Growing Doubts About Whether the ‘Knockout Game’ Is a Real Trend

Media accounts detailing a string of “knockout” attacks are stoking fears about young black men. But are the headlines based on accurate reporting?

An alleged “knockout” attack
An alleged “knockout” attack Screenshot from YouTube

The woman is defenseless, strolling down the street with a pocketbook over her shoulder,” Jesse Singal wrote last week for Columbia Journalism Review. “She has no idea that she’s about to be brutally attacked. The man, who is black, runs up behind her, rears his right arm back and to the side, and strikes her viciously in the head. She falls to the ground, apparently out cold, while he runs away.

” ‘New at 11 o’clock now, an alarming new wave of attacks across the nation has arrived here in our area,’ reads Leon Harris, an anchor at WJLA in Washington, DC, as the footage plays during a broadcast earlier this month. Other grainy videos follow, all allegedly connected to a ‘game’ called ‘Knockout,’ ‘Point ’em Out, Knock ’em Out,’ or ‘One Hitter Quitter.’ The game is as simple as it is horrifying: Teenagers attack someone randomly in the hopes of knocking them out. They don’t even take anything.

“It’s a scary, eminently media-friendly story, based as it is in gruesome footage of innocent victims being attacked by out-of-control teens. But there are signs that this story is not being reported carefully and risks sparking unnecessary panic, some of it race-driven. Foremost among them is the fact that the footage of the man running up behind the woman, which is appearing just about everywhere, has nothing to do with Knockout.

“Rather, as one Reddit commenter pointed out, it’s footage of a 35-year-old man attacking a woman in East London [England]. It was a random attack, yes, but quotes from the man suggest some combination of substance abuse and mental illness may have been to blame. He was not a teenager partaking in some viral trend in the US. Given the number of stations that have replayed this unrelated footage, it’s worth asking whether those covering Knockout need to be engaging in a bit more discretion, especially to avoid contributing to an ongoing media narrative of young black men as dangerous.

“It’s important to note that there is in fact evidence to support the existence of a teen activity called Knockout — it’s not as though this is a media-manufactured hoax. Ralph Eric Santiago, a 46-year-old homeless man, was killed in a September 10 attack in Hoboken that police say was Knockout-related. A WILX segment on Knockout in Lansing, MI, included an interview with a kid who was shot by his would-be victim, and he explained that he had engaged in the activity a number of times previously.

“So yes, it exists. But is it a ‘trend’? [Is it] on the rise? How many teens actually participate? We have no idea, no hard facts, and for now this vacuum of real information is being filled in by clip after scary clip played on repeat. On careful observation, many of the clips don’t even seem to reflect the game as it’s being described. . . .”

Some media outlets are hyping the attacks more than others. James E. Causey wrote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “The website has a monthly ‘fight compilation’ that shows excerpts of hundreds of fights, from women being sucker-punched to brutal gang attacks. A majority of these acts involve people of color, and far too often there are more people recording the incidents than . . . offering assistance to the victims. These videos often earn thousands of views and ‘likes’ and ‘recommendations’ on Facebook, which turn the perpetrators into overnight sensations. . . .”

Causey also wrote, “While the knockout game has recently been the lead item for late night news and newspapers nationwide, here’s a newsflash — this is not a new game. Counselors who work with troubled youth tell me that these crimes have been occurring for years; they weren’t tagged with a headline-grabbing name like ‘knockout game.’ . . . “

There is more. A week ago, Oliver Willis of Media Matters for America reported, “Over a period of several days, Fox News hosts and contributors demanded that Rev. Al Sharpton condemn a series of ‘knockout’ attacks that have occurred in several cities. Sharpton condemned the attacks in a speech on Saturday, but Fox has so far failed to report on the condemnation. . . .”