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Breaking Down The Brutality in Sports

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In attempting to understand and argue whether violence in modern sport has continued to augment over time, it is firstly necessary to grapple with what is understood by the term violence. Olweus (1999) rather narrowly, suggests that violence is the ‘use of physical force’. [1] He defines violence/violent behaviour as ‘aggressive behaviour where the actor or perpetrator uses his or her own body as an object (including a weapon) to inflict (relatively serious) injury or discomfort upon an individual’ (1999:7). However, as the study of violence has continued to expand, so too has its characterisation. The World Report on Violence and Health (WRVH, 2002) states, that violence is “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, mal-development, or deprivation.” More specifically, violence in sports has been defined as ‘behavior which causes harm, occurs outside of the rules of the sport, and is unrelated to the competitive objectives of the sport’ (Terry & Jackson, 1985:2). However, despite the fact that it is no easy task to formulate a specific concrete all encompassing understanding of violence what is clear is that there has been a continuous surge in both frequency and seriousness of acts of violence in sports in the modern era (Leonard, 1988). However, it is still problematic to give a definitive answer to such a complex question as, for example, the Australian Government have stated that hard data on the extent of sporting violence is not available, but that the sporting associations have indicated that there has not been an increase in violence over recent years (Wenn, 1989).The difficulty lies in assessing whether or not this level of violence has always been present in sport but appears, because of different influential factors, to be a recent phenomenon that is continuing to increase in today’s world. This essay will look at both player/on pitch violence and spectator violence.

During the period before the fall of the Roman Empire, violence in sport was in essence, a fundamental principle in society that far from undermining or offending social norms was actually endorsed and embraced by both athletes and spectators and became very much part of ordinary working society. The famous Historian Josephus described how Titus dealt with his captives from the Jewish Rebellion. “The number of those destroyed in contests with wild beasts or with one another or in the flames exceeded 2,500″(Grant,1999: 28). This approach was not greeted by shock by the Romans. In fact, violence was so much an integrated part of society and sport that the gladiators upon signing on swore; “I undertake to be burnt by fire, to be bound in chains, to be beaten, to die by the sword” (Grant, 1999: 45).[2]Furthermore, historically, violence was not only found in sports, but it served as a sport in itself, such as was the case in Ireland in the 19th Century (Conley, 1999). From a Sociological perspective, this approach to sport is indicative of an attitude to life, death, and the sufferings of others which is very different from that which dominates in the contemporary West (Dunning, 2002: 47), as a large part of the West is liberal and democratic and acknowledges the importance of Human Rights and the essential right to life.

If arguing that violence in sport today continues to be unambiguously prevalent it is useful to look to the law for empirical evidence. There are numerous professional sports leagues and other governing bodies which police violent activity and provide, what is deemed to be, appropriate punishment. There are a few important cases that indicate the stance taken by the law as it stands vis-à-vis violent action in sports; in the 1969 case[3]for example, the court held that in this instance it was a case of self-defense. However, more importantly, they acknowledged that there was no difference between sports contests and real-world violence and thus as later highlighted by the McSorley (2000) case, violence in sport is considered a criminal assault if one unjustifiably and intentionally uses force upon another with intent to cause injury. The crime usually involves a threat of harm, coupled with improper contact with the other person. This has enormous consequences in that it indicates that any action deemed to be violent and unnecessary can result in a criminal conviction as it is deemed to be an assault and therefore illegal. However, the question remains; does the introduction and expansion of law on violence in sport mean that violence today is less common or is the law, now, a very necessary tool that must be wielded because the level of violence continues to mount?

Research has suggested that the causes of sport violence are provocation by the other team or competition, encouragement by coaches (Reilly, 1995; O”Brien and Wolff, 1996), peer pressure, wanting to win, because it is an implicit part of the game (Scher, 1993; Weinstein, et al., 1995; Pilz, 1996), revenge and retaliation, and as the result of role models (Pooley and Golding, 1987). If these findings are accurate this suggests that violence has a high probability of taking place in sport when its use constitutes the difference between winning and losing, as well as when there is weak officiating, sanctions are not severe, so there is no real fear of detrimental penalization, coaches are not willing or able to control their players, or even encourage them to break laws (Clark, 1981). This highlights a big difficulty in that, despite the increase in law and regulatory bodies, violence continues to be a very real problem in sport. Furthermore, a problem lies in the fact that evaluating when these causes arise can be virtually impossible: there is no specific way of knowing how coaches react in a dressing room or how players feel before a match. In addition, it has been argued that among males, some are influenced by the macho image in society (Messner, 1992; Messner and Sabo, 1992; Coakley, 1998) and in attempting to be seen as strong and fit and fearless have a tendency to engage in high levels of violence to illustrate their masculinity.

A further difficulty in assessing whether violence in sport has actually increased in today’s world is the fact that it is generally acknowledged that “brutal body contact” is seen as integral to some sports (Smith, 1983).[4] This ‘contact’ essentially conforms to the rules of the sport as already specified, by the relevant regulatory body and is completely legitimate even when the same sort of behaviour outside the sports context is defined as criminal, like for example assault. Athletes, because they have consensually taken part have implicitly accepted the inevitability of rough contact and the likelihood that they will receive a few knocks during the ‘rough and tumble’. They have thus implicitly agreed to the probability of minor injury and even the possibility of serious injury. A good example is that of Stuart Mangan[5]. When the question of whether violence is sport is increasing is posed in light of such a sad case, prima facie, it becomes easier to answer it in the affirmative and not only that, it also becomes possible to argue today that such a standard of violence is actually acceptable to the spectators and not repugnant to the norms of a modern democracy. However, it must be noted that athletes cannot, reasonably be said to have agreed to injuries sustained from physical assaults that violate the written and unwritten rules of the sport. This means that any act of violence cannot ever violate the terms of the specific sport in question which essentially means that today sport and violence has clear parameters that must be adhered to.

Another interesting feature that needs examination in order to answer the question comprehensively is this notion of “Borderline violence” (Smith, 1986) which consists of behaviors that violate the official rules of the sport but remain acceptable to players and fans alike as a ‘legitimate part’ of the game. Such activity —a fight or headbuttin ice hockey or an intentional foul in association football’s penalty zone—is rarely if ever subject to a court hearing and there is increasingly a tendency to be deal with these types of issues by penalties imposed by referees, umpires, or league administrators. A solid example of this occurred in 1997 when the Nevada Commission censured and banned boxer Mike Tyson for biting his opponent(NY Times, 1997). More-extreme rule infractions—those that upset both the formal rules of the sport and also the law of the land—elicit , normally, a harsher formal response, especially when the violence results in serious injury. If it is accepted that sport, by its very essence inevitable incorporates a certain level of violence and disharmony it once again becomes more difficult to truly estimate whether violence has become and continues to become more prominent in sport or whether the very existence of sport has meant and continues to mean that violence has always been a part of it. In sport is often equated with pure violence (Atkinson &Young, 2008). Elias (1993) suggests that sports grow out of regulated societies where violence in general is reduced (liberal democracies for example) to a minimum because disagreements are resolved politically in the normal way. Sports thus function, in these societies, as a “relief-institution,” a “mimetic battle” that allows people to achieve fulfillment and catharsis without “acts of violence . . . the infliction of physical injuries or of death upon other human beings.” Essentially that sport is an outlet by which to vent anger and frustration. However, since sports are close to violence, it is also in the context of sporting events that violence tends to manifest itself first when society (because of unemployment, poverty, discrimination, etc.) begins to break down. Hooliganism is just one example Elias gives of this phenomenon.

This essay will now focus on the aforementioned second type of violence. Sometimes fans do more than complain. Violence by supporters of sports teams dates back to Roman times, when supporters of chariot racing teams were frequently involved in major riots. A notable example of this is the Nika riots of 532 (Weir, 1996). However, it is clear that in the 1960s and 1970s, there was an increase of a dramatic nature in violence committed by sports spectators (Dunning, 1993).[6]

Despite the copious amounts of empirical evidence it is not easy to find a simple answer to such a complex and multifaceted question, not least because there is a real failure to distinguish effects across different types of sport (Baumert, Henderson &Thompson, 1998; Begg et al, 1996; Jackson et al, 2002; Nixon 1997; Wright and Fitzpatrick, 2006). If one looks to the law and the multifarious number of organisations that exist today to oversee and monitor sport it would be a fair to assume that violence has decreased and will continue to do so in sport. However, if one argues that sport naturally incorporates violence, especially contact sports and that these sports are not banned but in fact avidly supported, encouraged and loved by the athletes themselves and the loyal fans and is a vital outlet to vent anger than it would be a fair assessment to say that violence is on the up. However, this is not such a simplistic topic. No one point can be looked at in isolation. This essay ultimately argues that, whether or not violence in sport is on the up, currently it has become virtually impossible to answer this question accurately not least because of the very prominent and influential role of the media. The question really becomes whether the heightened public attention and media focus on sports violence reflects not so much an augmentation in the incidence or severity of aggression, but rather greater public concern with moral issues and political discourse?

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Breaking Down the Brutality in Sports. (2018, December 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 17, 2021, from
“Breaking Down the Brutality in Sports.” GradesFixer, 11 Dec. 2018,
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