Sports—tribalism in full cry

The now infamous Vancouver hockey riot has done a pretty good job of smearing the city’s reputation around the globe. Shocking as it was, it wasn’t entirely surprising. Rioting seems to be part and parcel of professional team sports. The reason, of course, is that team sports are a tribal phenomenon and tribalism has a close relationship to violence.

When people go to a music concert, a movie, the ballet, whatever, they go principally to appreciate the performance—the art and the skill. But when they go to a sports match they go principally to see our guys beat their guys, to see our tribe triumph over theirs.

If you go to a concert and the performers sing out of tune or if at a ballet the dancers trip over each other, you are unhappy. You may want your money back. If, on the other hand, they sing or dance beautifully, you are delighted, you got your money’s worth. You don’t much care one way or the other whether the performers are from your home town or from Beijing. The performance is the thing.

But if you go to a sports match and it’s badly played but your team wins, you are nonetheless ecstatic. On the other hand, if the game is brilliantly played but your team loses, you are depressed. The tribe is the thing.

Players on teams don’t all wear the same uniform just so they can tell their guys from the other guys, it is equally about tribal regalia. The fans, too, often deck themselves out in team colours and other symbols—the tribe in full cry.

Sports, next to war, are almost unique in generating mass loyalty and mass emotion. States know this and often invest heavily in sport to unite their people and promote their tribe. When Olympic winners mount their pedestals, their national anthem is played and their national flag waved, and that’s essentially what it is all about—flaunting the tribal symbols.

Unfortunately, that mass loyalty and emotion will from time to time spill over into mass violence. It happened in Vancouver on June 15th, and it will happen somewhere else next year or the year after. It is, you might say, in the nature of the game.