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Starting Young

Aura of invincibility adds to problems with violence

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Posted: Sunday March 05, 2000 06:55 PM

  At the University of Maimi in 1994, Ray Lewis was a suspect in a campus brawl, but no charges were filed. Mike Powell/Allsport

By John Donovan,

ATLANTA -- Professional athletes reside in a rarefied corner of our society. Fame goes hand in hand with wealth, and both often are preceded by a sense of entitlement that can begin early in life, when superior athletic ability first becomes apparent.

Psychologists and sociologists believe that this heightened sense of privilege is often the breeding ground for much of the off-the-field violence committed by athletes.

While the separate murder charges pending against Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis and former Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth remain a shocking extreme, it is a rare week that passes without at least one athlete making an appearance on a police blotter. And the growing level of violence among our sports stars has led to much serious study of the issue.

To be sure, many experts insist that violence is simply part of some people's lives and that there is no firm connection to sports at all.

On the heels of one of the most exciting NFL seasons ever, a star stands charged with murder and the league struggles to cope with its violent image. examines the problem in this special weeklong report.
The Stories 
  • Monday: The Slayings | The Victims
  • Tuesday: The Entourage
  • Wednesday: Dealing with Violence
  • Thursday: Starting Young
  • Friday: Your Reactions
  • Multimedia 
    Video Box:  The NFL and Violence
    Boom Box:   NFL Players on Violence
  • Chat Reel: SI's Lester Munson
  • Chat Reel: SI's Frank Deford
  • But among those who argue that a connection between violence and sports does exist, there are three primary theories:

  • Participation in a violent sport like football may actually contribute to antisocial behavior, as some players find it difficult to switch off the aggression they need to succeed on the field.

  • Some star athletes, accustomed from a young age to receiving special treatment, develop a sense of invincibility and a belief that they do not have be accountable for their actions.

  • Some professional ballplayers, awash in money at a young age, believe that they can buy their way out of anything -- including trouble.

    Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sports in Society, holds that if young athletes are raised in a violent culture, employing violence to solve disputes is something they will carry with them as adults.

    "From middle school on," Lapchick said, "kids casually tell us -- and it has nothing to do with affluence or race or gender -- that fighting is simply a way to resolve conflicts for them."

    Sometimes, the most aggressive kids can find an outlet in sports, where aggression is rewarded. But whether it is Mike Tyson or Mark Gastineau, there are athletes who cannot leave their aggression in the ring or on the field.

    "We are inculcated from the earliest time in sports to be aggressive," said Dr. Dan Tripps, a sports psychologist at Seattle Pacific University. "The nature of aggression -- there are only a few ways you can direct it." Including, Tripps says, toward other people.

    Do athletes themselves accept this explanation for so much of the violent behavior we have seen?

    "When you're on the field, it's so intense, so violent, that in regular life, obviously you would break the law for something that happens on the field," said Tennessee Titans tight end Frank Wycheck. "So sometimes guys might have a problem separating the two."

    But New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan disagrees. "The guys I associate with always seem to be the nicest guys. 'Can't turn off the aggression.' That's a copout," Strahan said.

    The idea that many athletes carry an aura of invincibility, borne out of the sense of privilege that they often enjoy, also can be a contributing factor to violence off the field, according to some experts.'s Ron Meyer
    Years ago, you never heard of spousal abuse. Now, it's common-day. How much more is out there, more than is being reported? It's hard to say. But I see [violence among NFL players] on the rise, no matter how you try to sugarcoat it. I can't recall the violence that we see today.

    This whole business of one, two, three, four, five strikes -- however many athletes are given now -- it kind of makes a mockery of what we're trying to do. This stuff of "It was a mistake," I just don't buy. My patience has worn thin.

    Athletes have to be held to a higher standard, whether they want to be or not. And the same goes for coaches. It comes with the awe with which we hold our athletes. And the responsibility of the money one receives for the sport. 
    Kids who are the strongest and the fastest are often the most popular members of their peer group. They are often cheered on by adoring parents, win-at-all-cost coaches and title-hungry administrators.

    "We are starting, very young, to [give athletes the message] that what matters in this society is to have physical prowess, whether looks or movement. Those are the attributes of truly being a successful person in this culture," Tripps said. "And it's not surprising you have the concomitant results because of it."

    And when young athletes make a mistake, they are often granted a second and third chance by well-meaning but misguided adults. Many come to believe that there are few consequences for their actions, or that there are no problems that can't be fixed.

    Consider these two recent examples involving athletes still in high school:

  • Jason Respert, an 18-year-old football player from Warner Robins, Ga., was charged with attempted sexual battery and burglary after police said he went into a woman's bedroom in January during a recruiting trip to Gainesville, Fla. According to police, the 6-foot-3, 301-pound offensive lineman pulled down the covers on the young woman's bed, pulled up her pajama top and put his hand down her pajama bottoms.

    Respert has pleaded not guilty. Several schools, including Florida, dropped Respert from their recruiting list. But not Tennessee, which still considers Respert a "recruitable athlete," according to a school spokesman, and may be holding a scholarship for him, depending on the outcome of the case.

  • Eric Knott, an 18-year-old football player from Detroit, faces a March trial on charges he raped a 13-year-old girl. His high school teammate, Damon Dowdell, 17, also has been charged in the assault.

    Dowdell already has signed a letter-of-intent with Michigan State, and the school has left the door open in its recruitment of Knott, who has yet to sign a letter-of-intent with anyone. Dowdell has a scholarship waiting for him, pending outcome of the case. The school also has another scholarship waiting, though a school spokesman denied that it is being held specifically for Knott.

    "Because they're really good ... they get away with stuff, because the school needed them or the team needed them," said Dr. Dan Gould, a sports psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "If you got away with speeding [before], you're probably going to drive a little faster than you should when you're in a hurry."

    That feeling of invincibility is compounded when top athletes get to college. There they often have scholarships, sleep in the best hotels on road trips, get many of their meals paid for and have tutors to help them with their classwork. And those are simply the above-board benefits. There are stories every year about athletes who receive money or other perks in violation of NCAA rules.

    And in college, coaches and administrators sometimes go to great lengths to smooth over player problems.

    When he was head coach at Nebraska, Tom Osborne found himself so deeply involved in the troubles of some of his players that some people accused him of interfering with law enforcement investigations in order to keep his players on the field.

    Osborne interviewed witnesses in cases involving his players, publicly attacked the credibility of some of those witnesses and once he and an assistant locked away a gun that had been allegedly used by a Nebraska player during the commission of a crime.

    "I don't tell Tom Osborne how to run the football department," Lancaster County (Nebraska) attorney Gary Lacey told Sports Illustrated in 1995, "and he should stay out of the criminal justice system. He hasn't done that at all."

    Those kinds of actions on behalf of players add to the feeling of invincibility and enforces their belief that there are few consequences for their actions, experts say.

    And with their arrival in the pros, athletes -- still in their early 20s -- are hit with a financial windfall unimaginable to the average young man just starting his career. That complicates matters further.

    "It's easy to get a lot of things out of perspective. A lot of people treat you real differently," said Gould. "I think, unless you're properly instructed and advised, you can get into situations you didn't intend to get into."

    The key to curbing violence among athletes, experts say, is for athletes to be trained to control their aggression. They must become aware, through education and, perhaps, less coddling, that their actions can have negative consequences. They must be taught how to deal with outside influences that can lead to potentially violent situations.

    And, of course, they need to learn those life lessons as soon as possible.

    "This really needs to start in Little League, certainly in high school, most certainly in college," said Dr. Don Beck, a sports psychologist and co-founder of The National Values Center, a Dallas-area consulting firm. "We really have got to expose those young minds to those experiences that simply make them more mature.

    "It's called growing up, for God's sake."

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