One of the remarkable aspects of the recent Penelope Leach furore is the persistence of the falsehood which is at the root of her beliefs and is a central tenet of her book.  It doesn’t matter that the report which is the origin of this falsehood has been discredited, pulled to shreds by a number of academics and disowned by its lead author, or that all other reports on the same issue tell an entirely different story; the falsehood remains the version preferred by Leach and her supporters.

Another falsehood which refuses to lie down and die has been resurrected recently during World Cup season: it is the belief that during some but not all sports tournaments, particularly when the national team is playing, there is a surge in domestic violence.  Here is a version of the belief from legal blogger John Bolch:

 The connection between the World Cup and domestic violence has been noted for some time. I first came across it two World Cups ago in 2006, when England were playing in Germany. Home Office data released afterwards revealed that domestic violence surged by up to 31% on England’s match days. And it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with England losing – the biggest rise in reports of domestic violence to English and Welsh police was when England beat Paraguay 1-0.

And it was a similar story during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. For example, police in Staffordshire reported a 50 per [cent] rise in domestic violence call-outs on the day of England’s first game in the tournament against the USA. Later, Greater Manchester Police said that reports of domestic abuse increased by 16 per [cent] on the day England went out of the tournament, beaten 4-1 by Germany.

The myth is in the Daily Mail again today which features a propaganda video released by a charity called Tender and depicting an increasingly anxious woman watching a televised football match; at the end of the video a caption claims that the incidence of domestic violence rises by 38% when England gets knocked out of the World Cup.  The alarming figure comes from a Lancaster University study (Kirby, Francis, & O’Flaherty, 2013); the report begins with a caveat that there is no academic evidence for a link between televised football and DV but that some studies have suggested the possibility of a link.

The monthly figures given (from Lancashire Constabulary) do not actually show that World Cup months (June 2002, 2006 and 2010) are the most violent, they also show a year-on-year rise when we know that figures are falling.  What they actually show is reporting levels, and make no mention of factors which might influence these such as increased awareness, media campaigns or pop-up drop-in centres established for the duration of the tournaments.  If we accept the report’s (entirely speculative) claim that only 24% of incidents are reported, increased reporting could result in a doubling, trebling or even quadrupling of figures without there being any actual increase in incidence.  There is no direct correlation with football – no one, for example, is asking perpetrators if they have just been watching a match.

The Home Office report John Bolch cites was called Lessons Learned from the Domestic Violence Enforcement Campaigns 2006 (Home Office, 2006).  The data cited by the report actually showed 21 incidents per month during the World Cup period and 44 per month during the control period – which suggests that football is effective in reducing domestic violence.

What John doesn’t tell his readers is that for the 2010 World Cup the BBC radio show Law in Action asked Cambridge statistician Professor Sheila Bird to review the Home Office study; ‘she found it to be so amateurish and riddled with flaws that it could not be taken seriously.  The 30 per cent claim was based on a cherry-picked sample of police districts; it failed to correct for seasonal differences and ignored match days which showed little or no increase in domestic violence’ (Hoff Sommers, 2010).  Increased police vigilance on match days could result in an increase in reports which didn’t actually represent an increase in violence.  When Carmel Napier, the deputy chief constable of Gwent, was confronted by the BBC with evidence the study she was promoting was specious, she replied, ‘If it has saved lives, then it is worth it’.

Putting the search terms ‘football domestic violence’ into Google brought up a BBC news report stating that Kent police had noted a rise in domestic violence when England played their first match in the 2014 World Cup.  Apparently the violence was spread across the Saturday and Sunday, suggesting that the match was not the only cause.

Further down the report it is revealed that Kent police had set up a special clinic to support victims of domestic violence during the tournament.  A little digging shows that it is being run by Women’s Aid, who have a vested interest in exaggerating the incidence of DV.  As my wife pointed out, if Kent Police had decided to hold a gun and knife amnesty in June their figures would reveal a rise in the number of guns and knives recovered during June, but this would not equate to a rise in the numbers circulating.  During these events the police are more alert to DV and run campaigns to encourage reporting; it is hardly surprising that they then receive more reports.

The belief seems to be linked to the presumed increase in alcohol consumption and the presumption that alcohol is a factor in DV.  In fact, not all studies of domestic violence have found evidence for a correlation with alcohol abuse, and others have found only a week link  (Capaldi, Knoble, Shortt, & Kim, 2012).  One commentator offers a possible explanation:

 Men are mostly loutish brutes, and football is the epitome of mindless, aggressive, violent, testosterone-driven macho posturing, so certainly during the culmination of the football season and its final, spectacular, massively-hyped “super” game, more men than ever were going to express their excitement or disappointment by smacking their wives and girlfriends around.

The myth began in California in 1993.  On Thursday 28th January a coalition of women’s groups held a press conference in Pasadena claiming Superbowl Sunday was ‘the biggest day of the year for violence against women’.  Sheila Kuehl of the California Women’s Law Center cited a study done at Virginia’s Old Dominion University three years before, reporting an alleged 40% increase in reports of beatings and hospital admissions in northern Virginia after games won by the Redskins during the 1988/89 season; Dobisky Associates mailed the media advising wives and girlfriends not to remain at home during the game; NBC even aired a public service announcement.

On the Friday Denver psychologist and author of The Battered Woman, Lenore Walker, appeared on Good Morning America claiming to have compiled a record over ten years showing a sharp increase in violent incidents against women on Super Bowl Sundays.  On Saturday Linda Gorov wrote in the Boston Globe that women’s shelters and hotlines are ‘flooded with more calls from victims [on Super Bowl Sunday] than on any other day of the year’.

When Ken Ringle, a Washington Post journalist, tried to validate the story, he found the original report was wrong (Ringle, 1993).  The researchers, led by Janet Katz, professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University, had not in fact found the 40% increase claimed.  Similarly, other reports of increased admissions to women’s shelters and calls to help-lines proved to be fabricated.

Ringle then investigated the mailing by Dobisky Associates, and they claimed the source of their evidence was Professor Charles Patrick Ewing of the University of Buffalo, but Ewing told Ringle he’d never made the claim and didn’t have the data to make a judgement.

Ringle also challenged Linda Gorov, author of the Boston Globe article, who said she had no evidence but had been told this by Linda Mitchell, a representative of a media watchdog group called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).   When Ringle contacted Lenore Walker she couldn’t substantiate her assertion either.  In short, Ringle found no evidence at all to support the story.

So the idea that drunken, thuggish men are more likely to beat up their wives and partners as a result of watching televised football is not supported.  What is significant, however, is the rise in male-on-male violence at these times.

An analysis of admissions to hospital emergency departments from 2008 to 2011 shows more than three times as many men, especially young men, being admitted around home nation World Cup matches than at midweek (Bellis, et al., 2012).  75.8% of admissions were male and peaked at age 18.  There are lesser rises in admissions on Friday and Saturday nights and the eves of public holidays; the largest peak is on New Year’s Eve.  The 2008 Olympics resulted in a fall in admissions.

The same team looked specifically at admissions over the 2010 World Cup period to 15 emergency departments and found an increase of 37.5% on the days England played (Quigg, Hughes, & Bellis, 2012).  70.1% were male.

Bellis et al showed that susceptibility to violence resembles susceptibility to other health problems such as obesity and has complex origins including early childhood experience.  They call for a wider approach considering the health implications as well as the law and order ones:

 While criminal justice systems work to contain a culture where celebrations, sports events, and holidays lead to greater violence, health services could help create one where they are not inextricably linked.

There is a wider lesson, which is that we should stop basing domestic violence interventions on speculation, stereotypes and ideological expectation, and look at who are really victims, who are really the perpetrators and what the real causes of violence are.  We could start by laying to rest the myth that watching televised football causes men to beat up their partners.


Works Cited

Bellis, M. A., Leckenby, N., Hughes, K., Luke, C., Wyke, S., & Quigg, Z. (2012). Nighttime assaults: using a national emergency department monitoring system to predict occurrence, target prevention and plan services. BioMed Central Ltd.

Capaldi, D., Knoble, N., Shortt, J., & Kim, H. (2012). A systematic review of risk factors for intimate partner violence. Partner Abuse, 3(2), 231-280.

Hoff Sommers, C. (2010, July 10). The World Cup abuse nightmare. Retrieved from National Review Online.

Home Office. (2006). Lessons Learned from the Domestic Violence Enforcement Campaigns 2006, Police and Crime Standards Directorate. London.

Kirby, S., Francis, B., & O’Flaherty, R. (2013). Can the FIFA World Cup Football (Soccer) Tournament Be Associated with an Increase in Domestic Abuse? Lancaster: Department of Applied Science.

Quigg, Z., Hughes, K., & Bellis, M. A. (2012). Effects of the 2010 World Cup football tournament on emergency department assault attendances in England. European Journal of Public Health, 23(3), 383-385.

Ringle, K. (1993, January 1). Debunking the `Day of Dread’ for Women; Data Lacking for Claim of Domestic Violence Surge After Super Bowl. Washington Post.