NBA study: Physical violence may be down, but ‘symbolic violence’ is rising

KIRYAT ONO, Israel — The NBA is certainly no stranger to the occasional scuffle on the court. The infamous “Malice at the Palace” incident in 2004 is probably the most extreme example of that. Interestingly, though, new research finds that rates of physical violence across the NBA have declined between 1998 and 2018.

However, researchers at Ono Academic College report acts of “symbolic violence” have increased considerably over that same period. Moreover, the study finds that in recent years it’s become common for basketball commentators to voice support for physical violence and frame symbolic violence as harmless.

Researchers watched a random assortment of 36 NBA Finals held between 1998 and 2018 to reach these conclusions. They noticed a distinct decline in acts of physical violence during games, such as pushing and elbowing, but a noticeable rise in acts of symbolic violence, including shouting, trash talk, and “menacing displays.”

Around the year 2000, then-NBA commissioner David Stern put in place stricter regulations and punishments for acts of physical violence by players. At the time, the league instituted those changes in an effort to help the NBA’s public image. On a related note, prior research notes that sports commentators on broadcasts also play a big role in how viewers perceive games, players, and pro leagues as a whole.

Will fans mimic what the stars do?

All in all, the analysis showed that while physical violence had definitely declined in the NBA, it was still relatively widespread in 2018. Symbolic violence started to rise around 2014. It’s also worth noting that NBA commentators were more likely to react to physical violence with encouraging or supportive statements, and usually described symbolic violence as harmless, according to the study.

Study authors conclude that all the symbolic violence NBA fans see on their TV screens may lead to more symbolic violence in their own lives and during amateur games. The NBA depicts their players as stars and fans may even see them as role models. It makes a certain degree of sense that many will emulate what they see on the court by their favorite players.

“The study indicates that incidents of symbolic violence (SV) during NBA games have increased over the past several years, whereas physical violence (PV) has decreased. In this reality, it is evident that NBA commentators support and encourage PV, whereas SV tends to be perceived as harmless and therefore permissible to ignore,” the researchers write in the media release.

The findings appear in the journal PLoS ONE.

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