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Deviant Athlete

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The Deviant Athlete

Sports in the American society, and in the world in general, are usually thought of as an institution that "builds character." While there can be an endless number of arguments for or against this belief that sports are a positive influence on those who participate in them, it is clear that there are many negative components of sports in our modern society. It sometimes seems that more is written or said in reporting about drugs, gambling, fines, penalties, suspensions, explosive violence, or the arrests of athletes than about win/loss records, achieving goals, scoring statistics, or the pursuit of championships. While most sports fans would like to see close games and highlights of amazing slam dunks or home runs, it is easy to lose focus on the character building aspects of the institution of sports when all that we see and hear on ESPN or read in Sports Illustrated is clouded by the deviant behavior of the modern athlete.

If social deviance can be defined as "behavior that breaks the rules or violates the norms of a group, organization, community, or society" (Frey 1996), then it is obvious that the rule-Ð'¬bound structure of sports, whether at the amateur, collegiate, or professional level, is like most other institutions in that it provides a line that determines behavior as either acceptable or deviant. However, within the institution of sports, there seems to be a much higher level of deviant behavior compared to most other institutions. So what are the reasons for the unusual propensity toward deviant behavior within sports? As with any sociological question regarding social problems or phenomena, there are numerous answers, depending on which type of theory one chooses to accept. A structural-functionalist approach to the question would suggest that deviant behavior in sports comes as a result of incompatibilities between culturally approved goals and the opportunities given to those who play certain roles in sports, while a conflict theorist would focus more on the concept that deviant behavior in sports is not unusual or always punished, but rather it is a regular part of sports and society that is encouraged in most cases by powerful authority figures or groups that are looking to pursue their own interests. In fact, both theories have very valid arguments, and it is more likely that the reason for deviant behavior in sports is a combination of the two. While deviance in sports is tolerated and sometimes even encouraged by the media, fans, and people in power in order to achieve the goals of domination, improvement, and success, society can be disapproving of athletes who use deviance as an instrument to achieve these goals.

When discussing deviance in sports, there is a very wide spectrum of behavior that must be addressed. Many people tend to think of deviant behavior in sports as merely any behavior that would give one an unfair or unearned advantage over their opponent(s). This behavior is normally labeled "cheating." The most widely known and talked about form of cheating today is drug abuse, which is a very important topic when considering the reasons for deviance in sports. Other forms of deviance could include the involvement in gambling scandals or violations in the recruitment of players. Probably the most popular and widely publicized form of deviant behavior in sports is that of violence. Although violence in almost all other institutions can be and usually is viewed as negative, and it is usually viewed as negative in the institution of sports as well, sports can sometimes allow some justification for an athlete's use of violence, whether it is part of the game or not. After seeing all these types of negative deviance in sports, it would not be unusual for people to disregard sports as a character building institution and see it instead as a means to justifiably deviate from the norms of society, with perhaps some chance of developing positive skills and characteristics. In fact, there are many people, usually parents, who see sports in that light. But when addressing the issues of deviance in sports, it is crucial that the concept of positive deviance is understood as well as negative deviance. Once it is understood that there is such a thing as positive deviance, sports can become more recognizable as the character building institution that so many people in our society would like to believe that it is.

Before our society can understand why athletes will continue to deviate from the rules of sports, it must first realize what it is asking of those athletes and understand the pressures that it places on them. When any member of our modem society tries to explain that sports build character, they mean that the concept of sports in an ideal "Achieving Society" builds character. The problem arises when we take into account that…

"...we do not live in the publicly declared, idealized achieving society but in a society of successes. It is less the achievement effectively accomplished personally which determines gain in social status, but far more the social image of achievements, successes or sometimes alleged or pretended achievements respecting talents, and in some circumstances even the publicity of pseudo-achievements (e.g., in voting)" (Lenk 1981).

When there is so much emphasis placed on success, and when success in sports is defined as being the champions, hitting the hardest, or being the strongest, fastest, most athletic person on the court or field, then athletes are going to do, in a sense, whatever it takes to be successful, including engaging in positive and negative deviant behavior. Individual athletes and coaches may engage in deviant behavior because they have difficulty meeting role expectations in their social relationships. These difficulties can be classified as role strain or role conflict (Leonard 11 1988). Role strain occurs when people are faced with conflicting expectations in the same role relationship. An example of role strain would be a coach who expects an athlete to play violently or aggressively in order to ensure victory, but also display good sportsmanship and play fairly. Or the coach may be expected by his athletic director to field a winning team with the best athletes, but also follow all the guidelines of recruitment. Role conflict occurs when expectations associated with different roles performed by an individual come into conflict. The most obvious example of role conflict is the student-athlete, who is expected to devote as much time as possible to his schoolwork by his teachers, but at the same time is expected to devote most of his time and energy to the sport that he plays. The same coach that expects these student-athletes to be so devoted to the sport may also have conflict when his family expects

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