VANCOUVER – They cheered together and painted their faces together. They donned hockey jerseys like it was Vancouver’s own uniform and hoisted homemade Stanley Cup replicas together in high hopes.
And then, a horde of them rioted together.
The kindling that sparked a city to proudly brandish its signature blue and green throughout the entirety of a spectacular playoff run, only to suddenly ignite in a ten-block brawl last week, may well share at its root the team’s slogan: “We are all Canucks.”
Experts say the atmosphere of collectivity that goes hand-in-hand with team sport played a big role in the mayhem, even as those close to the game have avoided drawing links between the assault on the city and the Canucks’ loss in Game 7.
But the same collectivity could also be part of the solution, said psychology associate professor Christian End, at Xavier University in Ohio, who has studied sports fan behaviour for more than a decade.
“We celebrate responsibly, we mourn responsibly, we congratulate the team on a successful season. If you don’t, then you’re not one of us. You’re not a Canuck,” said End, proposing the campaign messaging that might be adopted by the team or city in an effort to avoid a future riot.
“Use that strong group identity.”
As the justice system prepares to mete out punishment to participants in the destructive five-hour melee, an exact profile of a rioter may never be fully documented.
Thousands of people swarmed through the downtown core and more than a dozen vehicles were flipped or torched, storefront glass was smashed, making way for mass looting, and fist-fights ruled the streets.
Police and politicians at first solely blamed thugs and anarchists who came prepared, but they later acknowledged the perpetrators were much more diverse.
As video footage is reviewed, others are outed via social media and a few have publicly admitted guilt. The rioters, it seems, include teenagers from middle-class families, a promising water polo athlete and a young woman who’s done volunteer work.
Vancouver Whitecaps CEO Paul Barber, who runs the city’s major league soccer team, experienced first-hand “comparable” scenarios of large-scale public disorder when he ran day-to-day operations for England’s Tottenham Hotspur.
“I was shocked, because it’s not something that I, in any way, shape or form, associated with Canada—let alone Vancouver,” he said, noting he had to deal with English “football hooliganism” through the latter half of the 20th century.
A number of factors, including tension from a large number of people in a small space, drinking that ensues for hours leading up to and during a big game, and some agitators within the crowd all create problems for police, he said.
What sets the scenes worlds apart, however, is that in Europe much of the commotion is spurred by rival supporters who gain status by delivering blows to their opponents, he said. Such gangs frequently reflected social inequities.
“It would be an insult to political action to say (the Vancouver riot) was political,” said associate professor Rima Wilkes, at the University of B.C.’s sociology department. “The picture of the guys flipping a car, there’s no rage—it’s fun.”
Barber said he views the recent riot as a social issue “that’s not the sports’ problem.”
He agreed teams can use the power of personalities to promote good behaviour, but stressed their primary concern should be safety inside their own arena.
“Teams can only do so much,” he said. “I would hesitate to put any pressure on my own team, or the Canucks, or any other team anywhere in the world to have to take responsibility for fans on the street.”
But End said explaining what happened does involve examining group bonding promoted by slogans, mascots and uniforms.
When large crowds gather, people of all backgrounds may switch from an awareness of their personal self to just an awareness of group identity, a phenomenon called “de-individuation,” he said. People within the group want to be liked by the others.
“Instead of functioning on your personal morals, you tend to start conforming and going along with what the group is doing,” he said.
“When you have 100,000 people identifying with the Vancouver Canucks, there’s this sense of ‘we’-ness, of connection, of ‘We’re all Canucks fans.'”
Which can lead to high-fives shared among strangers. But when the first person throws a bottle, if the response is also a great big cheer, he said that’s all the support necessary to trigger escalation to chucking bricks, breaking windows and even flipping cars.
“Those initial reactions are very, very important,” End said, adding the behaviours can worsen as people are not immediately held accountable for their actions.
Other factors in the complex equation of what flips a crowd from calmly walking away disappointed to trashing everything in sight include alcohol, testosterone, the presence of anti-social personality characteristics and stimuli that prime people towards negativity.
“I can’t remember in the history of time rioting following a curling victory or figure skating,” End said. “The fact that it was a very aggressive series, that it was hockey, those are other factors that by itself doesn’t necessarily result in a riot, but it’s another component that starts leading people down that path.”
The line drawn for acceptable behaviour is also much more easily crossed in sporting venues.
“You can’t personally insult someone for the way they do their job at work, say ‘You suck,’ or make comments about people’s mothers,” End said. “At sporting events that’s normative.”
Riots have reared their ugly head after hockey games in both Montreal and Edmonton in the past, and in the U.S. following basketball and baseball championships.
Both Barber and End called for greater use of technology to nab perpetrators, such as the installation of closed circuit television cameras on streets and more publicity of consequences.
“When you ask (a rioter) 24 hours later, ‘Do you feel bad about it?’ when they’re not in that group context anymore, they say ‘Yeah, I feel terrible, I would never ever do that in another situation,'” said End.
“They might even have a hard time identifying why they did it. But bottom line is they made a choice when they flipped the lighter.”