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Sport and Crime Reduction: the importance of sport with attitudes

delivered at Sports and Diversion Seminar, Slaugham Manor: 3 September 2001

It’s an enormous pleasure to be here to start off this seminar on Sports and Diversion. We are implementing the recommendation of the Policy Action Team 10 report that “DfEE, DH and the Home Office should encourage health, education and crime reduction organisations to consider ways in which arts and sport can help them achieve their aims”.

We meet at a time when there are a number of sports initiatives aimed at reducing crime. That is excellent: but although I do not want to dampen your enthusiasm, I would like to start by saying that I would not want anyone to be starry eyed about sport and crime. We have to be clear about that. If we get it wrong, sport, like any other human activity, can be a vehicle for crime.

You can see that from the history of football. It evolved out of the political and other riots of the nineteenth century when the use of large leather balls became one way of channelling the rivalries between various parties and factions. Football has maintained that tradition. Football supporters are associated in the public mind with drunkenness, unruliness, violence and criminal damage.

I know the argument that those who cause trouble in such a high profile way may form only a small proportion of football supporters. That is true for any form of criminality. The current estimates are that between 80 and 85% of crime in this country is caused by a mere 2% of our population. I would not be in the least surprised if 80 to 85% of football hooliganism and mayhem was caused by a similar percentage of football supporters. My point is that football, of itself, is not a factor in reducing crime and, indeed, may even be a crime driver.

But I don’t want to single out football. In athletics and swimming there are also examples of cheating by drug taking and other means. We inevitably hear about it most in connection with high profile, top-class athletes – the very people whom we would like to be able to look up to as the epitome of fine, upstanding, citizens, fit lean and handsome, with everything going for them. Let’s hope it’s only that wretched 2% again.

And, because it’s summer, we should not forget about cricket, the gentleman’s game, symbolised by the white virginity of the traditional kit. Yet we now know that top-class cricketers have been involved in really large scale and serious crimes as a result of playing cricket.

I make these points only so that we start with our feet on the ground. If we want to use sports development and leisure as a key element in community safety, we have got to be down to earth. We must be conscious that any activity can be, and has been, used for criminal purposes.

Having said that, I can move on to happier themes. There is considerable anecdotal evidence, although interestingly not that much formal research, to suggest that sports and leisure schemes are an effective and productive way of not merely filling the time of teenagers and young people but giving them social and other skills, self-esteem and self-confidence. The Youth Justice Board has recently been claiming overall crime reductions of 14% as the result of their Splash programmes.

Sport has for years been the vehicle for people to escape from social exclusion. That is demonstrated by the history, in both this country and America of boxing – a sport about which, as a psychologist, I am not keen. Fortunately the ability of sports to touch the lives of the socially excluded extends beyond boxing. I expect that we will today hear more about the Moving Up Through Leisure project in Bolton, which not only engages the young people but also supports the parents and siblings. This is a commendable way of making contact with young people at risk.

And then there are the diversity issues. In this country, we can point to significant improvements which sport and leisure has brought about in race relations. We have top-class black athletes and footballers, whom we can all admire, identify with and seek to emulate, regardless of our own racial backgrounds. Sport has been a major force for good in tackling racism in many parts of the country.

I just don’t know whether the same could be said with such confidence about tackling sex discrimination. I am sure, however, that there will be examples of good practice across the country where men and women, boys and girls, taking part in sport and leisure activities together have generated better attitudes and less discriminatory attitudes across genders. Or, possibly less often still, with those people who have physical or other handicaps, although undoubtedly the potential is there.

This is all about breaking down stereotypes, social barriers and discrimination for that is both something sport can do and an important part of reducing crime. Race crime and violence against women are serious blots on any society.

Let me turn specifically to the use of leisure activities in relation to crime reduction. One story shows how it can be done. It is in a Home Office research report on tackling crime effectively. This tells of a police officer who set up a series of football teams in a league. He put a grown-up in charge of each of the football teams and the teams played against each other to improve their place in the league table. The special feature of all this was that if any one of the team members got into trouble with the law, that team lost a point. The end result was that the kids themselves set up an informal social control mechanism to cut back on offending, or at least, the cynical might add, being detected.

One of the features of criminology is that so often, once someone has got something right, along come those who get it wrong again. I do not think the sequel to this story has been published. I understand that, the following year, the local council was so impressed by the good work of the league that it decided to extend the league but to do away with the adult in charge of each team and the team loosing a point if someone got into trouble. Lo and behold, the crime reduction effects went too. You can get it right, or you can get it wrong. The choice is yours.

Crime reduction does not come by chance. People do not reduce offending just because they take part in a nice activity, or meet nice people, or get presented with prizes. Crime is reduced by consistent and persistent social control. It does not have to be fierce. It does not have to be punitive. But it does have to be as consistent and as predictable as you can make it.

Fortunately, there are actually rather a large number of ways to do this. The Teeside Mohawks professional basketball team are using sports mentoring with disaffected young people. As well as helping with sport, the mentors are setting standards of behaviours, advising on lifestyles and challenging risk taking behaviours. Crime is unlikely to be reduced by sport, or even by mentoring, but the two together have real potential.

In Wolverhampton, there is a Midnight League which plays football at peak hours for crime. This league works on a reward basis, with the players earning points for attendance as well as performance. The final is held at Wolverhampton Wanderers’ home ground. One such game took place just before a Sheffield Wednesday match, so was in front of 20,000 Wolves’ fans. That’s a heck of a reward for not getting smashed.

There are some organisations and schemes which have for years combined sporty-type activities with behaviour-changing techniques in one ready package. Perhaps the best known example is Fairbridge which does particularly well with leadership skills and has a track record of favourable evaluations. There are also some motor projects for offenders and others which have brought together an absorbing interest in cars with improving educational skills and challenging anti-social behaviour. The SKIDZ motor project in High Wycombe is a good example.

It is just so essential to build in and mainstream both these aspects into any crime reduction project: sport with attitudes. But I do not underestimate the difficulty of the task. Although, as I have said, it is probable that only 2% of the population drive the vast majority of crime in this country, that 2% is not evenly spread. Some communities have significantly more than others, some schools have significantly more than others as any police or probation officer will tell you. That is why you have to be particularly vigilant with leisure activities for young people.

I will finish by urging you not to give up if something goes wrong. If you are working with offenders, or with groups which contain a significant number of potential offenders, it will go wrong. You will be let down. Some of them will do nasty things and may even cause others to do likewise.

Crime reduction is relatively easy: but crime prevention is impossible. So when something goes wrong, don’t treat it as a one-off, an exceptional case, unlikely to reoccur, and certainly don’t feel that it was your fault, or that you should have foreseen it. The offender alone is responsible for the offence: no-one else, be absolutely clear about that.

But, when something does go wrong, take it seriously without making a meal of it and look carefully to see if there are lessons to be learned, which there are likely to be. You are likely to be able to improve the scheme without throwing it all away as well as increase its crime reduction impact. That is how all crime reduction works: learning and acting when things go wrong.