Issue: Supporting Sports
The Independent Thinker--Critical Thinking, Activism, Dissent, Metanoia

It is often said that participation in sports "builds character." Sports is also touted as good clean fun, and a way to build better relations between countries. Is this a rational belief?

In fact, sports in general lead to a preference for violence as a way of settling issues. Research shows that team sports are particularly pernicious in their anti-social results. Participation in team sports leads to mob-like behavior, violence, hatred, stereotyping, and an ethnocentric view. For the long history of research which supports this view, see my page on Tribal Behavior.

If we approach sports in a rational manner, based on the overwhelming amount of research which has been done, we would conclude that sports is destructive of character and promotes anti-social, even criminal, behavior, and should be outlawed. No community which values human dignity or peace should permit the practice of competitive sports.

Further notes on sports:

"The choice of leisure activities is significantly affected by the social contexts of participation (Buchanan, Christensen, & Burge, 1981; Crandall, 1979; Field & O'Leary, 1973). Since leisure choices may constrain or be constrained by family members, the family is a particularly significant social context for leisure decision making (Freysinger, 1994; Holman & Epperson, 1984; Orthner & Mancini, 1990). This is especially true in the case of children's sport programs because parents typically make the initial decision to enroll their children (Howard & Madrigal, 1990), whereas their children's continued participation seems to enhance parents' social and psychological involvement with the sport (Hasbrook, 1986; Snyder & Purdy, 1982)" (Green and Chalip 61).

"There has been substantial empirical work aimed at elaborating models describing children's socialization into sport. Parents have consistently been found to play a key role (Oliver, 1980; Smith, 1979; Spreitzer & Snyder, 1976), particularly as a consequence of the encouragement they provide (Anderssen & Wold, 1992; Melnick, Dunkelman, & Mashiach, 1981)" (Green and Chalip 62).

Sports is "one of the prominent social institutions of popular culture" (Stern 831).

"A study by Jacquelynne Eccles, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan and Bonnie Barber, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona shows that high school athletes are more likely than teens who don't participate in organized sports to remain enrolled in college and earn higher grades while they're there. The bad news: they are also more likely to drink and use drugs" (Billie 8).

[This study underlines a UT Austin study which shows that the greatest factor in a student remaining in college is involvement in some--any--group.]

'Kathleen Miller, Ph.D., of the State University of New York-Buffalo, has found that athletics offer particular benefits to girls. Young women who play sports seem to have sex later and less often than their non-athletic peers, and thus face a lower risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. "Sports give girls higher self-esteem and the power to say no," she says" (Billie 8).

"Male athletes, in contrast, tend to be more sexually experienced. "The culture of sports reinforces the mindset that boys 'score' both on and off the field," Miller observes" (Billie 8).

"An analysis of sporting institutions in Georgia, Thailand and South Africa shows they reflect the general condition of civil society in those countries" (Allison 709).

"Sports may be among the most powerful human expressions in all history," Gerald Early writes in the opening essay of this issue, and perhaps more than sex, to which it relates in all kinds of complicated and not-so-complicated ways, sport elaborates in its rituals what it means to be human: the play, the risk, the trials, the collective impulse to games, the thrill of physicality, the necessity of strategy; defeat, victory, defeat again, pain, transcendence and, most of all, the certainty that nothing is certain that everything can change and be changed.

"But if sport is a powerful expression, it is also an expression of power. Any Olympics tells us this. In economic terms, what we might call the gross national sports product is at least $350 billion, six times what it was a decade ago. In terms of popular culture, probably nothing enters public consciousness on such a scale. Some 133 million Americans watched the Super Bowl this year, wildly outdistancing the 47 million who re-elected Bill Clinton.

"...sports are an ugly business. They always have been" (Anonymous 3).

"In 171 Australian rules football matches over a period of 4 years, umpires' allocations of rewards to (a) teams from the same state (instate) as the central umpires and (b) teams from other states (outstate) were examined. The instate teams received significantly more rewards (free kicks) than the outstate teams did in matches between them. The extent of the instate adjudication advantage varied by year; it was significantly greater for matches on an instate home ground than for matches on an outstate home ground" (Mohr and Larsen 495).

[So, here is another research finding that sports lead to in-group prejudice.]

"The Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association has made a big change: All tournament games involving players under 10 will have no winners or losers. The idea here is to have a restful, pressure-free, no-winner, post-season tourney with no parents or coaches ruining everything by screaming hurtful advice to the players. And since there will be no losers, nobody will have to suffer the agony of defeat, along with all the negative feelings and crippled self-esteem that usually go with it.

"Avoid divisive competition. One of the purposes here is social equality. Having winners and losers in soccer, checkers, or ping-pong clearly divides us, when we need to be drawn closer together in purposeful social cohesion. As the soccer association president, Steve Koerper, says, "When one team wins, everyone else is a loser."

Abstract: In recent years, the debate on football crowd violence has concentrated on the violent dispositions of participants - and particularly on the nature and origins of conflictual norms held by hooligan fans. In this paper, we challenge this tendency. We argue that the hooligan perspective is limited in its ability to explain how conflict generalises during crowd events, the precise conditions under which it originates, and the form that it takes. In order to account for these phenomena it is necessary to broaden the scope of enquiry so as to include the police as well as fans. Using events involving England fans at the 1990 world cup (Italia 90), we propose a model in which the nature of group norms and group conflict are a consequence of the developing interactions between England supporters and the Italian Caribineri. The assumption, on the part of the police, that all fans were potentially dangerous and their treatment of fans as such led, over time, to a situation where fans who initially eschewed violence, came into conflict with the police. The example both illustrates the value of an analysis of collective football violence in terms of developmental inter-group dynamics and suggests how the assumption that fans are inherently dangerous may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. (Stott and Reicher 353)

Why do we teach sports? Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance; Reston; Mar 1999; Sean Slade;

Slade argues that the main reason for teaching sports is that it builds character. However, he substantiates his argument by surveying families. So what we have is a survey about family beliefs, not any proof of reality.

George Sage (15--professor emeritus at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO) argues in the Journal of Physical Education that "sports builds character." However, he does not address whether it is good or bad character which it develops. One reference will give us a clue:

"Citizenship in twentieth century America required a strong sense of cooperation, institutional national loyalty, and a willingness to subordinate personal interests to those of the group. (O'Hanlon, 1980, p. 89).

So we are talking here about loyalty (unreasoning?), subordination of personal interests for those of the group, strong sense of cooperation. In other words, what is being discussed socialization to conformity. We can see the results of conformity in the history of Nazi Germany. People did not fight the system; they went along.

He finally admits "Because empirically verifying that sport-builds-character claim is so difficult, those who argue for this theme are left to relating anecdotes such as how particular athletes displayed courage, perseverance, or self-discipline in the course of a game or how a team showed dedication and teamwork. But a perusal of the nation's newspapers on any given day will reveal stories of courage, loyalty, perseverance, and so on, by people who have never participated in sport. So character qualities often attributed to athletes are neither confined to nor peculiar to them."

Finally, this coach, trying to defend sports, is forced by his honesty to quote the only available research on the topic and its conclusions:

"Recent research actually suggests that contrary to building character, organized sport for youth may actually be detrimental to moral development, a key component of character regardless of how it is defined. Two researchers set out to analyze high school student athletes' cognitive moral reasoning compared to their nonathletic cohorts. They collected data on more than 1,300 high school students, 9th through 12th grades. Among their findings were: (1) athletes scored lower on moral development than their nonathlete peers and (2) moral-reasoning scores for athletic populations steadily declined from the ninth grade through high school, whereas scores for nonathletes tended to increase (Beller & Stoll, 1994; Decker & Lasley, 1995)...

"If one accepts the notion that youth can learn culturally valued beliefs and behaviors from sport, and if one agrees that an ethos of winning is the only thing is prevalent in the American sport culture, it becomes clear that sport experiences may be providing patterned reinforcement of attitudes, values, and behaviors that are actually antithetical to character-building ideals of fair play and a morality of justice (Gibson, 1993)...

"...This total authority is vividly evident in popular locker room slogans: "My way or the highway"; "There is no I in team"; "A player doesn't make the team, the team makes the player." From the little leagues through high school, aspiring athletes learn to please their coaches; if they wish to play organized sports, they must play the social acquiescence game properly or they will be weeded out...

"One sport analyst contends that when carefully scrutinized, the discourse of building of character through sport turns out to emphasize forming traits admired in the capitalist workplace. He argues that youth and school sport tends to prepare "young men [and women] to take for granted the norms of the capitalist workplace; and central among these is that every aspect of the process is necessarily geared to the 'natural' goal of increasing productivity. Never can player (or worker) satisfaction, let alone the possibility of restructuring the `relations of production' so as to afford opportunities for personal growth, take precedence over the imperative of building a winner" (Whitson, 1986, p. 101)...

"As an intergroup level theory, SIT originated as an explanation of the discrimination effect obtained in the minimal group paradigm (MGP) (Tajfel, 1972; Turner, 1975, 1996). In a typical minimal group experiment, members of two arbitrary groups allocate valued resources to anonymous in-group and out-group members (Tajfel, Flament, Billig, & Bundy, 1971). There is no social interaction within or between groups; there are no instrumental links between individuals' responses and their personal self-interest. There is no previous history of relations between the groups and no ideological context legimitizing in-group or out-group denigration. Although these procedures were designed to eliminate grounds for discriminatory behavior, results of three decades of research using the MGP demonstrated that categorizing people into "us and them" was sufficient to foster intergroup discrimination (Brewer, 1979; Diehl, 1990; Messick & Mackie, 1989; Tajfel 1981)." (Pereault and Bourhis 92).

"A fundamental prediction of SIT is that discriminatory behavior is related to an individual's degree of in-group identification (Oakes, Haslam, & Turner,1994; Tajfel, 1978)" (Pereault and Bourhis 92).

"... recent studies that have used this conceptual distinction have found significant links between degree of in-group identification and evaluative bias in favor of the in-group (Branscombe, Wann, Noel, & Coleman, 1993; Sidanius, Pratto, & Mitchell,1994), outgroup derogation (Branscombe & Wann, 1994), collective action (Kelly, 1993), and discriminatory behavior (Gagnon & Bourhis,1996). In their MGP study, Gagnon and Bourhis (1996) obtained results showing that individuals who identified strongly with their ad hoc group did discriminate, whereas participants who identified weakly with their assigned group did not" (Pereault and Bourhis 94).

A great story from the Web site of the University of California, Santa Cruz:

How the Slug Became our Mascot

"The Banana Slug, a bright yellow, slimy, shell-less mollusk found in the campus's redwood forest, has been--unofficially most of the time --the mascot for UC Santa Cruz's coed teams since the university opened in 1965. The students' adoption of such a lowly creature for a team mascot was their reaction to the fierce athletic competition fostered at most American universities.

"UCSC has always offered a wide-ranging physical education and recreation program designed to appeal to the greatest number of students, but it has based its approach on some unusual ideas: that athletics are for all students, not just team members of major sports; that the most important goal of a collegiate physical education department should be to introduce as many students as possible to lifelong physical activities; and that the joy of participating is more important than winning.

"In 1981, when some campus teams wanted more organized yet still low-keyed participation in extramural competition, UCSC joined Division III of the NCAA in five sports. Since the application required an official team name, UCSC's then chancellor polled the student players, and out of this small group emerged a consensus for a new moniker--the sea lions. It was a choice that the chancellor considered more dignified and suitable to serious play than the Banana Slug.

"But the new name did not find favor with the majority of students, who continued to root for the Slugs even after a sea lion was painted in the middle of the basketball floor.

"After five years of dealing with the two-mascot problem, an overwhelming pro-slug straw vote by students in 1986 convinced the chancellor to make the lowly but beloved Banana Slug UCSC's official mascot.

"By the time the chancellor had left office, he was won over to the proslug camp, even to the point of featuring the Slug on his personal Christmas card."

Some stories in the news illustrate how sports really changes the character of people...

Reported in THIS is TRUE for 8 August 1999, Copyright 1999 by Randy Cassingham:

Fourteen football players from the University of California at Los Angeles have agreed to plead guilty to illegal possession of handicapped parking permits, which allowed them to park in reserved spaces close to classes and avoid parking fees. They were also charged with giving false information to the state Department of Motor Vehicles in order to obtain the special privileges. The misdemeanor charges could have resulted in 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine, but the players have agreed to a plea bargain and accept sentences of 200 hours of community service and a $150 fine. (AP) ...After finally being convinced that mental deficiency did not qualify them for the permits.

St. Louis Rams linebacker Leonard Little pleaded guilty last month to involuntary manslaughter charges after running a red light and crashing into a 47-year-old woman, killing her. Police said that Little was legally drunk. The guilty plea gave the National Football League what they needed take action: they have suspended Little from playing in eight games for violating the League's substance abuse policy, though they are allowing him to practice with the team and play in exhibition games. (UPI) ...That'll teach him.

Works Cited

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Anderssen, N., & Wold, B. (1992). Parental and peer influences on leisure-time physical activity in young adolescents. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 63, 341-348.

Anonymous. "Why Sports?" The Nation 267, no.5 (Aug. 10-17, 1998): 3+.

Beller,J. M., & Stoll, S. K (1994). Sport participation and its effect on moral reasoning of high school student athletes and general students. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 65, (Suppl. A), 94.

Billie, Katherine. "What I Learned in Gym." Psychology Today. 31 (6). (Nov/Dec 1998): 8+.

Branscombe, N. R., & Wann, D. L. (1994). Collective self-esteem consequences of outgroup derogation when a valued social identity is on trial. European Journal of Social Psychology, 24, 651-657.

Branscombe, N. R., Wann, D. L., Noel, J. G., & Coleman, J. (1993). In-group or out-group extremity: Importance of the threatened social identity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 381-388.

Brewer, M. B. (1979). In-group bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 307-324.

Buchanan, T., Christensen, J. E., & Burdge, R.J. (1981). Social groups and the meanings of outdoor recreation activities. Journal of Leisure Research, 13, 254-266.

Crandall, R. (1979). Social interaction, affect and leisure. Journal of Leisure Research, 11, 165181.

Decker, D., & Lasley, K (1995). Participation in youth sports, gender, and the moral point of view. The Physical Educator, 53, 14-21.

Diehl, M. (1990). The minimal group paradigm: Theoretical explanations and empirical findings. In W. Sroebe & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European review of social psychology (pp. 263-292). New York: John Wiley.

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Freysinger, V. J. (1994). Leisure with children and parental satisfaction: Further evidence of a sex difference in the experience of adult roles and leisure. Journal of Leisure Research, 26, 212-226.

Gagnon, A., & Bourhis, R. Y (1996). Discrimination in the minimal group paradigm: Social identity or self-interest? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 1289-1301.

Gibson,J. (1993). Performance v. results: A critique of values in contemporary sport. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Green, B. Christine, and Laurence Chalip. "Enduring involvement in youth soccer: The socialization of parent and child. Journal of Leisure Research. 29 (1): 61-77.

Hasbrook, C. A. (1986). Reciprocity and childhood socialization into sport. In L. Vander Velden &J. H. Humphrey (Eds.), Psychology and sociology of sport: Current selected research (Vol. 1, pp. 135-147). New York: AMS Press.

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Howard, D., & Madrigal, R (1990). Who makes the decision: The parent or child? Journal of Leisure Research, 22, 244-258.

Kelly, C. (1993). Group identification, intergroup perceptions, and collective action. In W. Stroebe & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European review of social psychology (pp. 59-83). Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Leo, John. "We're All Number 1." U.S. News & World Report 124(24). (Jun 22 1998): 23+.

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Mohr, Philip B., and Kerry Larsen. "Ingroup favoritism in umpiring decisions in Australian football." The Journal of Social Psychology 138(4). (Aug. 1998): 495-504.

Oakes, P. J., Haslam, A., & Turner, J. C. (1994). Stereotyping and social reality. Oxford, UK Blackwell.

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Sage, George. "Does sport affect character development in athletes?" Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 69(1). (Jan 1998): 15-18.

Sidanius, J., Pratto, F., & Mitchell, M. (1994). In-group identification, social dominance orientation, and differential intergroup social allocation. Journal of Social Psychology, 134, 151-167.

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Snyder, E. E., & Purdy, D. A. (1982). Socialization into sport: Parent and child reverse and reciprocal effects. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 53, 263-266.

Spreitzer, E., & Snyder, E. E. (1976). Socialization into sport: An exploratory path analysis. Research Quarterly, 47, 238-245.

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Stott, Clifford, and Steve Reicher. "How conflict escalates: the inter-group dynamics of collective football crowd 'violence'" Sociology 32(2). (May 1998): 353-77.

Tajfel, H. (1978). The psychological structure of intergroup relations. In H. Tajfel (Ed.), Differentiation between soial groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 27-100). London: Academic Press.

Tajfel, H. (1981). Human groups and social categories. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Tajfel, H., Flament, C., Billig, M. G., & Bundy, R. P. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1, 149-178.

Whitson, D. (1986). Structure, agency and the sociology of sport debates. Theory, Culture, and Society, 3, 399-107.

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