Deviance in Sport - Sociology of Sport - iResearchNet (2022)

Sports may be defined as physical contests that are competitive, fair, and guided by rules, organization, and/or tradition. The roots of sport are ancient, and probably stem from hunting. Although modern sports have more symbolic quests than the choice cuts of meat available to the successful prehistoric hunter, the thrill of the chase is much the same (Carroll 2000). The rules and traditions of sport may or may not be codified, but they ensure that the ritualistic aspects of sport are respected. And the ritualistic aspects of sport, the before and after ceremonies and events, the coin toss that ensures a fair beginning, the awarding of trophies and medals, and so on, are every bit as important as the game itself.


  • Deviance in Sport: Classic Topics
  • Deviance in Sport: Theory
  • References

Deviance refers to behavior that goes against widely accepted traditions, norms, values, ideology, rules, and laws of society, and that draws mild to severe sanctions. Deviance in sport has existed across time and space and throughout the world, and whether or not someone commits a deviant act depends upon the time and place and who does the judging. Determining what deviance is, in other words, is a social process. The behavior itself is not enough; there must also be a reaction to it. For instance, when Art Modell moved his Cleveland Browns football team from Cleveland to Balti more in 1995, he broke no criminal law. But his actions precipitated violent outbursts on the part of Cleveland fans, who believed he went against accepted norms that bind professional sports teams to the cities that support them.

Deviance in sport includes a wide assortment of behavior. Many types of people are involved, and the perpetrators of deviance in sport cut across gender, race, and class lines. An abbreviated list of transgressors includes owners of professional teams, athletes, coaches, sport agents, fans, professional gamblers, pharmacists, educational institutions, corporations that promote sport, cities, states, and international organizations that govern sport. In contemporary society, deviance in sport is seen as news worthy, and newspapers and television news channels routinely feature stories of deviant sports figures. Misdeeds that occur at educational institutions affiliated with religious organizations have special fascination. When a basketball player at Baylor University was shot and killed apparently by a teammate in 2003, newspapers were anxious to report every detail of the incident partly because it took place at the world’s largest Baptist University.

Previous generations of reporters and writers thought of sport as a character building exercise, and they were reluctant to report on the misdeeds of sport heroes (Dinan 1998). As a result of the attention given to deviance in sport by media today, it seems that it is more prevalent than a generation ago, but this is more than likely due to the coverage given to the topic rather than the actual rate of deviant acts committed. Even so, empirical research has failed to support the idea that sport participation builds character. If anything, the longer one participates in sport, the more likely it is that moral constraints such as fair play and honesty give way to the desire to win (see Miracle & Rees 1994).

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Deviance in Sport: Classic Topics

Some of the classic topics studied by those interested in deviance and sport are cheating, drug abuse, gambling, and violence (particularly among athletes or between athletes and fans). These are classic or standard topics because they concern the fundamental social conditions defining sport. Any activity that destroys or vastly alters the physical challenges of sport or the fair competition between opponents poses a threat to the basic premises of sport, and a serious threat to its continuation. For instance, consider the following examples.

Cheating – the intentional violation of rules and norms for one’s advantage – has long been associated with sport. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) estimated that 14 percent of member schools engaged in serious cheating in the 1970s, an estimate that seemed too low at the time according to Curry and Jiobu (1984). Today, without good data, it is impossible to tell whether the figure is the same or much higher or lower, but cheating is still an important concern for the NCAA and its member institutions. Cheating can take many forms, and is especially serious when it involves coaches and others responsible for the integrity of the sports program. When Georgia Tech coach George O’Leary successfully applied for the head coach position at Notre Dame, he falsified information on his resume by claiming to have acquired a master’s degree (which he never earned) and to have lettered at a college where he never played. When this was discovered, he was immediately fired from Notre Dame. As sociologist Stan Eitzen (2003) notes, coaches who cheat on their resumes can hardly qualify as role models for their athletes.

Drug abuse – particularly additive drugs that are meant to stimulate the body beyond normal capabilities – are not a recent discovery. Anabolic steroids were first marketed in 1958 under the name of Dianabol and they proved to be effective when combined with exercise to produce gains in muscle mass. Sport historian Allen Guttman (1988: 165) notes that this effectiveness has been a ‘‘curse’’ because steroids can cause serious negative side effects to the body. Even so, athletes continue to use them, and the records they set through the help of additive drugs only encourage others to violate rules. Even the most talented professional athletes, who seemingly could get along without using banned substances, use them. In 2004, the names of some of the most respected and highest paid professional baseball players were linked to the use of steroids during testimony to a US federal grand jury investigating possible steroid distribution by the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative in California.

Gambling – particularly gambling that involves athletes or others in a position to alter the outcome of a contest – has long been associated with sport. Perhaps the most famous incident of sports gambling is the Black Sox Scandal (Curry & Jiobu 1984). In 1919 the Cincinnati Reds upset the Chicago White Sox – soon to be called ‘‘Black Sox’’ – to win the World Series. Rumors of a fix circulated, and a year later eight players who were on the White Sox World Series team were indicted and charged with complicity in a conspiracy with gamblers to throw the game. Two of the players confessed. The Commissioner of Base ball at the time was Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis; he strove to make an example of the players by banning them for life, even though the accused players were later found innocent in a court of law. In spite of the harsh penalties, gambling continues to be a problem in baseball, most recently with controversy over Pete Rose, an accomplished player whose admittance to the Baseball Hall of Fame seemed assured until it was discovered he bet on baseball games in 1985, 1986, and 1987 while manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Other sports, including collegiate and professional football and basketball, have had serious problems with gambling; so have boxing and horseracing. The problem stems from the great popularity of gambling in society. Billions of dollars are waged on sports events by millions of respectable people. The Internet has increased opportunities for gambling on all types of sports. Athletes are tempted to gamble, partly because they enjoy competition and winning and see gambling as another challenge. According to some sociologists, the sheer volume of dollars involved in betting on sport attracts people who will look for ways to fix a sporting event despite the harsh penalties invoked if they are caught.

Violence – defined as the use of excessive physical force intended to cause mental or physical pain to another person – has long been associated with sport. Particularly alarming is when excessive violence is used as part of the strategy of competition. In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt became so concerned about violence in college football he spearheaded a move to clean up the excessive violence through rule changes and modifications to equipment. Such formations as the ‘‘flying wedge’’ were eliminated, and players were required to wear more protective gear. Even so, football remains a violent game, and some players take advantage of the rules to injure or maim their opponents. Coaches frequently overlook borderline violence, and applaud brutal body contact. Sport sociologist Jay Coakley (2004) believes that acceptance of excessive physical force can be looked at as deviant over conformity to the norms of sport. Both male and female athletes are so focused on maintaining their identities as athletes and so caught up in the emotions and physicality of sport that they fail to consider the consequences of unquestioned normative conformity. Serious injury and shortened careers can result.

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Deviance in Sport: Theory

There is no single theoretical approach that dominates research in deviance, and sport sociologists employ a number of theories drawn from mainstream sociology and criminology. Two of the most popular are differential association and strain theory. Differential association is based on the work of Edwin Sutherland, who emphasized that people learn conformity or deviance from the people with whom they associate. In the case of young athletes, team mates might prove to be especially important, since peers typically have strong influences on young people. Sutherland noted that like behavior in general, deviant behavior is learned through interaction with others, especially in small, intimate groups. Such learning of deviant behavior consists of acquiring techniques, motives, drives, and attitudes. An individual learns ‘‘definitions’’ (mindsets or attitudes) that are favorable or unfavorable to prevailing norms, and becomes deviant when he or she learns to accept more unfavorable definitions than favorable definitions. The frequency, length, and intensity of a person’s associations determine the impact of associations on the person. Infrequent contacts of limited duration will have less impact than frequent, intense contact (Sutherland & Cressey 1978: 80–3). To illustrate, Curry (2000) studied the interactions of a group of athletes in an elite sport program who engaged in bar fights and inappropriate sexual behavior. He found that the athletes knew that this behavior would be considered deviant by others, but that the prevailing norms among their teammates encouraged an occasional visit to what they called the ‘‘dark side.’’

Strain or anomie theory is less concerned with the interaction among team members, and more concerned with the structure of opportunity in society. According to Robert Merton, who first constructed the theory, structural strain develops when the culturally prescribed goals of the social system cannot be achieved through socially approved means. The strain may produce deviance, and Merton out lined five typical social responses or adaptations to such a situation.

Conformity, the only non deviant response, is the first adaptation. A conformist accepts the conventional goals of society and the conventional means to obtain them. For example, an athlete who desires to win an Olympic gold medal will spend many years practicing and improving his or her skills until able to perform and succeed at the highest levels. In contrast, an innovator accepts the goals, but rejects the socially approved means and thus opts for deviance to attain the goals. In the case of Olympic athletes who use banned substances such as steroids, they are still trying to win medals, but are doing so through innovative practices with performance enhancing drugs (Luschen 2001).

Other athletes may decide to continue to go through the motions of competing for an Olympic medal, yet abandon the goal of actually winning one. They realize that the competition is too difficult and so become ritualists. Merton also recognized retreatism and rebellion as reactions to strain. The retreatist rejects both the means and the goals of society. In the case of sports, the competitive athlete who gives up the sport entirely has retreated from the scene rather than try to compete to win. The rebel, on the other hand, rejects the goals and means of society but replaces them with new goals and means. Athletes who rebel against the Olympic Games might substitute other games that allow for a greater chance of success. For instance, Tom Waddell began the Gay Games competition in 1988, to provide a more accepting environment for homosexuals. The Gay Games have been held periodically ever since, and in 2002 included over 11,000 athletes competing in over 30 events.

The major strength of Merton’s approach is that it places the origins of deviance in the broader social setting. To the extent that those who control sport, particularly elite sport, narrowly define what constitutes success, they encourage deviance. In other words, many gifted athletes feel they must cheat in order to win because the opportunities for success are so limited (see Leonard 1998: 139–72).

While these classic topics and theoretical approaches have long dominated research on deviance in sport, several new topics and theories are emerging. For instance, persons closely associated with sport may become involved in sexual harassment and sexual assault cases, homophobia and attacks on gay men, hazing in high school and collegiate sport, celebratory violence, eating disorders, excessive drinking, and many other deviant activities. Sport sociologists researching these topics face the difficult methodological problem of tracing the influence sport participation may have had in creating social conditions that encourage such deviance, while at the same time recognizing that these deviant activities are engaged in by others outside of sport.

Masculinity issues in the study of crime and deviance have come to the forefront, and sport sociologists are becoming aware of how boys and men strive through risky behavior, including deviance, to establish masculinity (Messner & Sabo 1994). Off the field violence toward women is increasingly understood through the dynamics of gender (Benedict 1997, 1998). Pressures on young men and women athletes to perform at the highest levels may result in psychological disorders that lead to numerous problem behaviors.

In addition, corporate or organizational deviance in sport is now recognized as a serious problem (Coakley 2004). Since corporations control vast resources, they are able to influence the media and create symbolic representation of sport that makes it difficult for the public to recognize their actions as deviant. For instance, sport sociologist Helen Lenskyj (2000) notes that those in charge of the International Olympic Committee have been very eager to control the image of the Olympic Games. The Olympic ‘‘industry,’’ as she calls it, has until recently been able to disguise much of its deviance as the occasional misbehavior of certain individuals rather than part of its corporate culture. She argues that inside the Olympic industry, bribery and scandals involving high ranking political figures are common.

As sport sociologists research more of the corporate and organizational cultures that govern professional and big time amateur sport, the more the topic of deviance and sport moves away from the individual athlete and coach. This is all to the good, because many of the forces perpetuating deviance in sport lie outside the individual. In the future, a better understanding of deviance and sport may be generated through analysis of the close ties between corporations, the media, and consumer culture (Blackshaw & Crabbe 2004). Researchers have come to understand that the image of the athlete as a superior being is only an image; elite sport is not conducive to the development of moral behavior. But such images can be used to sell vast amounts of consumer goods. This does not mean that the idea of physical tests or challenges and fair competition is itself flawed. Humans have long enjoyed physical challenges, and the idea of fair competition, while more recent, has broad appeal. As in other spheres of human endeavor, the devil is in the details.

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  2. Benedict, J. R. (1998) Athletes and Acquaintance Rape. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  3. Blackshaw, T. & Crabbe, T. (2004) New Perspectives on Sport and Deviance. Routledge, London.
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  6. Curry, T. J. (2000) Booze and Bar Fights: A Journey to the Dark Side of College Athletics. In: McKay, J., Messner, M. A., & Sabo, D. (Eds.), Masculinities, Gender Relations, and Sport. Sage, Newbury Park, CA, pp. 162-75.
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  8. Dinan, J. (1998) Sports in the Pulp Magazines. McFarland, Jefferson, NC.
  9. Eitzen, D. S. (2003) Fair and Foul: Beyond the Myths and Paradoxes of Sport, 2nd edn. Rowman & Littlefield, New York.
  10. Guttman, A. (1988) A Whole New Ball Game: An Interpretation of American Sports. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
  11. Lenskyj, H. J. (2000) Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics, and Activism. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
  12. Leonard, W. M., II. (1998) A Sociological Perspective of Sport. Allyn & Bacon, Boston.
  13. Luschen, G. (2001) Doping in Sport as Deviant Behavior. In: Coakley, J. & Dunning, E. (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Studies. Sage, London, pp. 461-76.
  14. Merton, R. K. (1938). Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review 3: 672-82.
  15. Messner, M. & Sabo, D. (1994) Sex, Violence, and Power in Sport. Crossing Press, Freedom, CA.
  16. Miracle, A. W. & Rees, C. R. (1994) Lessons of the Locker Room: The Myths of School Sports. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY.
  17. Sutherland, E. & Cressey, D. (1978) Principles of Criminology. Lippencott, Chicago.

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