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Aggression and Violence in Sport

Materials presented here are based on discussions by Coakley (1994); Leonard II (1998); LeUnes & Nation (1996); McPherson & Curtis (1989); Pargman (1998); Wann (1997). See end of page for additional sources and a list of references.

The purpose of this article is to

  • introduce little (and big) league parents to the theories and facts about the sources and character of violent behavior in sports
  • discuss moral and social implications of player and spectator aggression in and around sports settings
  • provide suggestions to alleviate the ever growing problem of violent behavior in the sport milieu.


The use of the word "aggression" is somewhat confusing. The term aggression is employed to describe angry violent behavior with intent to hurt a person or cause damage to property. "Aggressive" behavior is also used to depict a strong and somewhat adventurous effort. Thus an aggressive sales person or athlete, for example, may be perceived as obnoxious or violent by some and as motivated and hard working by others.

Baron (1977, p. 12, cited in Cox, 1990, p. 266) offers the following definition for aggression:
"Aggression is any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment." Thus:

  • Aggression is an act not a cognitive state
  • Aggression is not accidental, it is an intentional act to harm
  • Aggressive acts involve both bodily and psychological harm
  • Aggressive acts involve only living beings; harm to objects does not count as aggression
  • The receiver of aggression does not want to get hurt

Bredemeier (1983) defined aggressive behavior in sport as:

"The intentional initiation of violent and or injurious behavior. 'Violent' means any physical, verbal or nonverbal offense, while 'injurious behaviors' stand for any harmful intentions or actions."

  • An accidental foul or injury inflicted on another athlete resulting from inferior skills, will not be considered as aggression.
  • An intentional foul, although not resulting in any harm or injury, is considered as sport aggression.
  • Bredemeier's (1983) definition isn't clear about (a) whether harm to objects counts as aggression or (b) whether acts performed in a sadistic--masochistic relationship may be viewed as aggressive...

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Theories of Aggression


The word 'catharsis' is derived from the Greek word 'katairein,' meaning 'to cleanse.' The expression of aggression in a controlled sport environment, according to cathartic models is an acceptable forum for the release of accumulated aggressive energy.

Instinct Theory

Instinct theory of aggression is based on works by Sigmund Freud and Konrad Lorenz.

Aggression, according to Freud (1950) is an inborn drive similar to sex or hunger. Aggression is an integral part of our existence and like any other drive, may be regulated through discharge or fulfillment.

Lorenz (1966) argues that humans like animals possess aggressive instincts. For example, we are innately predisposed to protect our safety and possessions. Biological instinct theory portrays humans as aggressive mammals that are driven by a biological instinct to fight, flight, or guard their mate, offsprings and territory. Thus, rather than overlook man's natural instincts when addressing remedies to acts of violence in society, Lorenz proposes that we consider controlled environments that allow the discharge of aggression in a positive societal context. Competitive games and sports, according to Lorenz (1966), are one example of a safe and socially acceptable outlet for pent-up aggression.

The enactment of aggression, according to the biological instinct theory, leads to the fulfillment of the need to be aggressive just as a hungry animal is satiated after a good feeding.

Questions Regarding Instinct Theory and the Catharsis Hypothesis

Berkowitz (1969, 1972) provided the following arguments:

  • inadequate controlled systematic research
  • use of ambiguous terms
  • gross analogies and oversimplifications
  • certain societies do not display aggressive behavior or include aggressive games in their culture.

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The Frustration-Aggression (F-A) Hypothesis

A drive-based model of aggression was originally proposed by Dollard, Dobb, Miller, Mowrer, and Sears (1939). The F-A model posits that aggression is a universal reaction to frustration. Initially the F-A hypothesis predicted that:

  • incidents of frustration lead to some expression of aggression, and
  • acts of aggression result from some form of frustration

The F-A model differs from Instinct theory in that aggression may be the result of instigators other than biological instincts. A more recent view of the F-A hypothesis suggests that the magnitude of the expressed aggression is dependent on:

  • the amplitude of the frustration
  • the individual's threshold for frustration
  • the amount of frustrating incidents, and
  • the magnitude of the anticipated retaliation to one's expressed aggression (For example, consider a "yellow" or "red" card for rough play or an altercation between two or more players during a soccer match. The "yellow" card acts as a warning and the "red" card signals the ejection of the offender from the current, and in some cases future games. Now, compare foul behavior in sport to foul conduct in every day life situations where the penalty may be decided in a court of law based on criminal assault charges. In which of the above described environments would you expect to observe more restraint? The soccer field, or the side-walk behind the soccer field's stands?

A crucial question in the F-A hypothesis researcher's mind is whether it is a biologically driven expression or is it a learned one?

Based on the view that all behavior is a by-product of various degrees of natural and environmental influences on the living organism, Berkowiz reformulated the initial F-A hypothesis. Thus, frustration does not automatically invoke aggression. Neither does exposure to aggressive models always lead to expressed aggression. Instead, Berkowitz postulated that frustration acts as a "readying mechanism" for an aggressive reaction. Frustration, and more frustration, gradually augment one's likelihood to display an aggressive response.

Berkowiz does not entirely dismiss the acute cathartic effect of expressed aggression. An aggressive reaction to a real or perceived provocation does, according to Berkowiz, result in a temporary feeling of relief. To describe the urge for a feeling of satisfaction following vented aggression, Berkowiz coined the term "completion tendency." Continuous reinforcement of one's completion tendency will lead to a learned expectation to "complete" each F-A cycle. This, however, is a vicious cycle; each completion cycle leads to a future expectation of the ability to vent one's frustrations. Thus, acute displays of aggression and a following relative calm lead to long term recurring incidents of gradually escalating "completion" needs.

Berkowitz's conclusion that biological instincts and learning are closely intertwined is crucial to the derivation of solutions to the problematic infiltration of aggressive behaviors into all levels of sport participation and competition. Young athletes promptly learn that they can get away with certain foul behaviors that they would otherwise find quite difficult to justify in an every day, off-the-field situation. In some cases small, and in other cases significant modifications to the existing rules would gradually inculcate newly learned, more restrained reactions to incidents of on-field (erroneous calls by contest officials, fouls, etc...) frustration provoked aggression.

Berkowitz's distinction between "legitimate" (no fault) and "illegitimate (at fault) aggression is an important dichotomy to a better understanding of aggression in the sport context. Hitting in football, choking in judo, and/or punching in boxing are all examples of legitimate, within the rules acts of aggression in sports. Yet, despite the physical and aggressive nature of sports, such as boxing and football, neither sport's rules would tolerate choking. On the other hand, the rules of judo or wrestling allow a variety of aggressive acts, such as, pinning down, throwing, choking etc... but do not permit hitting or punching. Soccer players legally engage in rough shoulder to shoulder contact but risk a warning or ejection for pulling on another player's shirt or pants.

The "threshold of tolerance" toward aggressive acts that fall within the twilight zone of the continuum between "legitimate" (no fault) and "illegitimate (at fault) aggression is an area that requires close and careful inspection. When, or under what circumstances, for example, may a hit in football be regarded as "legitimate" force and at what point, if any, it may be construed as "too much" and thus represent "illegitimate" force. I find the constant apparent abuse of the thin, and invariably clear line between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" aggression by athletes very frustrating. Most competitors are serious students of their game or sport. They are trained to push the limit, reach new heights--further raising the bar on the "legitimate" to "illegitimate" force continuum not excluded.

Two concrete examples of soccer rules that create fertile grounds for stretching the "threshold of tolerance" are the shoulder check and the slide tackle. Redefining the slide tackle in soccer as an illegal game strategy may not eliminate it from occurring in the game, but it may definitely help reduce excessively aggressive defensive play. A positive side effect resulting from such a change in game rules may be an added advantage to the offensive players. A less vulnerable attacker may be able to score more often--a sorely needed feature in the present game.

Social Learning Theory

While acknowledging the existence of physiological mechanisms for aggression and rage, Albert Bandura (1973, 1977) is strongly critical of the instinct and the F-A hypothesis of aggression. Bandura's work led him to believe that aggressive behaviors are modified and shaped by learning and experience and seldom represent the work of isolated biological instincts. Successful, unchallenged aggressive acts, according to Bandura, lead to further aggression. The circular pattern of aggression may continue and escalate until this vicious cycle is interrupted by a counteracting reinforcer.

The catharsis hypothesis, according to Bandura, is "utter nonsense."

Referring to Bandura's social learning theory of aggression, Cox (1990, p. 282) states that it "provides the single most viable explanation for the continued rise of aggression and violence in amateur and professional sports."

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(1) Does athlete aggression lead to catharsis?

  • Rayan (1970)--Subjects who took part in a vigorous "pounding" task were more often willing to deliver an electric shock to an accomplice than controls
  • Leith (1977), and Zillman, Katcher, and Milarsky (1972)--Subjects situated in an intensive exercise and anger condition were more inclined to inflict high electric shocks on accomplices when compared to controls.

(2) Does spectator aggression lead to catharsis?

  • Berkowitz (1972), Goranson (1970), and Leith (1982)--In these studies subjects that watched violent films were willing to deliver electic shock of higher magnitude to an accomplice as compared to controls that viewed non-violent films.
  • Fenigstein (1979)--Aggressive male subjects were more likely to select a violent as opposed to a neutral movie.

Sport Aggression and Psychological Constructs


Zillman, Katcher, & Milarsky (1972)--Subjects who were both aroused by exercise and angered by shock delivered the highest levels of electric shock to an accomplice. One speculation stemming from this report is that sports that involve high levels of arousal, and a substantial amount of contact, will also result in increased levels of hostile aggression.


The overwhelming majority of studies conducted on sport aggression involved only male subjects. More recent studies conducted in the sport and nonsport milieu present few differences between male and female athletes. In fact, the more competitive female become, the more they display "male like" aggressive attitudes and conduct. When females display a higher threshold for F-A it is often the outcome of our societal sexist socialization process. Still, under high stress and provocation women display a F-A response that is very similar to their male counterparts.


The debate over the question whether there is a relationship between personality traits and aggressive behavior is on going. At the present time, the available data does not provide clear answers to this question.


Genuine feelings of guilt may inhibit the recurrence of violent behavior. However, within the context of the "game frame" athletes often do not experience genuine feelings of guilt. Feelings of alienation between rival teams contribute to a dehumanization of the opponent. The degree to which opponents are treated as objects or obstacles to be overcome, rather than a human being who's role is to help elevate the level of the game, appears to be related to the degree of contact in the particular sport. For example, professional football players, boxers, basketball players, ice hockey players, soccer players, etc... expect various levels of physical contact in their game. Injuries that result from the use of excessive force in any of these sports are so prevalent that athletes expect to get hurt and hold the position that their opponents expect the same. The general attitude displayed by athletes in heavy contact sports is captured in the following cliche: "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen." If you're not ready to get hurt, go look for another game. Since violent injurious conduct is so "natural" to the game process, it is perceived as an unavoidable part of the game, and as such is regarded by many as a legitimate game strategy (intimidation--roughing up the quarterback is as a game strategy in football or shaking up the forward as a game strategy in soccer).

The use of excessive force and intimidation tactics are especially disturbing when rationalized and legitimized in youth sports. All involved in a typical youth soccer league in North America are still fairly fresh students of this game. Thus, errors in judgement by players, coaches, referees and parents are quite common. This reality creates fertile grounds for the brewing of F-A generated responses. Brushing aside inappropriate outbursts by players, coaches or parent toward the referee as incidents of the "heat of the moment," for example, may lead to later more frequent and serious incidents. Dealing with instances of verbal or physical aggression in a constructive manner will pave the way for a safer and more pleasant league experience to all involved.

Factors Promoting Hostile Aggression¹

¹This section is based on the thorough discussion found in LeUnes & Nation (1996, pp. 249-297)






These factors seem to be facilitators of aggression. They interact with other variables to produce aggression in situations in which the likelihood of violent behaviors is high


  • Vicarious Reinforcement
  • Vicarious Punishment (Hallo Effect)
  • Role Models


Tangible Rewards -- Money, Cars, Women (groupies), Services...

Status Rewards --"Dr. Death," "the Bone Crusher," ...

Expression of injury (Pain and Intimidation): If it works "Why not give her/him some more? ..."

Deindividuation -- As density increases, personal identity and evaluation decreases and conformity to group norms increases (may lead to the dangerous "group think" phenomenon). Loss of personal responsibility (similar to the "Ringelmann Effect") occurs which leads to a higher threshold for tolerance of increased hostility and acts of violence.

Inurement to Violence --Increased tolerance to aggression resulting from over exposure.


Spectator Involvement -- High School, College, Professional

Hooliganism -- Through extensive study of British soccer fans, Dunning (1983) concluded that hooliganism, is rationalized by its perpetrators as a legitimate adjunct professional soccer activity. The hooligan's "love" for the game, and "deep caring" for his team, gives him the right to "discipline his child" be it the player, or official that dared to disappoint him. Most often, the hooligan is busy "disciplining" the fans of a rival group that dared to show support to anyone but their own beloved team.

Dunning suggests that British soccer hooligans' behaviors are dominated by a misplaced attempt to demonstrate masculinity, with an exaggerated emphasis on toughness and willingness to fight. Both celebration and defeat are heavily mixed with the "readying mechanism" agent, i.e., alcohol and lead to flagrant acts of violence and destruction.

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Coverage of Violent Plays -- Excessive replay of violent incidents (car or boat crashes; fights among athletes, fans etc...).

Features -- Focus on violence in many of our print and TV news.

Promotions -- Showing of a clip of a multiple collision and burning cars as a promotion for a racing program.


  • Perception of Intent -- Harrell (1980) reported that the most significant factor in predicting player aggression in male high school basketball players, was the amount of aggression directed against the subject.
  • Fear of Retaliation--Baron (1971) studied the retaliation hypothesis and determined that subjects who had low expectations of victim counter-aggression tended to deliver stronger electric shocks to a victim than subjects who expected strong retaliation.
  • Circular Effects--Knott & Drost (1972) observed a circular effect with the retaliation hypothesis. It appears that initial aggression can be inhibited by fear of retaliation, but once aggression and counter-aggression are underway, further escalation will only result in heightened aggression.


  • Point Spread Potential --Aggression is most likely at the mid-point between a close game and a clear lead by one of the teams
  • Home/Away Factor -- Varca (1980) found that visiting teams fouled more often while the home teams had more steals, rebounds and blocked shots.
  • Contest Outcome -- The fact that losing teams are much more likely to engage in hostile aggression, as compared to winning teams, supports the F-A hypothesis.
  • League Standing -- The general trend of the current evidence is that leading teams exhibit less aggression than trailing teams.
  • Period of Play -- In one report (Cullen & Cullen, 1975) Losing teams tended to aggress early and late in the game while winning teams engaged in more aggressive acts as the game progressed.

Athletics and Social Character

McCloy (1930; 1957) provides one of the earliest discussions of the influence of participation in sport on the development of socially desirable character traits. Still, moral reasoning and its relationship to sport participation did not become the subject of systematic investigation until the early 1980's (e,g. Bredemeier, 1983, 1984, 1987, Bredemeier & Shields, 1984a, 1984b, 1986a, 1986b, 1986c ; Hall, 1981; Kleiber & Roberts, 1981; Shields & Bredemeier, 1984; Smith, 1983; Weiss & Bredemeier, 1983). Not surprisingly, large voids still exist in the knowledge about athletes' moral reasoning. One area that has thus far received little attention by social psychologists is the relationship between sport involvement, moral development, and aggression (e.g., Bredemeier, 1985; Bredemeier & Shields, 1986a, 1986b). The results reported by those who have studied the subject closely may be disturbing because these findings seem contrary to the common view of educators, political leaders, and laypersons. Contrary to the common view that athletic participation builds character are the findings of Bredemeier and Shields (1984a, 1986a, 1986c), Hall (1981) and Silva (1983) which indicated that sport participation at the collegiate level is associated with lower moral maturity.

In their comparative study of moral growth among athletes and nonathletes, Bredemeier and Shields (1986a) found that the close-skilled noncontact collegiate sport athletes (e.g., swimmers) were superior to the open-skilled contact sport participants (e.g., basketball players) and equal to the nonathletes in moral reasoning. Bredemeier and Shields speculated that the discrepancy found between the two categories of sports may be explained by the nature of the different situations that evolve in interactive contact team sports and individual self-paced noncontact sports. In sports such as football, soccer, or basketball the chances of being injured by an opponent during the game are much greater than in sports such as tennis or track and field. The inherent potential for injury in collision and contact sports might act as a deterrent to the athletes' sensitivities to aggressive, and possibly physically harmful play.

Reducing Sport Violence


  • Nonaggressive role models for young athletes
  • Low tolerance and severe and swift penalties for athlete to athlete aggression, athlete to referee, coach to referee, and for coaches who support and promote aggressive play
  • Remove stimuli that provoke aggression (negative reinforcement)
  • Organize referee, coach, parent and athlete workshops
  • Provide ample positive reinforcement for appropriate, sportspersonship like displays of behavior
  • Teach and practice emotional control (e.g., when mad and feeling terribly frustrated, count to ten first, slowly, then take action).


  • Ban Alcoholic Beverages
  • Make it a Family Affair
  • Hold Media Responsible
  • Point Out When Media Builds Up The Tension
  • Keep The Contest as a Means of Achieving Excellence Rather than Fighting the Enemy
  • Heavy and Swift Fines to Unruly Spectators

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  • Bredemeier, B. J. (1983). Athletic aggression: A moral concern. In J. Goldstein (Ed.), Sport violence (pp. 47-81). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.
  • Bredemeier, B. J. (1987). The moral of the youth sport story. In E. Brown & C. Branta (Eds.), Competitive sports for children and youth (pp. 285-296). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Bredemeier, B. J., & Shields, D. L. (1985, October). Values and violence in sport. Psychology Today, 19, 23-25, 28-32.
  • Bredemeier, B. J., & Shields, D. L. (1986). Game reasoning and interactional morality. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 147, 257-275.
  • Coakley, J. J. (1994). Sport in society: Issues and controversies (5th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby (Chapter 1, pp. 1-23, "The Sociology of Sport: What is it and Why Study it?")
  • Cox, R. H. (1990). Sport psychology: Concepts and applications (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown.
  • Eitzen, D. S., & Sage, G. H. (1993). Sociology of North American sport (5th ed.). Madison, WI: WM. C. Brown.
  • Fraleigh, W. P. (1984). Right action in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Leonard, W. M. (1998). A sociological perspective of sport (5th ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Burgess (Chapter 1, pp. 1-30, "Introduction to the Sociology of Sport").
  • Le Unes, A., & Nation, J. (1996). Sport psychology (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall
  • Lorenz, K. (1966). On aggression. New York, NY: Harcout, Brace & World.
  • Lumpkin, A., Stoll, S.K., & Beller, J.M. (1994). Sport ethics: Applications for fair play. Chapters 1, 2, & 3, pp. 1-14, 17-32, & 35-46.
  • McPherson, B. D., Curtis, J. E., & Loy, J. W. (1989). The social significance of sport: An introduction to the sociology of sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Phillips, J. C. (1993). Sociology of Sport. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Shields, D.L., & Bredemeier, B.J. (1989). Moral reasoning, judgment and action in a sport context. In J.H. Goldstein (Ed.), Sports, games, and play: Social and psychological viewpoints, (2nd ed.) (pp. 59-81). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Silva, J.M., & Weinberg, R.S. (Eds). (1984). Psychological foundations of sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. (Ch. 18, 19 & 20 "Aggression and Sport" pp. 241-286)
  • Simon, R. L. (1985). Sports and social values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Snyder, E. E., & Spreitzer, E. A. (1989). Social aspects of sport (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Wann, D. L. (1997). Sport psychology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall (Part I, Chapter 1 pp. 1-16).
  • Williams, J.M. (Ed.). (1993). Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield
  • Yiannakis, A., & Greendorfer, S. L. (Eds.) (1992). Applied sociology of sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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