Violence in Sports and the Nature of Aggression and Lessons Learned from Kenny Rogers and John Wooden

Kenny Rogers of the Texas Rangers joined a growing list of sports heroes who become infamous after public displays of totally inappropriate aggression. What is it about our nature and especially professional sports that causes this behavior? What lessons are we not learning or at least not applying to reduce or ideally eliminate this kind of behavior?

John Wooden was named by ESPN as Coach of the Century for the twentieth century. At age 94 this week he released a new book, Wooden on Leadership. He stands in apparent sharp contrast to sports heroes “out of control.” In his book he describes 15 principles of leadership in his “Pyramid of Success.” They include: poise, confidence, skill, self-control, initiative, loyalty, and enthusiasm. Emotionalism of any kind, he notes, is our enemy. It interferes with the positive traits that lead to success.

John Wooden’s 41 year coaching record has never been equaled. He won ten national college basketball championships in 12 years – with 3 completely different teams. We visualize him as the paragon of class. But he admits that his self-control came gradually. Beneath great success usually burns high intensity. He recalls as a young coach being cursed and belittled by an opposing coach whose team they had just beaten. “I saw red and without thinking, knocked him down to the court.”

As we seek to understand why our sports heroes are increasingly losing their composure it’s especially helpful to read what Wooden says lead him to quit sports at the height of his success 30 years ago. He describes the feeling of living under a magnifying glass, and the “never ending speculation.” He says the “overwhelming attention, inspection, and curiosity become more of an irritant.” It was deeply disturbing when I read how he lost control as a young coach and then later quit because of all the pressure of media scrutiny. I feel more compassion toward our current “fallen heroes.”

So we begin to better understand the psychology of striving for perfection and risking your self-esteem in front of thousands if not millions of people over and over again. Our culture puts athletes on a pedestal. They are paid millions of dollars and lead life styles most of us will never know. With success comes a certain inevitable narcissism. Then with failure – losses, trades, comes disappointment and frustration and increased media scrutiny. We should all try to imagine being at one of our lowest points and having TV cameras in our face and sports journalists speculating about what’s really going on with us. Are we being sincere and doing our best or are we faking and manipulating? But why violence?

Sports is mostly a civilized competition that is at the foundation a sublimation of combat. The instinct to wage war is deeply rooted in our genes. Men especially are hard wired as protectors and providers. The amount of hormone testosterone is related to aggression. Jane Goodall discovered that male Chimpanzees would band together to wage war against other Chimpanzee groups. One interesting outcome of battle is that the testosterone level in the victors goes up but it goes down in the losers. Perhaps these hormone changes help to establish power hierarchies and establish some form of social order.

Even more basic to the biology of aggression are the brain transmitters, especially serotonin and norepinephrine. Serotonin is the oldest and most primitive brain system. It is primarily responsible for homeostasis (balance) and control. Studies have found that the more violent behavior is, the lower the serotonin levels in the brain. Conversely, norepinephrine, the brain transmitter system associated with arousal and “fight or flight,” is elevated in impulsive or angry aggression. None of this physiology applies to cold-blooded, premeditated aggression.

There are several polymorphic genes that increase the tendency to be aggressive or violent. In one study of violent delinquent teens it was only the combination of certain gene types plus a history of childhood abuse that resulted in violent criminal behavior. There is overlap between intensity, extreme competitiveness, and aggressiveness. A famous coach once said, “you show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

Does all this mean that violent acts by professional athletes are inevitable? Given that, even John Wooden punched an opposing coach. It’s in their genes and cameras are in their face so shouldn’t we accept it as unavoidable? I don’t believe that we can prevent all future episodes but there are major changes that could be made to markedly reduce these incidents.

We need to educate people about the nature of aggression and make them aware of the many available treatment approaches. Hypnosis works for some. In my 39 years of clinical experience I have seen many people who could not control their “short fuse” temper without taking medication. There are several mood stabilizers (see Best Meds) that have been found to be very effective. There are also certain blood pressure medications that have been found to be useful (Propranolol, Clonodine, Guanfacine). Others do well on antidepressants or ADHD medications. Having mandatory severe punishment – stated in advance would help with self-control in the “heat of battle.”

In the case of Kenny Rogers many factors contributed to his “blow up.” He had been showing increasing inappropriate behavior – but apparently nothing was said or done. He was maligned in the media. There is some evidence that team officials were leaking information to the media in an apparent attempt to provoke him in some way that’s not clear. Were they trying to inspire an increase in his competitive intensity? Were they trying to manipulate him to ask for a trade? I’m sure there are factors that we don’t understand. If the constant in your face media drove John Wooden out of coaching maybe we need to reexamine the degree of access the media has to the players.

On the other hand doesn’t all this make for good gossip? Don’t we need escapism from day to day pressure and stress? So is the system really “broke?” If it is “broke” do we really want to fix it?


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