Rational Hooligans?

Posted by on Mar 9, 2012 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
Rational Hooligans?
Image available under Creative Commons © Joriel “Joz” Jimenez

Hooliganism has taken something of a back seat in reporting on English football in recent times, replaced by the ignominies of racism, financial irresponsibility and player petulance. Hence, it was with interest that my attention was drawn to a new academic paper forthcoming at the Revue d’à©conomie politique, but downloadable in draft format here.

Highly readable for an article brought to us by economists, Hooligans is the work of a team of authors headed by Peter Leeson of George Mason University, a Professor who has gained some renown this past decade for his work analyzing the motivations of pirates — a research programme that culminated in The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, published by Princeton University Press.

George Mason University is situated in Fairfax, Virginia, a few miles from Washington DC and while undeniably a world class, not to say highly innovative institution, it’s rightly or wrongly associated with the forces of conservatism — more specifically, free market fundamentalism. The economist who so influenced Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Friedrich von Hayek is revered in these parts and the public choice school of thought that urges minimal government intervention has its throne room amid its cloisters.

The central thesis of the paper is that football hooligans are rational actors who seek to maximize their utility by indulging in brawling. Far from being mindless, as is often argued, participants know exactly what they are doing, with the thrill of fisticuffs outranking team loyalties.

Leeson and his co-authors, Daniel J. Smith and Nicholas A. Snow argue that the equilibrium of the hooligan environment is maintained by an unwritten code of conduct and this is their central thesis. Matters are prevented from getting out of hands by a kind of honour among hoolies — no knives, no guns and an adherence to strict rules when ‘fronting up’ – so no picking on innocent bystanders or those not interested in conflict. Hence, an ‘order amid disorder’ emerges — a concept directly influenced by Hayek and his book, Individualism and the Social Order.

Occasionally, this balance is threatened by the presence of ‘sadists’ in the hooligan ranks — think Gary Oldman’s character in The Firm. The authors then indulge in a spot of mathematical modelling to analyse the reaction of the mere ‘brawlers’ when confronted with these nutters. If too many of the latter gain influence, it can self-destruct, but the aforementioned ‘private rules’ can be invoked to prevent this. Leeson and his cohorts do a good job of explaining how these tacit norms and values can influence social groupings — the Tour de France is an example of an event where participants interact informally for instance.

The authors’ paper is a not yet officially published draft so it would be wrong to dwell too long on various minor mistakes and inaccuracies — the claim that rival firms will ‘seat themselves’ in order to maximize their potential to act together (long after prior booking of tickets has made this harder), the use at one point of the word ‘Agro’ rather than ‘Aggro’ (anyone up for bunging bags of fertilizer around?), mention of the Sheffield United bad boys, ‘The Blade Business Crew’, the aforementioned guns (one of the authors is Alabama based but you won’t find many people carrying firearms in Swindon) and the failure to mention Burberry caps in an otherwise accurate list of signifiers.

No, the problems run deeper than that. Firstly, the paper is almost comically ideological in reducing everything to individual motivation. The social context is as absent as Thatcher would have liked it — as a former Football Association official once said to the Iron Lady — ‘when are you going to get your hooligans out of my stadiums?’

For ‘top boys’ or ‘generals’ didn’t just head into battle from the womb. They were the product of their social environment in 1970s and 1980s England – a very unhappy one indeed —and a land of social deprivation and underfunding where the disenfranchised were often left with little to do but look for a fight to stave off the boredom of unemployment and lack of community. I’m no fan of Tony Blair, but it’s no coincidence that the greater prosperity and social responsibility from 1997 onwards brought about a reduction in the hooliganism problem. Indeed, my second point of contention would be the lack of historical perspective — the present tense is used throughout to describe a problem that had its heyday two decades ago now.

Thirdly, there is no mention of the greatest manifestation of all in English soccer — hooliganism associated with national teams. Long after club supporter violence became manageable due to CCTV, the abolishing of fences etc., England fans were tearing up Marseille and Charleroi. It was as if the really malign recognised the only place that their bad habits could still prosper — and this was often fuelled by far right politics — witness the 1995 abandonment of England’s away fixture in Dublin due to the machinations of Combat 18.

Finally — and most importantly, and while the authors’ decision to concentrate on the English game is their prerogative, the claim that hooliganism ‘remains most prominent in the country where it emerged’ is unconvincing in the extreme. Two words bear this out most blatantly — Port Said — and if this thought provoking article that appeared recently on the blog, Just Football exposes a potential web of factors that are perhaps specific to the Egyptian context, it nonetheless goes a long way to debunking the rationality hypothesis.

In short, leave out the social, political and historical at your peril. The list of citations provided by Leeson and his collaborators is as lengthy as you would expect within a discipline where fame is achieved by pleasing one’s peers — and I am not going to criticise them for that — in academia, showing one’s working is essential. No, it’s the selectivity that grates — especially when one suspects a thesis was developed before the evidence was gathered.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.


  1. Dougie Brimson
    March 9, 2012

    Wow! I’m quoted in that article a fair few times and in at least half I’n not only paraphrased but taken out of context. That’s impressive.

    Unlike the article.

  2. Stanley
    March 9, 2012

    Excellent rebuttal, LR, although I’m not sure the paper deserves your intellectually rigorous criticism. It reads as nothing more than a review of the hoolie film `Green Street’ by a group of Austrian School fratboys.

  3. Ben
    March 10, 2012

    The point about there being an ‘unwritten code of conduct’ does chime with a story a friend told me. He was in the King’s Castle, a rough boozer on Cowbridge Road in Cardiff, and overheard a bloke on the payphone: ‘Yeah, twenty of your lot, twenty of our lot. Yeah, 2pm. See you then, mate’…


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