Violence and Aggression in Sports: An In-Depth Look (Part One)

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Violence and Aggression in Sports: An In-Depth Look (Part One)

I know this is a risky venture, since most readers are used to short, concise sports reporting or opinion, but I am going to give it a shot anyway.

This is a piece I wrote about some causes for violent and aggressive behavior in and at sporting events.

I am presenting it here in three parts and I hope you all find the time to gain some knowledge on this subject.


It has been said of sport, "It does not create the conditions for war, but it does maintain the possibility of those conditions, and adds its own efficiency to the other forces which produce a social order in which trails of strength are seen as part of the natural course of things" (Holt, 2000, p. 88). George Orwell (1950) once made the observation, "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words it is war minus the shooting." Competitive sports such as football, basketball, and baseball may involve aggressive tactics, but actual violence is considered to fall outside the boundaries of good sportsmanship. Contact sports, such as American football, ice hockey, rugby football, boxing, mixed martial arts, wrestling, and water polo involve certain levels of physical violence, but include restrictions and penalties for excessive and dangerous use of force. The overt physical actions that take place in sports can be described as both aggression and violence (Kerr, 2002, p. 68). These actions take place for many reasons, and can become dangerous to those participating in the sport, as well as spectators of the competition. These aspects of physical interaction between players/fans has been subdivided into two separate types of action (Brink, 1995). In describing the rugby union, Brink (1995) does a good job of highlighting the difference between the two types of aggression and violence:

Because the game is so relentless by its very nature, the borders between the permissible and the inadmissible are not always very clear-cut. Both are inherently violent. But surely the distinction between hard play and foul play lies in the resort of the latter to violence of an underhanded, malicious, treacherous kind. It is a condition of foul play that is not supposed to     come to light, to be exposed, because it is not directed to the enfolding of the game but to the private goals of rage or revenge, to 'get at' a specific opponent, to 'prove' oneself. It foregrounds the individual, not the team. (p. 29)

In Brink's quote, the terms 'permissible ' and 'hard play' refer to acts of violence within the laws of rugby union. Conversely, 'inadmissible' and 'foul play' refer to acts of violence outside the laws of the game. (Kerr, 2002, p. 70) While trying to define aggression, behavior with intent to injure has been given great emphasis by some: (Tenenbaum, Sacks, Miller, Golden, & Doolin, 2000, p. 317)

Aggression is defined as the infliction of an adverse stimulus, physical, verbal, or gestural, upon one person by another. Aggression is not an attitude, but behavior and, most critically, it is committed with the intent to injure (LeUnes & Nation,1989). (Tenenbaum, Stewart, Singer, & Duda, 1997, p. 1)

Physically aggressive acts, like blocking in American football, regular tackles in rugby, and body checks in ice hockey, can be ferociously violent actions yet be both within the rules of the games and not intended to injure. In addition, this critical element of intent to injure is controversial and not as all encompassing as Tenenbaum et al. (2000; and some others e.g., LeUnes & Nation, 1989) claim (Kerr, 2002, p. 70).

Violent and aggressive action outside the rules and regulations of game play, and the punishment regulated for such acts, is clearly apparent in the outcome of Marty McSorley's slash to Donald Brashear. The then Boston Bruin slashed then Vancouver Canuck Donald Brashear with a heavy blow from his stick on the side of his face. Brashear fell to the ice and the back of his head struck the ice, causing a grade three concussion and a grand malls seizure. Brashear was not near the puck at the time McSorley's unsanctioned violent act took place. In addition to receiving a one-year ban from playing, McSorley was prosecuted in a British Colombia court and found guilty of "assaulting Donald Brashear with a weapon, a hockey stick." The guilt verdict was based on the judge's decision that "Brashear was struck as intended" (p. 70). deciding 'intent' is an clear process, it is the subjective meaning of the particular behavior to the individual concerned that is important and, therefore, the only person who really knows whether or not there was any intent to injure is the person who carried out the action (Russell, 1993; Smith, 1983). Based on an interview with McSorley, Kennedy (2000) pointed out that McSorley was aiming his blow at Brashear's shoulder to provoke a fight and that he never meant to hit Brashear in the head. "'Yes I meant to slash him,' says McSorley, 'did I mean to hurt him with my stick? No.'" (Kennedy, 2000, p. 60). Video evidence confirms that his blow first struck Brashear on the shoulder before making contact with his face. Thus, although this was an act of unsanctioned aggression, if what McSorley said is true, it was not undertaken with the intent to injure. This aspect of violence and aggression creates an atmosphere of 'I didn't mean it' actions possibly being passed over as accidental, which could be extremely dangerous and unfair to the victim of the violent/aggressive act.

In attempting to produce a satisfactory definition of aggression and violence in sport, it is necessary to take into account the special status that sanctioned aggression and violence hold in sport, which distinguishes them from aggression and violence in most other contexts (Kerr, 2002, p. 71). Another definition of aggression and violence in sports as regards to the agreement for competition is:

In general, aggression can be seen as unprovoked hostility or attacks on another person which are not sanctioned by     society. However, in the sports context, the aggression is provoked in the sense that the two opposing teams have willingly     agreed to compete against each other. Aggression in team contact sports is intrinsic and sanctioned, provided the plays     remain permissible within the boundaries of certain rules, which act as a kind of contract in the pursuit of aggression (and violence) between consenting adults (Kerr, 1997, p. 115-116).

Kerr (2002, p. 72) goes on to argue that, "controversial as it may sound", it should be reemphasized that sanctioned violence and aggression are a necessary part of team contact sports, and those who take part know that there are risks of physical injury and sometimes even death. This is similar to participation in other types of risk sport (e.g., skiing, snowboarding, motorcycle racing; Chirivella & Martinez, 1994; Cogan & Brown, 1998; Kerr, 1991; Zuckerman, 1983) where athletes also participate in spite of the high level of risk involved (Kerr, 2002, p. 72). Perceptive sports psychologists will recognize that sanctioned aggression and violence are a primary source of players' excitement, pleasure, and satisfaction and thus a major factor in their motivation for participation (Kerr, 1997; Novak, 1976; Russell, 1993). This argument was not made to exonerate unsanctioned aggression and violence but to understand the real nature of these sports (Kerr, 2002, p. 72).

Another argument on the cause of violence and aggression in sports is that socialization (i.e.; a learned response) is to blame (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005). Socialization can take place through participation in sports since sports provide a microcosm for living and society. The structure of social relations in sports influences the participants' development of social skills. Researchers have striven to answer whether sports provides a positive outlet for, or teaches and reinforces, aggression  (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005). Human beings cannot live a fulfilling life in isolation, and can have more effective and healthy lives through association with others. This means that human beings must somehow learn how to live together. Socialization can take place through participation in sports since sports provide learning environments where participants have the opportunity to learn competition, cooperation, role-playing and discipline regarding rules, regulations, and goals (Bloom & Smith, 1996). In this sense, sports can be seen as a laboratory of human experience. The structure of social relations in organized sports can give participants experience in various roles and group interaction, and contribute to the development of social characteristics that integrate them into existing larger social structures (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005).

Unfortunately, a "win-at-all-costs" philosophy has often led to unethical and aggressive behaviors, impacting negatively and destructively on the development and well being of young athletes and of society at large. Researchers (e.g.; Arms, Russell, & Sandilands, 1979; Bredemeier, Weiss, Shields, & Cooper, 1986; Ewing, Gano-Overway, Branta, & Seefeldt, 2002; Guivernau & Duda, 2002; Terry & Jackson, 1985) have striven to answer whether sports provide a positive outlet for an instinctive drive of aggression or whether sport teaches and reinforces aggression through the highly competitive nature of many sport settings (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005).

Proponents of instinct theory such as Freudians argue that aggression is instinctive, and that vigorous physical activities provide cathartic benefits by releasing the pent-up emotions of participants. Sloan (1979, p.23) wrote, "Catharsis or reduction of aggression level will occur either by participating in an aggressive act or vicariously through watching acts of aggression by others. Thus, they [pent-up emotions] must be relieved periodically or erupt, producing catharsis in wither case (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005). Minninger (1948) argued that competitive games provide a medium through which aggressive tendencies are discharged. Johnson and Hutton (1955) used the House-Tree-Person test to determine the cathartic effects of a combative sport by testing eight college wrestlers approximately three weeks before season, and again the morning after the competition. The findings revealed a cathartic effect as a result of competition (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005).

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