Changing the Culture of Sports Deviance

February 28, 2013

“I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture.”  These words come from the latest tragic sports hero, Lance Armstrong, during his interview with Oprah Winfrey.  Aside from his not so surprising confession, he talked at great lengths about the culture of doping on the Tour de France.  He did not name names, most likely in fear of litigation or retaliation, but he clearly signaled that virtually everyone was taking performance-enhancing drugs.  Indeed, there have been several accounts that talk about this, including Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton in his book The Secret Race, and a recent New York Times article which reported that one-third of the top Tour finishers admitted to or have been associated with doping during their careers.

Lance’s discussion about culture was strictly about doping, but other sports have their own unique cultures of deviance, most notably around violence.   Hockey, football, mixed martial arts, and other contact sports are constant targets of public scrutiny over excessive violence, yet little is done because we cannot imagine these sports without some level of physical aggression.

Episodes of doping and extreme violence raise an interesting question: what caused being deviant to emerge as the new normal in professional sports?

Social scientists suggest that society overemphasizes the cultural goal of success, and this is particularly evident in our obsession with sports.  Sports fans are tremendously invested in their teams.  I can recall vividly and in anguish the details of where I was when the favored (and my beloved) New England Patriots suffered a devastating loss against the New York Giants in Superbowl XLII in 2008.  Aside from the weather, sports teams’ wins and losses are a topic of conversation you hear not only among friends and co-workers, but also among strangers on the subway, in elevators, and waiting in line at the coffee shop.

There has been a cultural shift in the way we view athletic participation as well.  Kids join competitive sports leagues at younger ages; high school and college athletes devote considerable time and resources to increase the likelihood of an athletic scholarship, being drafted into a professional league, and lucrative endorsement deals later down the road; people believe the easiest way to improve one’s social position is not via education but professional athletics.

However, people feel “strained,” to use Robert Merton’s sociological term, because not everyone can attain the culturally desired goal of success.  Individuals become frustrated and resort to illegitimate means to achieve this desired end.  Athletes are taught to abide by the rules of the game; however, the “winning at all costs” objective drives many to engage in rule-breaking–deviant behavior to live up to this cultural ideal.  A Major League Baseball player who has a goal of hitting 75 home runs in one season but fails will be tempted to take performance-enhancing drugs.  Football players will risk penalties if they know an illegal hit to a key opponent will give their team an edge in the playoffs.

The expectation of doping or hard hits becomes an acquired belief as more and more athletes see the benefits for breaking the rules in their respective sports.  Athletes who break rules may come to believe what they are doing is okay because everyone is doing it and they wouldn’t have achieved success without it.  Case and point: the unapologetic Lance.

Now that I have painted a picture in which everyone in sports are rule-breakers, how do we change it?  (I am going out on a limb and say doping and excessive violence should stop.)  Can the law help?

In the United States, there have been several federal attempts to regulate sports violence and doping.  There were two bills that attempted to regulate player violence but failed.  One bill, the Sports Violence Act of 1980, would have imposed up to one year in prison for professional athletes who knowingly used excessive force during a game.  The second bill, the Sports Violence Arbitration Act of 1983, would have created a tribunal within the federal system to adjudicate matters of excessive violence.

In 2005, the growing concern of doping in Major League Baseball (MLB) prompted a series of hearings and a barrage of bills in both the House and Senate. These bills, the Clean Sports Act of 2005, the Drug Free Sports Act of 2005, and the Professional Sports Integrity and Accountability Act, would have required all professional sports leagues to adopt a uniform drug-testing policy that accorded to standards set by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).  Players would have been subject to random testing without notice at least five times a year including the off-season.  There too, these bills failed, bolstering the legal immunity sports enjoy.

Law needs to play a prominent role to regulate and curb rule-violators, but as importantly, law needs to play a symbolic role to restore the meaning of fairness and integrity back into sport.

Legally, creating and using laws to curb deviance in sports is critical because it would provide an effective deterrent for rule violators beyond a nominal fine or suspension.  Eldon Ham, op-ed contributor to the New York Times, cleverly proposed “giving refs a gavel.”  The fear of law would likely deter athletes, but regulation must occur from the outside to prevent sports the relative immunity it has held for so many years.  Sports leagues and associations should turn over players and any relevant evidence (i.e., videotapes, documentation, and drug test results) to legal authorities as a way to stop player misconduct.  They also should help courts interpret the meaning of their internalized rules because there is a very thin fine-line between a “fair hit” versus a “cheap shot,” unless there is some explicit incentive structure like player bounty program like the NFL’s New Orleans Saints had in place.

Symbolically, law can also change the way the public views sport itself.  Legal scholars suggest that law has considerable potential to change the social meaning of particular behavior by sending a message about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  Fans, parents, coaches, and athletes, will begin to see that there are legal consequences for engaging in behavior that the law considers unsportsmanlike conduct.  As more athletes learn to play within the rules, future generations will emulate those who succeeded, changing the culture of sport and hopefully resurrecting the axiom that we used to hear on the playground as kids: winners never cheat and cheaters never win.

Jill D. Weinberg is an instructor in the Master’s of Sports Administration Graduate Program at Northwestern University, a research associate at the American Bar Foundation, and a PhD candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University.

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