Soccer and American-style football games have long been known for violence on the field and even in the stands, but in recent years, even the more-gentle game of basketball has seen physical and verbal violence.
A new analysis by Israeli sports experts of National Basketball Association (NBA) broadcasts between 1998 to 2018, fortunately, reveals a decline in acts of physical violence, such as pushing and elbowing. However, they found that at the same time, there has been an increase in acts of symbolic violence, such as shouting, trash-talking and menacing displays.
Dr. Assaf Lev, a sport and exercise anthropologist from the Department of Sports Therapy at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono east of Tel Aviv, and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE under the title “In your face: The transition from physical to symbolic violence among NBA players.”
During an NBA game, players may occasionally engage in acts of physical or symbolic violence. At the beginning of the millennium, under the leadership of then-commissioner David Stern, the NBA implemented stricter regulations against acts of physical violence by players. These regulations were, in part, meant to improve the image of the NBA among the general public. Previous research has also shown that sports commentators play a significant role in shaping viewers’ perceptions of games.
When the team analyzed a random selection of 36 NBA finals over the decade, they noted the incidence of physical and symbolic violence and analyzed commentators’ reactions to them.
The analysis showed that while acts of physical violence have declined, they were still widespread in NBA games even four years ago. Meanwhile, acts of symbolic violence began to rise in 2014, ultimately becoming more frequent than acts of physical violence. NBA commentators were also more likely to react to physical violence with encouraging or supportive statements while more often labeling symbolic violence as harmless.
Based on these new findings – and in light of prior research findings demonstrating the influence of players’ behaviors on viewers’ own behaviors – the study authors suggest that symbolic violence may be increasingly common in fans’ lives and in amateur games, with the potential for psychological harm. They suggested that further research could explore patterns of physical and symbolic violence in other sports, in women’s leagues, and in other countries and cultures.
“The study … indicates that NBA commentators support and encourage physical violence, while symbolic violence tends to be perceived as harmless and therefore permissible to ignore,” the authors concluded… “Since viewers of professional sports often emulate the players, the increase of symbolic violence within the NBA is likely to be mirrored in fans in their everyday lives and in amateur basketball players. Although the rise in symbolic violence causes fewer physical injuries in professional basketball players, it nevertheless can cause psychological harm.”