Is There a Double Standard for Aggressive Athletes?

Driven to succeed without the checks and balances, some athletes get aggressive.

July 1, 2008 — -- It's no surprise that Type A, competitive personalities do well as professional athletes. But these athletes sometimes channel their physical strength into violent or offensive actions on and off the field, sports psychologists say.

"For some athletes, there's a lack of impulse control," said Robert Weinberg, who specializes in sports behavior and performance at Miami University in Ohio. "Professional athletes get what they want because they're good and make money. When things go against them, they don't always have impulse control, and can get aggressive."

Weinberg cited the case of a violent hockey player whom he worked with, who claimed that he could not control himself in the heat of the game.

Weinberg gave the player a concentrative cue to repeat in his mind if he ever grew agitated during a game. The cue, "stick to ice," or keep the hockey stick on the ice, helped to prevent the player from harming his opponents with his hockey stick. This method succeeded partially.

"But what happens is that when members of the other team know he can be rattled, they rattle him," Weinberg said. "They elbow him because they know that he can lose his cool."

Other notable examples of athletes' aggression: pro basketball player Latrell Sprewell choked his Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1997; pro basketball player Ron Artest attacked Detroit Pistons fans in 2004; pro baseball player Shawn Chacon attacked Houston Astros General Manager Ed Wade last week.

After the Astros released Chacon, the team's publicists issued a statement in which Wade explained the team's decision.

"Chacon was fined by 'Coop' for those actions," Wade said in the statement, referring to Cecil Cooper, manager of the Houston Astros. "As an organization, we believe that we have fairly treated the player. His pattern of disrespect and defiance to me, the manager, the pitching coach and, most important, the organization led us to this decision."

Such behavior comes as no surprise to some experts, who say that driven professional athletes, who may be more prone to fighting, encounter fewer repercussions than the average person.

"These people are probably very likely to be highly motivated to practice to get to where they are," University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock said. "So they're probably intense individuals."

Miami's Weinberg figures that violent behavior toward bosses, coaches and fans has occurred increasingly in the past few decades, as childhood spanking and other physical forms of punishment have been replaced by bribes and verbal negotiation.

"With the way kids are raised now, or maybe the way in which society has changed in the last 20 years, there are less negative consequences," Weinberg said. "People used to be more afraid of speaking out against authority. Now we have young people who feel like they should or could do that. Either they feel like there are no repercussions, or else the sanctions are different from what they were years ago. This response has trickled to collegiate and professional athletes, who say what's on their mind because it has no impact."

Although athletes like Chacon can get released from their teams after violent, inappropriate actions, not all athletes are punished to a comparable degree.

Gary Bennett, a clinical and sports psychologist at Virginia Tech University, thinks there is a double standard for some professional athletes.

"Athletes, managers and coaches all get away with expressing their emotions," Bennett said. "Like when a coach kicks dirt on an umpire's cleats. You do that in any other segment of society, and you could go to jail or be arrested. There is a different standard, and if there aren't the same consequences, people fail to learn."

Because famous athletes bring a team millions of dollars in income, there is less economic incentive for managers, bosses and coaches to severely punish their players for an action that would likely get an office employee fired in a flash.

Weinberg said many high-price, professional athletes are coddled and get what they want. They rarely encounter opposition to small requests and don't develop the level of impulse control that other people more easily acquire, he said.

Weinberg believes it's up to American sports culture to establish when it is appropriate to be aggressive and when it is unacceptable. He said that because coaches teach athletes how to compete successfully in sports, athletes can have a hard time shutting off their game aggression in nonsports contexts.

"They use the same things that we reward them for in a competitive environment that are not appropriate for a social environment," Bennett said.

To prevent this behavior, Weinberg believes that athletes need to understand the consequences of their behavior.

"Penalties should be very clear to everyone," Weinberg said. "If the penalty is sufficient, you can eliminate the behavior. You don't want any fighting? Tell the player he can't play for seven games, and he won't do it."

But because that will not likely become a punishment for athletes' smaller outbursts anytime soon, sports psychologists have other ways to help athletes cope with their unpredictable aggression.

To help athletes prevent violent outbursts, Bennett uses a combination of talking about the problem and "cognitive reframing" or relaxation.

With the intervention of sports psychologists, Weinberg and Bennett said officials can reduce athlete aggression and violence.

But both psychologists said that would require stronger repercussions to modify behavior.