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Are professional athletes professional brawlers?

by Alyssa - Editor-in-Chief
Tue, Apr 17th 2018 08:45 pm

There seems to be a trend of professional athletes, in a wide variety of sports, brawling in the middle of their tournaments. The validation behind these impromptu fights can be as simple as the opposing team giving a player the stink eye. Just last week, during the Red Sox versus Yankees matchup, there were two bench-clearing incidents that stemmed from what the Red Sox perceived as a dirty slide by Yankees first baseman Tyler Austin into the Red Sox utility player Brock Holt, who was covering second base. Holt and Austin had a few choice words, and the benches emptied in the third inning. Later in the game, Red Sox pitcher Joe Kelly threw at Austin, prompting Austin to charge the mound and both benches emptied again.

These actions aren’t without consequences. Major League Baseball has suspended Kelly for six games because he intentionally hit Austin with a pitch and participated in the fighting. Austin has been suspended for five games and fined an undisclosed amount for charging the mound and fighting. Red Sox manager Alex Cora and Yankees third base coach Phil Nevin were also fined for their actions during the two incidences along with several other players from each team, according to mlb.nbcsports.com

This isn’t the first time this has happened and it’s not the last time it will happen. Aggression isn’t an issue only connected with professional baseball, either. In November 2017, week nine of the season, there were five total NFL players ejected from three separate games within one week. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ wide receiver Mike Evans was in a scuffle between his team and the New Orleans Saints. The Cincinnati Bengals’ wide receiver A.J. Green, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the San Francisco 49ers’ running back Carlos Hyde and the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive end Frostee Rucker and linebacker Haason Reddick were the other four players taking the heat for those mid-game fights, according to The Washington Post

Sports, no matter the level or the type, are known to increase both players’ and fans’ levels of aggression and hostility. This even holds true for non-contact sports. There is less of an aggressive impact for these sports but this does not discredit the fact that all competition generates a spike in negative emotion. 

According to a Bleacher Report article titled “Violence and Aggression In Sports: An In Depth Look,” the spike in aggression isn’t directly linked to the team’s outcome of the match, but the frustration-aggression hypothesis which has been proposed to explain human aggressive behaviors maintains the perspective that aggression is caused by frustration. This may seem contradictory, but frustration can simply be caused by the blocking of one’s efforts to achieve goals. In the case of sports games, this happens from beginning to end, and not just in terms of who has more points on the scoreboard.

Psychologists who critique this theory question whether all frustration leads to aggressive action. I think that different types of situations result in different types of frustration, especially when it comes to finding the origin of it. You can be frustrated with yourself, another living thing, a system or even an inanimate object – like your car that just broke down for the third time this week. 

In terms of fan fights, there have been numerous accounts, and some even resulting in people being rushed to the Intensive Care Units of the hospitals they’re admitted into. According to wbur.org, “studies have shown that violence in the game, particularly if perceived as unfair, increases the likelihood of violent acts by spectators. Fan violence is further magnified by strong identification with the team, underlying racial and ethnic tensions, social alienation, alcohol consumption, and predominance of young men in the crowd.”

The example that the author provides in the article is the 2011 incident where two Dodgers fans savagely beat Giants fan Bryan Stow. According to The New York Times, Stow was left with severe irreversible brain injuries. On February 20, 2014, the two Dodgers fans, Louie Sanchez and Marvin Norwood, were sentenced to eight years and four years in state prison respectively after pleading guilty to the  assault.

What’s interesting is that all of this aggression that’s linked to sports, whether it be on the player or the fan side, is a learned action. Now because of this, how we grow up experiencing it affects how we act now that we’re older. This may be more of an unconscious learning than a conscious absorption of behavior, but based on a psychological study sourced in the aforementioned article, regardless of gender, 194 soccer players, 13 through 19 years old, “reported that they would be more likely to be aggressive if they thought their coaches supported such behaviors.” 

A similar study that interviewed 106 children at a summer sport camp “found that participation in high-contact sports was associated with greater aggression and with lower levels of moral reasoning.” So not only do we learn that aggressive behavior is fine when it comes to athletics, but we also learn that the more contact-oriented the sport is, the less validation aggressive actions need. 

There’s a simple solution to athletes and fans of all ages acting with such frustration, and that’s to make it socially unacceptable from day one to react in such a way. There is a difference between playing with intensity on the field, and crossing the line into unnecessary and relatively cruel tactics. Penalties and sportsmanship regulations have been established to help provide a protective barrier against letting terror reign, but obviously it doesn’t prevent it from breaking that barrier every once in awhile. If coaches, parents and all relative members of the community taught children that, even when playing sports, it is not okay to intentionally hurt someone or react poorly after facing adversity, then perhaps we wouldn’t have fans sustaining long term brain damage and athletes being suspended or ejected for doing the same to their opponents.

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