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Athletes and athletics have a prominent position in the American social world, and discussions of athletes and violence have been going on for decades. There are wide-ranging views on whether athletics promotes or controls violent and transgressive behavior among its participants and the larger society. Anecdotally, Americans are seemingly inundated with reports of athletes behaving badly, especially as this behavior relates to charges of athletes and violence. Recent examples of athletes alleged to have participated in violence include Michael Vick, Adam “Packman” Jones, Kobe Bryant, Brett Myers, Al Unser, Jr., Michael Strahan, John Daly, Patrick Roy, Mike Tyson, Jose Canseco, Mark Chumra, Jason Kidd, Lawrence Phillips, and, of course, O. J. Simpson. These names and their respective incidents roll off the tongue. And athletics draws the public attention in unique and passionate ways.
The stories are well known, and for many they serve to reinforce the notion that the United States’s sporting heroes are disproportionately violent and transgressive, as well as the belief that, at the very least, athletes are privileged and arrogant and lack values, judgment, and humility. For these folks, athletics promotes violence in sports and in the larger society. They point to the exulted social status of athletics and believe that athletics serves a negative social-norming function in society promoting violence.
Still others believe that athletics and incidents of athletes behaving badly are a reflection of the problems of the larger society, with the main difference being that when an athlete commits a crime it becomes front-page news. They point to staggering numbers of violent incidents in society at large and believe focusing on only athlete-perpetrators is akin to someone not being able to see the forest for the trees. They plead for a more global focus on the causes and predictors of violence and for avoiding simplistic and minimizing explanations that dismiss a significant social phenomenon as only an athletics problem.
To date, there is no clear empirical or theoretical consensus on this issue. Limited studies have been completed focusing on athletics and violence, with inconsistent results. The current research on athletes and violence is limited with regard to the conclusions that can be drawn from it. Research results have been mixed at best and call into question longstanding assumptions about the connection between violence and sport. A range of studies that utilize qualitative and quantitative methods to compile data are needed to more clearly understand these issues.
In considering research on athletics and violence, one must examine differences between athletes’ and nonathletes’ perpetration of violence. Pointedly, are there unique aspects of the athletic experience that cause male athletes to be violent? Or is this a sizable social problem that is highlighted by the status and visibility of some male athletes?
In looking at the connection between athletes and violence, defining these terms is important. Violence is generally defined in this context as physical assault with intent to injure. There are some who define violence more broadly and include verbal and emotional aggression as violence along with physical acts. The common thread in defining these actions as violence is the intent to harm, intimidate, or injure.
Off-Field and On-Field Violence
Off-field and on-field violence provide another area of distinction. On-field violence includes rules violations, such as physical fighting (except in boxing and martial arts competitions). Examples include bench clearing brawls in baseball, hitting with a helmet with intent to injure in football, or fighting as strategy in ice hockey. These types of rules violations occur regularly during competition. Off-field violence refers to violence perpetrated in an athlete’s social or personal life. Examples include domestic violence and fighting at a party or social club. The research on these types of violence is generally anecdotal and involves more journalistic elements than empirical elements.
Types of Sports and Violence
There are different types of sports that people refer to when initiating arguments about violence and sport. There are youth sports, women’s sports, revenue-producing sports, Olympic sports, professional sports, recreational sports, and more. The majority of the discourse on violence and sport involves revenue-producing sports, such as football or men’s basketball at the collegiate level and the dominant men’s professional sports such as football, basketball, and, to a lesser degree, NHL hockey and professional baseball.
Race, Gender, and Socioeconomic Factors
Many sociologists and others see real danger in the terminology used to describe violence in certain sports. For example, the term athlete in revenue-producing sports can be seen as underscoring a stereotype given the disproportionate representation of athletes of color in those sports. The concern is that some of these titles have become code for saying
Black men are the real problem. Others argue that treatment should be color-blind, and if an athlete is violent, he should have to pay for his crime. Studies in the United States and Canada have shown that an athlete’s position in the most popular sports is a more consistent variable than race in gauging violent and transgressive behavior.
Men’s elite and most popular sports are overwhelmingly seen as violent when compared with other men’s sports and female sports. Just as there is a distinction between men’s sports, there is a greater distinction between men’s and women’s sports. Thus, gender has a dramatic empirical impact when discussing violence and sports. Many researchers argue that the power men’s sports, which vary by culture, provide us with a critical clue. They argue that males who adhere to rigid gender roles exercise themes of dominance and control on-field and off-field and feel entitled to do so.
Fan Violence in Sport
Fan violence in athletics is generally understood as contextually situated around political, historical, geographical, situational, and socioeconomic factors. The type of athletics, level of competition, perceived meaning(s) by the participating communities/countries, and unique characteristics of a particular event can impact the potential for fan violence. There are examples of fan violence from youth sports through professional sports. There are examples of rioting and looting after victories and defeats. Many argue that fan violence is best understood as a gang mentality, while others believe there are larger factors at play that inform the dynamics in a stadium.
There is a tendency to overgeneralize the connection between violence and sport. This can lead to a false understanding and negative connotation of athletics. Some researchers have argued that sports build character and instill discipline and life skills, while others see sports as promoting violence and reinforcing negative actions such as power and domination over another. Athletics is not an isolated social event that occurs in a vacuum; rather, athletics and its participants are part of the social structure.
- Coakley, J. J. (1998). Sport in society: Issues and controversies (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Crossett, T. (2000). Athletic affiliation and violence towards women: Toward a structural prevention project. In J. McKay, M. Messner, & D. Sabo (Eds.), Masculinities and sport. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Eitzen, D. S. (1996). Sport in contemporary society. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Messner, M. (2002). Taking the field: Women, men, and sports. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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