Fan Aggression in Sport

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Position Statements

Aggression and Violence in Sport: AN ISSP Position Stand

Prepared by Gershon Tenenbaum, Evan Stewart (University of Southern Queensland Australia), Robert N. Singer (University of Florida, USA), Joan Duda (Purdue University, USA)

Aggression has long been a part of the sport domain. Indeed, Russell (1993; p.191) suggested that outside of wartime, sports is perhaps the only setting in which acts of interpersonal aggression are not only tolerated but enthusiastically applauded by large segments of society. In recent years, however, violence in sport, both on and off the field, has come perceived as a social problem. For instance, commissions have been appointed in Canada, England and Australia to investigate violence in the athletic setting (National Committee on Violence, 1989; Pipe, 1993). In the United States, Canada, Germany, England and Australia, court cases have been heard concerning the sport-related victims or perpetrators of aggressive acts (e.g., see Murphy, 1988).

Aggression is defined as the infliction of an aversive stimulus, physical, verbal, or gestural, upon one person by another. Aggression is not an attitude but behavior and, most critically, it is reflected in acts committed with the intent to injure (LeUnes & Nation, 1989). This definition of aggression includes such wide ranging acts, engaged by athletes, coaches and/or spectators, as physically hitting another individual and verbal abuse.

Aggressive behavior can be classified according to the primary reinforcement sought via the act. Hostile aggression is where the principal reward, or intent, is to inflict upon another for its own sake. Instrumental aggression, on the other hand, is where the major reinforcement is the achievement of a subsequent goal. I this case, an athlete may intend to injure the opponent, but the most important goal to be achieved by the aggression acts is to win the competition, to be acknowledged by the coach, and the like.

Violence refers specifically to the physical component of aggression. It is defined as “harm inducing behavior bearing direct relationship to the competitive goals of sport, and relates, therefore, to incidents of uncontrolled aggression outside the rules of sport, rather than highly competitive behavior within the rules of sport, rather than highly competitive behavior within the rules of boundaries” (terry & Jackson, 1985, p.27). In other words, violence is equated to physically inflicted illegal and hostile aggressive acts.

If there is no intent to injure the opponent and the athlete is utilizing legitimate means in order to achieve his/her goals, then the athlete is not being aggressive but assertive. The distinction is that the intent, when one is being assertive, is to establish dominance rather than to harm the opponent (Thirer, 1994). As such, behaviors such as tackling in rugby, the hip and shoulder in Australian Football, checking in hockey, and breaking up double play in basketball may be seen as assertive as long as they are performed as legal components of the contest and without malice. However, these same actions would represent aggression (hostile or instrumental) if the athlete’s intention was to cause injury (Anshel, 1990).

Spectators ay also exhibit hostile or instrumental aggression when they verbally abuse or throw objects at an opposing athlete or team. If the intent is to physically or psychologically injure the athlete, spectators are being hostile. If their intent is to gain an advantage for their team by distracting the opposing player(s), then is considered instrumental aggression.

As Thirer (1993, p. 365-366) stated “those with a legitimate, genuine concern for all levels of sport, from early childhood experiences to age group and master’s competition, need too be acutely aware of the negative specter of aggression and violence. This applies equally to participant behavior and spectator behavior”. Since sport and society are presumed...
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