Catch me on the new Freakonomics podcast…and BBC Radio 4’s More or Less?

By Dr Martha Newson

Freakonomics recently interviewed me for their new sports series, How Sports Became Us. At one point we discuss the potential for football to promote social change. For instance, Kick It Out, has been fighting racism in the UK since the 1990s. I mentioned the fact that domestic abuse increases by about 30% when England play, and how clubs need to take some responsibility for this violence, as they have done for other forms of football-related violence.

Well, one of the first comments for the podcast says that this statistic was ‘False’. No reference or explanation was given. A few days later the BBC’s statistics programme More or Less got in touch with a query from one of their listeners: is this statistic true? And if so, does the same apply to other sports such as cricket? The answers are ‘yes, it’s true’ and ‘yes, I doubt football fans are uniquiely violent’. But why are people so resistant to this statistic? Is it so much of a shock?

First off, any people will likely have seen the basic stats I refer to in a popular meme going around social media, which was endorsed by various charities (not that I saw any football-specific charities or clubs refer to it). However, the original research can be found in this peer-review journal article by Kirby et al. (2013):

Taken from their paper: ‘The study found two statistically significant trends. First, a match day trend showed the risk of domestic abuse rose by 26 percent when the English national team won or drew, and a 38 percent increase when the national team lost. Second, a tournament trend was apparent, as reported domestic abuse incidents increased in frequency with each new tournament.’

My hunch is that there would indeed be similar trends for other sports. I suspect it is the combination of a) alcohol consumption during matches and b) masculinised group identities coming into action during events that are highly emotionally arousing for fans. This is the ‘holy trinity’ of alcohol, sports, and hegemonic masculinity that Williams & Neville (2014) refer to with regard to domestic abuse. All three of which you can of course find among cricket fans.

However, there is another, evolutionary explanation revolving around mate retention (keeping hold of one’s romantic partner, albeit quite literally in this case). Here we go: our current minds have been shaped by thousands of years of human evolution; our current thought processes and actions are, to some extent, the product of our stone age minds. In our ancestral past, “assaults and threats of violence functioned to deter wives from pursuing alternative reproductive opportunities, which would have represented consequential threats to husbands’ fitness” (Wilson & Daly, 1993:290). In short, there may have been some use in coercing and assaulting women if it meant that your genes got passed on more than your peers who did not assault their partners when they looked at another man.

In fact, we might expect more of this ‘mate guarding’ behaviour under conditions of group threat, i.e. sport matches, when reproductive stakes are highest. Other researchers have noted the ‘warlike’ features of sport, including football, suggesting that highly valued females are also ‘spoils of war’ (Winegard & Deaner, 2010). The rape and slavery of women has been – and still is – a common feature of war. Those trophy wives, the WAGs, may have a more sinister counterpart: the women who are coerced, beaten, and brutalized behind closed doors by male partners acting out warlike instincts to keep their women down, under the threat of other men. Perhaps key here, is that males feeling threatened by other males increases domestic violence. The old trope about women beaters being cowards may have some truth.

As domestic abuse seems to appear cross-culturally and there are ‘mate guarding’ paralells in comparative species, it seems likely that domestic abuse probably has had an evolutionary function. This does not mean domestic violence is ‘natural’. Far less that domestic abuse is permissible. There is also substantial variation in how domestic abuse manifests and how we value it (e.g. with shame or honour). These stone age minds are plastic, they mould and bend to the environments we find ourselves in. So a culture that endorses hyper-masculine identities and excessive drinking during sport may well find increased rates of domestic violence.

How about sports clubs take responsibility for domestic abuse the same way they have done for other forms of football-related violence? Unlike the use of CCTV, not a lot can be done within stadia, but clubs can refuse entry to known abusers, clubs can promote the relevant charities, and they can – if they want to – promote female fan cultures, rather than the hyper-masculinised cultures that are so prevalent (and often also tied up in racist, homophobic behaviours).


Kirby, S., Francis, B., & O’Flaherty, R. (2014) Can the FIFA world cup football (soccer) tournament be associated with an increase in domestic abuse? Journal of research in crime and delinquency51(3), 259-276.

Newson, M., Bortolini, T., Buhrmester, M., da Silva, S. R., da Aquino, J. N. Q., & Whitehouse, H. (2018). Brazil’s football warriors: Social bonding and inter-group violence. Evolution and Human Behavior.

Williams, D. & Neville, F. (2014) Sport-related domestic violence: exploring the complex relationship between sporting events and domestic violence. In M F Taylor , J A Pooley & R S Taylor (eds), Overcoming domestic violence : Creating a dialogue around vulnerable populations. Social issues, justice and status, Nova Science Publishers, New York, pp. 241-157 .

Wilson, M., & Daly, M. (1993). An evolutionary psychological perspective on male sexual proprietariness and violence against wives. Violence and victims8(3), 271.

Winegard, B., & Deaner, R. O. (2010). The evolutionary significance of Red Sox nation: sport fandom as a by-product of coalitional psychology. Evolutionary psychology: an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior8(3), 432-446.

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