Violence and Aggression In Sports: An In Depth Look (Part Two)

Nathaniel SnowCorrespondent IMarch 25, 2010


Here is Part two of my three part series 'Violence and Aggression In Sports.' Thanks to those of you out there taking the time to read an in depth article on this dangerous sports trend.


Although aggressive behaviors may sometimes provide catharsis, an opposing view is that participating in or viewing aggressive behaviors is more likely to elicit greater amounts of aggression than to result in decreased aggression (e.g.; Bandura and Waiters, 1974; Berkowitz, 1970; Geen, Stonner, and Shope, 1975).

Gelfand and Hartmann (1982) found that participation in competitive games raised boys' and girls' levels of aggression, regardless of competition outcome (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005).

It was found that spectators also become more aggressive after observing the event. Bloom and Smith (1996) noted that violence in hockey often spills over into violence in other social settings for spectators as well.

A slight increase in hostility has also been found for non-contact and non-aggressive sports (Arms, et al., 1979; Goldstein and Arms, 1971). And, Zillman, Katcher, and Milvasky (1972) found that even vigorous physical exercise using a bicycle-ergometer could enhance aggressive tendencies (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005).

The frustration-aggression hypothesis has been proposed to explain human aggressive behaviors, maintaining that aggression is caused by frustration (Bird and Cripe, 1986; Gill, 1986; Husman and Silva, 1984). In this view, frustration occurs due to the blocking of one's efforts to achieve goals.

Critics of the frustration-aggression hypothesis have questioned whether all frustration causes aggression. Although frustration sometimes leads to aggressive behavior, a direct casual relationship between frustration and aggression cannot always be claimed (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005).

In a sports context, the losing of a game can be an important factor eliciting frustration. Evidence cited by Martin (1976) supported the contention that competitive sport generates either catharsis or increased aggression, depending upon the outcome of the game. Martin administered the Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study to 32 male undergraduate students to determine the impact of winning and losing on participants' aggression: Individual sport athletes experienced more frustration than did team athletes upon losing; yet participants of both type of sport enjoyed reduction of aggression when they won (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005).

Further, Reyes and Lorant (2001) administered the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire to 150 eight-year-old children who were beginning martial arts training. They found that only the children who were receiving judo training did not score more aggressive; those receiving other forms of martial arts training did in fact score more aggressive (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005).

Social learning theory maintains that aggression is a behavior learned through the processes of reinforcement and modeling (Bandura, 1973; Bloom and Smith, 1996). In this view, participation in sports may teach and/or reinforce either aggression or sportsmanship.

Alland (1972) observed a Pacific people, the Samai of Malaysia. Since the Samai did not express any aggressive behavior when a role model of aggression was absent, Alland concluded that aggression is not instinctive.

In this view, sports can serve as a medium for teaching and reinforcing sportsmanship and moral reasoning, with aggression and unsportsmanlike behaviors occurring primarily in response to adverse and "dog-eat-dog" situations and to sport situations involving leadership (coaches, etc.) who do not discourage aggression or support sportsmanship in the participants (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005).

Some argue that athletes tend to be more unsportsmanlike than their non-athlete counterparts, and that a long period of involvement and high degree of physical contact in sports impacts negatively on participants' moral reasoning (Bloom and Smith, 1996).

Gardner and Janelle (2002) asked athletes and non-athletes to judge the legitimacy of overtly aggressive acts performed by both contact and non-contact sports participants. They found judgments legitimizing aggressive behavior to be inversely related to the respondents' moral reasoning (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005). Bredemeier, et al. (1986) conducted a study with 106 children at a summer sport camp and found that participation in high-contact sports was associated with greater aggression and with lower levels of moral reasoning.

Similarly, Belier and Stol (1995) found that high school non-athletes scored significantly higher in terms of moral reasoning than did high school athletes. Treasure (2002) argued that participating in sports with the wrong kind of coaching could have devastating lifelong impacts on a child's moral development.

Guivernau and Duda (2002) interviewed 194 soccer players, 13 through 19 years of age. They found that regardless of gender, the players reported that they would be more likely to be aggressive if they thought their coaches supported such behaviors (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005). Both Guivernau and Duda and Stephens (2000) found players' perceived team pro-aggressive norms were the best predicator of the players' likelihood to aggress.

From these studies, it can be argued that unsportsmanlike behaviors of young athletes are learned and reinforced depending upon the type of sport and leadership of coaches (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005). On the other hand, Loughhead and Leith (2001) interviewed and observed hockey players (10 to 15 years of age) and their coaches, and found that, regardless of age, players' views were unrelated to coaches' views on aggression (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005).

Conversely, research studies have revealed a positive correlation between sportsmanlike behavior and moral growth when both quality leadership environments that support behavior and growth were guaranteed. Geibink and MacKenzie (1985) used three intervention strategies (instruction and praise, modeling, and a point system) to investigate the effects on children's sportsmanship through a 22-day recreational basketball class (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005).

They found that with each strategy, unsportsmanlike behavior (e.g., fighting, cheating) was reduced yet there was little increase in sportsmanship (e.g., congratulating opponent winners). The point system with contingent reinforcers was most effective in producing positive changes (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005). Silverman's (1998) study suggested curriculum (in particular, "Fair Play For Kids' curriculum) was effective in promoting moral development in young children enrolled in physical education.

One can assume that an athlete who experiences competitive situations under quality leaderships and healthy environments is more capable of coping with aggression-inducing situations than his or her counterparts. Thirer (1993; 1978) asked female athletes and non-female athletes to view a violent film and to complete an aggressive attitude inventory before and after viewing.

Thirer found that athletes displayed a non-significant change in aggressive attitude score pre- to post-viewing whereas non-athletes showed a significant increase in their score (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005). This finding supports social learning theory and implies that athletes are less vulnerable to aggression-inducing situations.

Furthermore, Daniels and Thornton's (1989) study revealed that combative sports could possibly serve to reduce hostility under good leadership. Smith, Watson, Ficher, and Sung (2003) conducted a longitudinal study with 325 children aged seven to 14. In determining whether socio-demographic variables affect trajectories of aggressive behavior in middle childhood, they found family environment and temperament variables had a greater impact than did socio-economic factors (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005).

It can be contended that sport participation facilitates and teaches sportsmanship and moral reasoning if quality leaderships and environments are provided.

It can be suggested that positive behavior changes in children are assured when children are positively reinforced and exposed to quality role models. Conversely, aggressive and unsportsmanlike behavior is likely to increase under the lack of good leadership, especially when young athletes are involved in highly competitive sport (Nucci and Young-Shim, 2005).

Aggression or sportsmanship can be learned and/or reinforced by significant others, the structure of sport, and the society's attitude (Terry and Jackson, 1985). Loopholes in sport rules and inconsistencies in rule application may trigger reinforcement of aggressive behavior. In addition, practices by some sports marketers are related to the use of violence for selling products (Jones, Ferguson, and Stewart, 1993). According to the findings of Russell (1986), violence may not increase box office receipts.

The underlying motivation for violence in hockey has been the source of some debate (Stewart, Ferguson, and Jones, 1992). A number of social scientists have argued that hockey violence reflects cultural values; some Canadian literati maintain that hockey violence meets the need for national "release," calling it "the counterpart of Canadian self restraint" (Beardsley, 1987, p. 133). The official NHL view is that fighting is primarily spontaneous and a useful cathartic reaction to a physical game (Eitzen, 1985, p. 103). To some degree all of this may be true.

Economists, however, work on the assumption that economic agents (leagues and teams) are interested in their own concerns (profit maximization), and, therefore, their behavior can be explained principally by economic factors (Stewart, Ferguson, and Jones, 1992). Indeed, Ferguson, Jones, Stewart, and LeDressay (1991) found considerable support for the hypothesis that hockey teams act as profit-maximizes. In this context, violence can be considered a "good characteristic," an attribute of the product.

Another study was also done to explain why hockey fans would possibly join a crowd disturbance (Russell and Arms, 1998). This study consisted of having male ice hockey fans (N = 78) complete a battery of biographical, social, cognitive, and individual differences measures that have previously been administered piecemeal to spectators found in attendance at games. Participants' self-reported likelihood of joining in a crowd disturbance served as the dependent measure. The individual differences measures included physical aggression, anger, impulsivity, psychopathy, sensation seeking, and public self-consciousness (1998).

All but public self-consciousness was positively related to subjects' likelihood of escalating a disturbance. Participants' age, number of accompanying males, the false consensus effect, number and recency of fights, and attending in anticipation of watching player fights were also related to the dependent measure (1998). The time since the participant was last in a fight and liking to watch player fights emerged as significant predicators. This study shows the promoting affect that fighting in hockey has on spectator violence.

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