Work in Sports
Aura of invincibility adds to problems with violence
Posted: Sunday March 05, 2000 06:55 PM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
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.
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.
"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:
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.
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."