I’m often asked for my opinions on the underpinnings of various types of behaviors. In certain cases, like the cab driver who confuses psychology with astrology, I will smile and nod my head and pretend to be deaf. Nonetheless, some questions do deserve some thought and insight, so I decided to begin a series, investigating such questions, one by one.
Dear Dr. Hoobs,
I am troubled by the unending report of crimes committed by professional athletes, both within their sport like Lance Armstrong and PED-using MLB players, and outside as well, like Rae Carruth, the Cowboys player who drove drunk and killed his friend, this idiot and now Oscar Pistorius. Are athletes more likely to commit crimes or are we just more aware of them because of all the resulting media attention? –Bert, Toledo, OH
I should begin with a blanket disclaimer: As of now, Pistorius (and O.J. Simpson, for that matter) has only been accused of crimes, not convicted. Regardless of that, yes, it does seem that professional athletes are frequently under indictment for some crime or another. Not all crimes are equal, however, as violent crime such as murder or rape is different in quality than lying under oath or fraud. As such, there are really two questions here: 1) Are athletes more likely to commit violent crimes and 2) Are they more likely to try to get away with crimes or act deceitfully. I believe the answers, respectively, are: 1) Possibly, but not necessarily, and 2) Yes.
The obvious corollary between athletes and violence is that sports breeds competition and physical aggression (curling excepted), and therefore those who compete in sports at a high level would be more aggressive, and in extremes, potentially violent. But research on this point is currently inconclusive and scant at best. Research does suggests that athletes are more likely to be involved in sexual assault than non-athletes — as one in three college sexual assaults are committed by athletes. This, of course, is a serious concern, but in terms of other crime, there does not appear to be an increase in off-the-field violence.
Using sports as a means of expressing aggression is in most cases actually a healthy method to channel built up aggression or rage. In fact, sublimation, a defense mechanism in which individuals transform unacceptable urges into socially acceptable venues is deemed one of the more healthy and mature defenses. While sublimation was initially theorized by Freud (or Frood, to those from San Dimas) to relate to unacceptable sexual urges, it applies to unacceptable violent fantasies as well; instead of acting on one’s violent murderous rage, one can expel that energy as a linebacker.
The other common perception about athletes and violence is that athletes come from poorer and more disadvantaged backgrounds where violence is more prevalent, and therefore violence and crime will be more likely to be used amongst theses. Although individuals from violent backgrounds are more likely to use violence later in life, contrary to popular opinion, athletes are not more likely to have these histories. Of course, stories of athletes such as former NFL receiver Plaxico Burress almost shooting his nards off in a club perpetuate this thug-life persona, but that is more a rarity and a persona than an indication of significant violent tendencies of athletes.
Apart from violence, there does appear to be real evidence that pro athletes attempt to break the rules and feel it is their right to do so. First off, successful athletes engage in more self-deception than the rest of us; or, in other words, they are more likely to deny the more embarrassing or unsavory aspects of themselves. For example, research has shown that the swimmers who deny more unsavory or negative characteristics of themselves (as measured on a questionnaire) are more likely to perform better than those who are not. For an enjoyable more thorough description of this, the always-brilliant WNYC show Radiolab discusses this phenomenon. In essence, successful competitors need to believe that they are always going to win, and in order to believe that truly, one must really believe he/she is infallible or more special than others. If that weren’t the case, confidence would be shattered.
The phenomenon of the all-powerful athlete does not exist in a vacuum — we contribute to this problem by endorsing it. From an early age, great athletes get the message that they really are more special or can get away with breaking the rules. When I was a wee lad undergrad, I knew someone who was caught drinking underage in the dorm; he was caught with several swimmers, and he was the one non-athlete. Lo and behold, when punishments were handed down, my friend was sentenced to campus public service, while each swimmer was allowed to just swim away scot free doing the backstroke and whistling dixie. And this was at a school that prides itself on high standards for its athletes. No wonder athletes think they can get away with everything; we grant that validation.
Why we as a society continue to allow ourselves to be deceived is another question. Tragically, we are a people that hopes for superheroes and then tries to build them, but the sad truth is that they just don’t exist.
If you, dear reader, have a question you’d like to be considered, send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.