American Fan Violence

The Problem

A disturbing, but not an unfamiliar, scene broke out this past Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts as two fans began arguing in the stands, resulting in a Miami Dolphins fans punching a New England Patriots fan in the face. Fan ViolenceWith the proliferation of social media, these incidents feel almost common place each Sunday as videos of fan violence flood our feeds. Minor injuries are common, although some fans require additional medical assistance at a hospital, but last Sunday’s incident was tragic as the Patriot fan punched in the face passed away. Massachusetts State Police report that the 30-year Patriots season ticket holder died of “an apparent medical event” (Kwangwari, 2023), and not as a direct result from the punch, but reasonable minds can wonder if the punch led to the resulting medical event. More details are sure to follow.

While most sporting events in the United States are safe to attend, there have been some troubling trends in fan violence, particularly at NFL games. In a September 2023 survey of 3,200 football fans by Sportsbook Review, 39.2% of NFL fans have witnessed a crime at or around an NFL stadium (Bisson, 2023). The most common crimes witnessed include physical violence, public intoxication, and disorderly conduct (Bisson, 2023). Additionally, 7.2% of NFL fans have been a victim of crime in or around a NFL stadium with verbal harassment, physical violence, and sexual harassment being the most common experiences these fans have encountered (Bisson, 2023). The total NFL attendance in 2022 was approximately 18.8 million fans, and if this survey would be representative of all fans’ experiences, it would mean over 1.3 million fans were victims of a crime at an NFL game in 2022. The online survey, however, depends on a small sample size and self-reporting, so proper scientific surveying needs to be performed. What is clear though, is that violence at NFL games is not rare.    

The survey then asks gender-specific questions with 44.7% of women reporting that they do not feel comfortable alone at their team’s stadium and 51.4% of men who do not feel comfortable leaving a female partner or family member alone at or around their team’s stadium (Bisson, 2023). Parents, overwhelmingly at 77.2%, do not feel comfortable letting their minor children visit their team’s stadium alone without a parent present (Bisson, 2023).    

The Causes

The causes of sports crowd violence is multifaceted and Spaaij (2014) developed a five-level socio-ecological model explaining the phenomena.

  • Individual factors – Spaaij (2014) points to Kerr’s reversal theory as one justification for why individuals react differently at sporting events. “For spectators seeking thrills, being destructive and engaging in violence can be an enjoyable experience within a protective framework in which they feel relatively safe” (Spaaij, 2014, p. 150). Although a fan may not engage in violence in their everyday life, the pressure of the surrounding sporting environment, and the comfortability of a home fan base, may cause a person to act violently as their arousal increases.
  • Interpersonal dynamics – The two main areas of interpersonal dynamics research concentrate on interaction rituals and police-crowd dynamics. Spectators may be more likely to act violently if their team performs poorly (Madensen & Eck, 2022) and if violence takes place between teams during the game (Madensen & Eck, 2022; Spaaij, 2014). Failed policing and inexperienced staff can also create an environment for fan violence (Madensen & Eck, 2022; Spaaij, 2014). Famously, in 1969, the Rolling Stones hired a chapter of the Hells Angles to provide security at their California Altamont Speedway concert. When an 18-year-old attendee flashed a gun, she was beaten to death by a member of the gang.
  • Situational factors – “The size of the venue and the crowd, the relative openness or closedness of the venue, the proximity of spectators to players or officials, crowd composition, and viewing conditions” (Spaaij, 2014, p. 151) can all factor into crowd violence. Spaaij (2014) cites two factors as main drivers for the propensity of violence – significance of the game and the fans’ perception of the performance of game officials. Violence is more likely to occur after celebratory victory in highly charged games, interdivisional rivalries, and games where teams have already played each other previously (Madensen & Eck, 2022; Spaaij, 2014). Additionally, “a perceived poor decision or set of decisions by an official can be the “igniter” of an act of fan violence during or after the event, especially when the decision is seen to impact on the game outcomes” (Spaaij, 2014, p. 151).
  • Social environment – Spaaij (2014) cites two key themes in fan violence research concerning the social environment – team identification and masculinity. Team identification can be defined as “the extent to which individuals perceive themselves as fans of the team, are involved with the team, are concerned with the team's performance, and view the team as a representation of themselves” (Branscombe & Wann, 1992, p. 1017). Madensen and Eck (2022) point out that teams with dedicated fans are more likely to engage in fan violence. An example could be the infamous Oakland Raiders Black Hole. Accordingly, males are more likely to engage in fan violence, particularly younger males (Madensen & Eck, 2022).
  • Social structure factors – While this may manifest itself as hooliganism in European soccer, the underlying strains and grievances (Spaaij, 2014) of society can precipitate fan violence. Poor economic factors or community conflict can act as triggers for violence. This can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy as routine violence at a sporting venue may “continue to contribute to a negative reputation or promote the view that violence is tolerated, or even expected, at the location” (Madensen & Eck, 2022, p. 7-8).

It should also be noted that alcohol is one of the main drivers for violence at NFL games, along with rivalry game, interdivisional games, and later kickoffs.


Solutions to the problem are largely dependent on the type of venue, its location, the fanbase, and the sport(s) played in the venue. Madensen and Eck (2022) provide twenty-six specific responses to spectator violence in sport venues, but the following have been chosen due to their applicability to most professional sporting venues in the United States.

  1. Creating access barriers between the fans and the playing surface.
  2. Reducing long lines for concessions and restrooms by providing more of these facilities.
  3. Providing adequate and close parking.
  4. Posting directional signs.
  5. Creating processing and holding areas for spectators who are arrested or refuse to leave the premises.
  6. Providing sectioned seating to break down the crowd.
  7. Restricting alcohol sales.
  8. Removing disruptive spectators.
  9. Refusing entrance to known troublemakers and inebriated spectators.
  10. Screening items brought into the stadium.
  11. Controlling the dispersal process.
  12. Market to more “family friendly” attendees.
  13. Train staff to respond appropriately.

Attending sporting events an create great memories and provide enjoyment for fans of all ages. Unfortunately, if fan violence continues to increase, the NFL may see a mass fan exodus of important demographics, particularly women and minors. The problem is not too far gone that meaningful changes cannot be impactful, but it will be interesting to see if these incidences of fan violence increase as games become more important later in the season.


Bisson, J. (2023, September 19). Ranking the most dangerous NFL stadiums. Sportsbook Review.

Branscombe, N. R., & Wann, D. L. (1992). Role of identification with a group, arousal, categorization processes, and self-esteem in sports spectator aggression. Human Relations, 45, 1013–1033.

Kwangwari, M. (2023, September 20). Witnesses describe “heartbreaking,” “brutal” scene at Gillette surrounding fan’s death. NBC10 Boston.

Madensen, T. D., & Eck, J. E. (2022, November 29). Spectator violence in stadiums. ASU Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.

Spaaij, R. (2014). Sports crowd violence: An interdisciplinary synthesis. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19(2), 146–155.

Brandon Podgorski is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Trine University and the Director of the Trine Center for Sports Studies.