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Philosophy and Sport

Sports and Deviant Behavior

Guest editor Tim Delaney introduces our Sports issue and explains why studying the misdemeanors of athletes can throw light on the problems the rest of us face.

What is sport? Listing sports is easy. Classifying them as indoor or outdoor, professional or amateur, and so on, is only slightly more difficult. However, a definition that clearly includes all the varied activities we call sports and excludes everything else is more difficult to formulate. For example, is badminton a true sport? It is in the Olympics now. What about anvil shooting, or elephant racing, or chess? Are they sports? Most definitions of sport include the notion that it involves physical skill and exertion. Among the definitions used, the one generally agreed upon among sport sociologists is that provided by Jay Coakley. In his book Sport in Society, he describes sport as an institutionalized competitive activity that involves vigorous physical exertion or the use of relatively complex physical skills by individuals whose participation is motivated by a combination of intrinsic (e.g., self-satisfaction that comes with competition) and extrinsic (e.g., money and public adoration) factors.

Over the next few articles in this issue, we will take a look at sport and at some of the social and ethical problems associated with it. Why do sports folk deviate from the paths of righteousness, as they all too frequently do?

It is helpful if we realize two important points. Firstly, sport may be viewed as a social institution, and secondly, sport is a microcosm of society.

As a social institution, sport is characterized by regulation, formalization, ideological justification, and the transmission of culture, and it attempts to channel human actions so that they correspond with predefined expectations. Sport shares many of the characteristics of other social institutions and groups. Firstly, it has a ranking system and a hierarchical structure that is generally based on value. The different sports are ranked in terms of popularity (in the U.S. the most popular sports are football, baseball and basketball), as are team positions (in American football the quarterback position is the most valued). Secondly, like all social institutions sport has an organizational and structural aspect with built-in roles and statuses. These provide the individual with his or her social position within the institution (e.g., player, trainer, owner) and dictate his or her level of power within the structure. Thirdly, social control is an important element of all social institutions. Sanctions are levied against violators in an attempt to maintain conforming behavior. Fourthly, all social institutions have rules, procedures and norms that must be followed. Formal organizations have governing bodies to legislate expected behaviors.

The importance of sport varies with the individual. It plays little or no role in the lives of some people. For others, it is a light diversion from the cares of everyday life. But for many, it is a central feature of their existence. Newspapers in most cities devote entire sections of their daily editions to the coverage of sport. In North America the space they devote to sport usually surpasses the space given to the economy, politics, or any other single topic of interest. American ‘talk radio’ has 265 stations primarily devoted to sports talk. Surveys show that 70% of Americans either watch sports on television, read the sports section of the newspaper, read books and magazines on sports, or talk about sports with their friends on a daily basis. So the study of sport is intrinsically interesting because it is such a pervasive part of life in contemporary society. No other institution, except perhaps religion, commands the same mystique, nostalgia, romantic idealism, and cultural attachment as sport. Sport combines the frivolous with the serious; and the ideological with the structural. Cultural ideology consists of the general perspectives and ideas that people use to make sense of the world, and to determine what is important or unimportant in life. Many such ideals are found in sport. Thus, sport may be viewed as a microcosm of society. Many of the problems that confront us in society can be found in sport too, including sexism, racism, ageism, elitism, drug abuse, corruption and violence.

As it is a microcosm, the study of sport may reveal truths about society in general. Sports are played by athletes, and athletes are only human. Like other humans, they are capable of great feats of courage, strength and heroism, just as they are prone to making mistakes. Consequently, the sports domain is filled with the same social constructions that are found in the greater society, and sociologists and philosophers can study them in connection with the greater social institutions, political and economic. The study of sports helps us to understand sports as social phenomena but, beyond that, it often leads to the discovery of problems based in the structure and organization of the greater society.

Sports Violence

The playing field is often a very dangerous place. Not even the hazardous and labor-intensive settings of mining, oil drilling and construction sites can compare with the routine injuries of team sports such as football, ice hockey, soccer and rugby. Sports violence can be viewed as behavior that causes harm, occurs outside of the rules of the game, and is unrelated to the competitive objectives of the sport. This may seem obvious, but equally obviously violence is acceptable in certain sports, and is often considered just ‘part of the game.’ The very intent of boxing is to cause physical harm to an opponent, but even in that sport participants can ‘cross the line’ of acceptable violent behavior (e.g., Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s right ear off during a championship title fight in 1997).

However, unacceptable forms of sports violence are far more likely to occur in the stands among the fans than on the playing field itself. The most notable and first to come to mind is soccer hooliganism. Although it draws minimal attention in the United States and Canada, soccer is the most played and popular sport in the world. The fanatical team loyalty and excessive joi de vivre of a minority of soccer fans often result in that special form of violence of which the English are the most notorious practitioners. Soccer hooliganism only achieved social problem status in England in the mid-1960s, and it was probably no coincidence that it was around that time that the World Cup Finals were staged in England for the first and only time. Hooliganism generally consists of fighting between rival groups both inside and outside the stadium, but in more serious manifestations can involve pitch (playing field) invasions that appear to be deliberately engineered to halt a match. It is asserted that hooligans operate as well-organized groups, sometimes with links to extreme right-wing racists. The English authorities keep a database of known hooligan agitators.

The 2002 World Cup officials in Japan also had lists of known hooligans and immigration authorities turned back dozens of English soccer supporters at the airports. But two people died in Moscow as Russian fans, angered by a defeat in a First Round World Cup game against Japan, went on a rampage, overturning cars and setting them on fire. Five music students from Japan were also beaten.

Fan violence is certainly not restricted to soccer. Anyone who regularly attends baseball games is likely to witness a fight or verbal aggression among spectators. During National Football League (NFL) games it is fairly common for ‘skirmishes’ to occur in the stands and in the parking lots. On December 16, 2001, Cleveland Browns fans went into a frenzy when a ‘bad’ call went against their team late in the game as they were about to take the lead in the closing moments. Seeing their playoff hopes disappear, the fans evinced their displeasure by pelting the field, players and officials with rubbish. The game had to be halted and was resumed nearly thirty minutes later after most of the stadium had been cleared of paying spectators.

Sportsmen Behaving Badly: Off-the-Field

Sport is assumed by many to promote those character traits generally deemed desirable, such as fair play, sportsmanship, obedience to authority, hard work and a commitment to excellence. Gordon Marino, in this issue, argues that boxing in particular develops the virtues of courage and self-mastery. Hal Charnofsky, on the other hand, says that sports in our over-competitive society can corrupt rather than enhance the characters of the participants. He has much evidence on his side; players and coaches often cheat in order to gain advantage and the idealism once associated with the Olympics has long been tarnished by various forms of corruption.

There are many examples of off-the-field deviance, some violent, others not. Among the former are: fights (sometimes with firearms involved); sexual assault and attempted rapes; marching bands physically brawling against each other during half-time activities; domestic violence charges; and drunk driving. During the 1999 NFL season alone, off-the-field violent misbehavior included two players being charged with murder, six players charged with either sexual assault or physical assault and/or battery, another player arrested on drugs and weapons charges, and another for breaking and entering with the intent to harm.

Non-violent off-the-field deviance includes: sex solicitation criminal charges; fraudulent autographed sports memorabilia (the FBI estimates that 20 percent of such materials are fakes); illegal gambling, point shaving (fixing the point differential of the final outcome) and basketball referees investigated for tax evasion. Additionally, large numbers of athletes use performance- enhancing drugs such as steroids, a problem considered by Jessie Burdick in his article. It’s not a pretty picture.

Sportsmen Behaving Badly: On-The-Field

On-the-field forms of deviance are often in that grey area somewhere between acts considered ‘part of the game’ (taking a cheap shot at an opponent when the referee is not looking) and those that ‘cross the line.’ They too can be either violent or nonviolent. In baseball, the ‘brush-back’ pitch (pitching the ball very close to, or deliberately hitting, the batter) is a common method of ‘sending a message’ to an opponent, usually in retaliation for some previous event. Officially banned by Major League Baseball rules, it is considered an ‘acceptable’ form of deviant behavior among the players. Other problems include poor sportsmanship; dirty play; illegal equipment (e.g., ‘corked’ baseball bats, or illegal stick length in hockey and lacrosse); and taunting. A couple of specific cases of on-the-field violence involved basketball player Latrell Sprewell, who was suspended from league play for choking his coach, and hockey’s Marty McSorley, whose behavior crossed the line between the unsporting and the criminal when he used his hockey stick to sucker-punch wingman Donald Brasher. The blow gave Brasher serious concussion, leaving his career in doubt.

Final Thoughts

Because sport is a microcosm of society, the same types of deviant behavior found in the larger social system can be expected to be found in sport. Society values ‘winners’ and justifies the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. Industrialization and capitalism have long legitimized this reality. Whether or not an athlete violates norms of acceptable behavior will be determined by his or her own self-evaluation of ethics and morals. When someone decides that they can justify certain behavior in an attempt to gain an edge over an opponent, they are likely to engage in deviant social action. Sports provide many valuable functions to society. But, as a reflection of society it can be assumed that deviant behaviors will continue in the sports world. Sports will become more ‘ethical’ and ‘civil’ when society becomes more morally-driven.


Tim Delaney teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego. His academic specialties include social theory and sport sociology. He is the author of Community, Sport and Leisure, (Legend Books) and co-editor of Values, Society & Evolution.

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