April 8, 2013

Rutgers Firing-Are Sports and Abuse a Natural Combination?

The firing of the Rutgers basketball coach for abusive behavior brings to mind the headlines about Penn State and the cover up of Jerry Sandusky’s even more egregious behavior. Both of these situations show the incredible value our society places on sports and the corruption it can cause-trumping safety, morals and basic human decency. Full disclosure: I am not and have never been a sports fan so I find the worship of sports baffling. When it leads to the cover up of criminal and abusive behavior, I am forced to ponder the role of sports in our society.


Sports are, of course, a  great money making endeavor. Enormous wealth is made by the owners of professional sports teams. Colleges have found sports to be a huge profit center and successful athletes find a path to future money and fame. Large financial gain always causes a risk of corruption and sports are no different. The abusive actions at Rutgers and Penn State- behavior allowed to continue by the authorities because of the risk to profit and glory- seems to be particularly shocking because children and college age youth were involved. These incidents are of interest to me as a psychologist because they reveal the way people can rationalize even the most gruesome behavior when enough money is involved. It also reveals something about the incredible esteem in which people hold the glory of sports.


Many sports contain an element of violence-socially sanctioned and admired violence. Humans seem to be a naturally violent species in many ways. Not all people of course, but a thrill and fascination with violence is part of human history. The ancient Romans entertained the population, and added to their dominance, by providing violent spectacle in the Colosseum where animals were slaughtered and gladiators fought each other to the death. Public hangings and be-headings were widely attended in the Middle ages. Our children love violent video games and violent movies are among the most successful public entertainments

Sports are a form of ritualized and socially sanctioned violence that are enormously popular. The element of extreme risk in race car driving has made this sport a growing success. American professional football, our most popular sport, is based on violence and leads to lifelong damage in a large percentage of the athletes who participate. Athletes in golf, tennis, gymnastics, and skiing and dance invariably suffer injury to their bodies and the risks they take add to our excitement and appreciation of their incredible skill. How do we draw the line?

Most of us would say at sexual abuse of children. The investigation at Penn State revealed that coaches, administrators and executives at the University preferred to rationalize, excuse or deny the behavior rather than risk their wildly popular athletic program. The reports coming out of Rutgers show that many at the university were aware that coach Mike Rice crossed the line of reasonable behavior but looked the other way.


The Rutgers video also reveals that homophobia remains central to sports-even in a society where we see that being gay is no obstacle to outstanding athletic performance. The slurs that the Rutgers coach uses to urge his players on equate them with being gay. We don’t hear the parallel affront of being called too girly or feminine but that is also widely used in arenas where manliness is most highly prized. It remains a powerful insult to be called feminine or effeminate in the case of attempting to humiliate men by calling them gay. This attitude persists which, at it’s core, continues to consider being female or gay something less than or inferior to being male. Since women and gay men continue to prove that they are as strong, brave, capable and accomplished as any man, given the right opportunity without social repression, sports remains an important arena where holding on to ideas of male superiority and privilege persist.


Athletic endeavor and accomplishment will continue to be awe inspiring and amazing to observe. Nothing can take that away. Sports can only gain in our pride and esteem when we remove elements of abuse, denigration and unethical, illegal and immoral elements. It can never be perfect but we can continue to strive toward that goal by discussing these difficult but important issues.



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