Unprecedented chaos on OSU’s campus after a historic win leads to examination of psychology of sports riots
By Owen Auch, ’15
As the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrated their unlikely 42-20 National Championship win over Oregon in Arlington, TX with confetti and award ceremonies, OSU students over 1,000 miles away celebrated in a different way.
Fans in revelry set 89 fires, tore down a goal post in Ohio Stadium and forced Columbus police and SWAT teams to clear the streets with tear gas.
Senior Joe Casagrande was on campus after the victory and witnessed the mayhem firsthand, describing the mood as “crazy.”
“On High Street I saw a lot of cops … and then a huge mass of people started running towards the Oval,” Casagrande said. “[On the Oval] I saw people climbing really tall trees to the top, wearing no shirt in 20-degree or below weather.”
Others at the scene reported seeing pepper spray used on students and fireworks set off in crowded areas. At the end of the night, six arrests were reported.
There’s no single cause that turns jubilent celebrations into destructive riots. Factors like excessive drinking, youthful inexperience and excitement explain some, but not all, of the damage. Here’s a look at two psychological factors in sports riots that added to the mayhem on Ohio State’s campus.
Group Behavior and Identification
One psychological factor that contributes to fan violence is group behavior through social identification. As fans root for sports teams, their identification with the team is psychologically powerful. Rick Grieve, a psychology professor at Western Kentucky University, describes networks of fans as providing a desirable sense of belonging and a host of relationships.
“Identification with a team gives you a kind of social support network that provides a buffer from things like anxiety, loneliness, and depression,” Grieve said.
Casagrande said he saw evidence of group identification psychology in the national championship celebration.
“Two people were about to fight,” said Casagrande. “And then someone mentioned that we had won the national championship…and the fight stopped and they were happy again.”
However, this group identification can turn dangerous when fans are in large crowds. Christian End, a sport fan behavior expert at Xavier University, described a psychological process called deindividuation, in which individuals in large groups feel less accountability for their actions.
“When we’re less accountable we tend to behave in ways we wouldn’t,” End said. “If I’m among thousands of celebrating people and I were to throw a beer bottle against a brick wall, you’d have a hard time picking me out.”
This effect is often amplified by the desire to fit in with the group identity fans share. Charged by adrenaline after big win, fans often repeat behavior that draws cheers from the crowd, even if this behavior is destructive or criminal.
“If we see someone throw a beer bottle and it draws cheers from our group members who we’re really identifying with at the time, we might be apt to match that behavior or up it,” End said.
The desire for fans to show their pride for the team and fit in with other students was evident to Casagrande.
“[Fans] have to show how crazy we are about football here in Ohio, and if [they] don’t make national news, clearly our national championship didn’t mean enough,” Casagrande said.
Because of the lack of accountability and identification with a group identity as fans, a celebration can quickly escalate to a riot, as it did at OSU.
As the national championship ended and fans poured out of bars, restaurants and the Union onto High Street, riot police were already there, many sporting gas masks. Their presence, Casagrande said, fired the crowd up.
“I feel like once people saw the cops…they knew what they were supposed to do,” Casagrande said. “That means they’re supposed to riot.”
The presence of riot police suggested to students that rioting was inevitable. The huge number of students make police less effective as students sought to fulfill the expectation to riot.
“Once people realized that we outnumbered the cops [on High Street] about 100 to 1, they weren’t afraid to do anything,” Casagrande said.
Furthermore, younger Americans like college students have a more negative view of police than older Americans, according to an NBC News/Marist Poll. While students chanted “O-H-I-O” in celebration, others were heard chanting “F— the police!”
This negative perception of police may have translated to anger towards them, increasing the mayhem and destruction. It’s a common cycle in which riots get out of control: crowds threaten police, who escalate crowd control tactics, which angers crowds and promotes more bad behavior.
But experts say that there are ways to keep violence from tainting the taste of victory.
Experts say that because riots are so unpredictable, fans need to help to prevent riots from beginning. If fans exert negative peer pressure towards destructive actions and promote accountability for those who act out, riot violence will decrease.
“If the group says, ‘Hey don’t do that,’ if they point you out to security, you’re gaining disapproval from this group that’s very important to you,” End said.
Of course, there’s a simpler solution to preventing sports riots.
“[If you don’t want riots], don’t win national championships,” Casagrande said with a smirk