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

Nathaniel SnowCorrespondent IMarch 29, 2010

Here is the final installment of my work, "Violence and Aggression in Sports."

Thanks to all who have been following along, I hope you have enjoyed this in-depth look at a disturbing trend.

Aggression or sportsmanship can be learned and reinforced in many different ways. Multiple reasons, rather than a single one, influence such behaviors.

Young athletes need positive, appropriate, and constructive role models to teach and reinforce sportsmanship and moral reasoning (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005).

The coach is perhaps the most significant person influencing the amount of aggressive or sportsmanlike behaviors displayed in the competitive sport context (Conan, 1980; Cratty, 1983; King, 1990; Terry & Jackson 1985).

Smith (1983) reported that nine percent of hockey players (N=166) between the ages of 12 to 13 perceived their coaches as approving of hockey violence. The role of referees has also been identified as a significant factor affecting athletes' subsequent behaviors (Lefebve, Leith, & Bredemeier, 1980).

Failure of referees to correct an athlete’s aggressive behavior may reinforce and increase the probability of recurrence (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005). Parents sometimes push their children into competitive sports. They may wish to realize their personal, unfulfilled desires through their children, or to have their children exposed to excessive competition, believing it is appropriate preparation for later, adult life (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005).

Pagelow (1984) noted that aggressive children tend to have aggressive parents and that parents can be strong role models of aggression. Similarly, Freishlag and Schmidke (1979) stressed the importance of parents' influences on young athletes' moral reasoning (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005).

The potential role of media should be recognized in moderating aggression in sports (Lefebvre, et al., 1980). The broadcaster should identify aggressive and unsportsmanlike behaviors immediately in terms of rule regulations and sportsmanship conduct.

Sullivan's (1991) study explored the impact of television commentary on viewers' perceptions and enjoyment of player hostility, including violent behavior, in the context of a less combative sport.

Effects of fanship, gender, and varying levels of commentary (dramatic, neutral, no commentary) were tested.

A videotape of a heated Georgetown versus Syracuse men's college basketball game provided stimulus material, with the dramatic commentary treatment contradicting the visual evidence as to which team was the aggressor (1991).

Strong medium effects were reveled, with viewers of the dramatic commentary treatment perceiving Syracuse players as being significantly more hostile, in line with the manipulation. Men were more likely than women to enjoy the fighting in the game segment, but fans' perceptions of opponent hostility were as vulnerable to the biased commentary as those of non fans (1991).

Three seminal studies examined bias in commentary and its relationship to viewer responses to player hostility (Sullivan, 1991). Comisky, Bryant, and Zillman (1977) and Bryant, Comisky, and Zillman (1981) found that appreciation, including enjoyment, of heavy contact sports contests (professional hockey and professional football, respectively) is facilitated by roughness, enthusiasm, and violence of play, and that commentary alters viewer perception of rough play (Sullivan, 1991).

It is important to note that the stimulus material used in these studies was game action that, regardless of intensity, reflects normative player behavior for hockey and football and is clearly within the scope of the game's rules.

The third study on commentary bias (Bryant, Brown, Comsiky, & Zillman, 1982) manipulated the affective relationship between players rather than roughness of play. Bryant, et al. (1982) varied commentary to manipulate the affective relationship between tennis players, finding that increases in perceived enmity, intensity of play, and competitiveness between opponents contributes to viewer enjoyment (Sullivan, 1991).

Since television most often mediates this intense fan experience of sport (Bellamy, 1989; Eastman & Meyer, 1989), commentators serve a central role in influencing public perceptions of violence in sports contests. The chief role of commentary traditionally has been narrative in function (Sullivan, 1991).

In this role, commentators use a set of descriptive narrative modes- objective, judgmental, and historical- to tell the game story (Morris & Nydahl, 1983). In its objective mode, commentary complements the camera by summarizing what has occurred in the game.

In the judgmental mode, commentary assigns motivations to player and team performance and player behavior (Sullivan, 1991). Commentary that places players, teams, and game sin historical perspective typically relies on biographical material and statistical comparisons.

Descriptive narration demonstrates the commentator's credibility as game expert. Commentators, for example, borrow liberally from the descriptive language of the locker-room; cued by jock jargon, viewers believe they are getting "shop talk" (Snyder & Spreitzer, 1983)

Bryant and Zillman (1983) note that rough and aggressive action would represent "human conflict at its peak, and intense conflict is the heart and soul of high drama" (p. 7). By extension, violence can be considered the ultimate in human sports conflict with increases in viewer enjoyment corresponding to increases in the likelihood of serious injury to the athletes (Sullivan, 1991).

The fight fan cherished the heavyweight who delivers the knockout, the football fan idolizes the linebacker who wrecks quarterbacks, and the hockey fan cheers the defense man who uses his elbows in the corners and his fists around the goalmouth. Players' violence attests to their will to win (Sullivan, 1991).

The nature of heavy contact sports, the rules that govern such sports, media attention, the lack of punitive deterrents to fighting, and American society's emphasis on outcome rather than process all contribute to players' use of violence. in contact sports, coaches and players perceive the use of intimidation and aggression as a vital ingredient to winning (Swift, 1986). In programs that emphasize win-loss records, players are more likely to use intimidation through violence (Smith, 1978; Tyler & Duthie, 1979).

Some research has been done into whether sports do enough to deter from player and fan violence (Nagel, Southall, & O'Toole, 2004). This study was designed to identify the punishments levied for unacceptable player behaviors by the four major North American professional sport leagues from 1995 through 1999.

The sample was the players from the sample leagues for the same time period. Punishment means and occurrences for identified player behaviors were calculated and league punishment occurrences were analyzed for equivalence using a Chi Square Goodness of Fit Test (2004). Results indicated that the most common league punishment occurrences were responses to player behaviors 'Fighting' and 'Intimidation'. In addition, 81 percent of Major League Baseball's responses resulted in a punishment of $0.00 (2004).

The studies results strongly suggest the four major North American professional sport leagues use punishment as a public relations tool and not as a meaningful deterrent to player behaviors. Lapchick (1996) has contended that the punishment for professional athletes' violence in sports must be harsh enough to reduce and deter such violence. According to Lapchick, "Fines are useless for players making more than $1 million each year" (p. 192). Appropriate and effective ways for sanctioning athletes must be determined (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005).

Using violent language could also encourage aggressive and violent behaviors. Wren (1991) made a strong comparison of using violent language to smoking:

Language, like tobacco, is habit forming. Some patterns of writing and speaking are addictive and may damage both the user and the others who breathe the same linguistic atmosphere. If we can see the damage being done and decide to kick the habit, we may get withdrawal symptoms and hostility or derision from other smokers. But in the end, we shall enjoy breathing fresh air (Holt, 2000, p. 102)

The language used in sports print journalism is also evident of the connection of violence and sports (Holt, 2000). Particularly since the 1985 Heysel Stadium soccer massacre, even some sports journalists have begun to view violence in sport as problematical. Dwyre (1996), for example, reflecting on a long career as a reporter of sporting events in the US, concluded: "Sportswriters tend to view sports-related violence such as fights between opposing team members, vicious boxing matches, and assaults on players as part of the game rather than an intolerable an offensive incident.

Violence in sports should not be so easily tolerated" (Holt, 2000). Writing in Sports Illustrated, Wulf (1988), in similar vein, criticized the president of the US national ice-hockey league for denying that the league was prone to violence while at the same time marketing videos with titles like; "Brand New. Part Four. Hockey's Bloodiest Fights and Knockouts'. or '165 Hours of Good Quality Hockey Fights'.

Holt's (2000, p. 89) study consisted of a sample of ten per cent of the annual diet of newspaper sport reporting of the inhabitants of New Zealand's largest city, Auckland, being examined from the point of view of the most salient features of language for a period of 35 consecutive days (five calendar weeks - 1 June to 5 July).

In sifting the language of the sports supplements in both newspapers (New Zealand Herald and Sunday Star Times), it was clear that many of the characteristics of journalistic style generally were present; these included: dramatization of headlines (e.g., 'Kiwis Light Up Night'); idiomatic and emotive diction (e.g., 'The game is screaming out for guidance on what has become an extremely ugly turn of events'); the blurring of the border between information and entertainment; the meshing of visual images with concept, including advertising layout; simplification or trivialization of content; and the use of clichés and catch-phrases (e.g., 'on-a-roll captain finds X's Achilles heel') (2000, p. 90).

The most salient or distinctive element of journalistic style for sports reporting in the present sample was found to be images of violence. This study did not concern itself with the relatively innocuous terms that have long been assimilated into the normal, basic vocabulary of sport, such as: 'to win, to beat, victory over, to defeat, to lose, etc.'.

These refer to an underlying metaphor of ‘battle’, which reflects the competitive nature of sports generally, but through time, common usage and familiarity have achieved the status of 'dead' or 'frozen' metaphors that are taken more or less literally (2000, p. 90). Rather, this study was concerned with more consciously graphic images that have not (or, not yet) lost the true metaphor's relative vividness of effect.

Examination of the 35 separate sports supplements/sections revealed the images to be focused on four major metaphorical complexes. The one most frequently occurring has been simply labeled 'violence' and concerned language used to evoke related notions along a spectrum from injury to killing. All three main classes of content-words (nouns, verbs, and adjectives) are widely used, with a slight preponderance of verbs. The next most frequent complex was a 'military' metaphor, which also incorporated associated terms from semantic fields like 'hunting' or the 'cowboy Western'.

In this particular word sample nouns and verbs tended to be roughly equal in number, with adjectives being largely absent, suggesting semantically a relatively equal emphasis on process and product aspects. The third most frequent key metaphor discovered was that of 'mechanization' or 'machinery'. The word usage in this sample follows the patterns of the previous sample.

The final complex related closely to the machine-metaphor, but differed in that it went a step further by representing particular body parts as machine parts; what one might term a 'robotic' model (2000, p. 93). The significance of the machinification-metaphor represents an attempt to camouflage the true physical effects of violence; as Bataille noted: '(language can often substitute) the appearance of a solution for the insoluble, and a screen for violent truth.'

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