldis Chapman was given a mere 30 game suspension after allegedly choking his girlfriend and firing shots in their garage following an argument. The now infamous Ray Rice was initially only given a 2 game suspension after footage emerged of him dragging his fiance out of an elevator unconscious (the NFL has since removed Rice, but in 2017 drafted a half dozen players who had been accused of assault). Every sport has its own abuse scandal. And leagues do very little to condemn such behavior, besides half hearted attempts at awareness campaigns. What coaches, owners, and leaders in professional sports have done (or failed to do) has succeeded in fostering the idea that violence is excusable among their players, and encouraged on the field. This toxic mentality undeniably has impact on spectators. Watchers see violent behavior being celebrated and are emboldened to practice it themselves.

Toxic violent mentalities combined with emotions on high seem like a powder keg when applied to an abusive figure. But on top of those two factors, there is one other element that nearly every statistician and police force has agreed increases risk: alcohol. Research has indicated that alcohol can cause an inflated sense of power and can trigger an aggressive response in some users. The World Health Organization published a study reporting that 55% of American abuse victims thought that their abuser had been drinking prior to the incident(s) (32% of UK victims thought the same). Almost like a holiday (which uncoincidentally also cause spikes in domestic abuse), the World Cup is certainly an occasion for drinking. Every game results in pubs crowded with spectators and abusers downing pint after pint, after which they return home, emotional and volatile. It’s a trend that isn’t new–as far back as the 1840s feminists were arguing for temperance to try to lessen the impact that abusers were having on women in the home. And contrary to popular belief, the period of prohibition in 1920s America was not entirely a failure. Banning alcohol did have a positive effect on abuse rates, and though such a drastic measure could never be taken now, certain nations have taken steps to make alcohol less accessible in large quantities. Alcohol does not make an abuser, but it undeniably can and does make abusers worse.

Even though England is out of the tournament, and the whole thing will be over in a matter of days, it is crucial that the issues the World Cup has brought to our attention remain at the forefront of the national consciousness. The World Cup might end, but the issues– the normalization of violence and extreme emotion, the social pardoning of known abusers, and the abuse itself– will never end until direct and constant action is taken to reverse it. Resources need to be devoted to services for women suffering from abuse, time needs to be dedicated education, and leaders need to be pressured into taking a firmer stance against abuse. The World Cup has shone a light on the problems, it is our job to solve them.

A note on the header photo– in my research for this article, I read a lot of other articles and research papers on domestic violence. Nearly every single one had an image of a woman cowering, beaten, trying to tell someone outside the frame to stop. It was a picture I’d seen so many times I’d been desensitized to it. But then when choosing a photo for my own article, I noticed myself subconsciously shying away from the gruesome images of abusers in favor of prettier ones of women. But domestic abuse isn’t pretty. It’s ugly. Broken images of women are more acceptable than a man with blood on his hands, but we need to shift our attention off the victim, and onto the perpetrator. HE is the problem that needs to be addressed.


  1. Aiden says:

    wonderfully written and beyond important! this article is practical and sheds light on this devastating issue; with the addition of your article image and your reasoning behind it, very smart and meaningful.

  2. F says:

    Really well written article and looks at something that I suspect very few people have thought about during the exhilaration of the World Cup. I think it is important that people write about domestic abuse, because I think it can encourage people in abusive relationships to seek help – something they may otherwise be reluctant to do given a sense of guilt, shame or ‘loyalty’ to the person they are with. I wonder whether alcohol is actually the main cause? It would be interesting to look at similar events where people drink a lot of alcohol such music festivals etc. and see whether it led to similar levels.

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