Sports Transgressions

The angry athlete

Sports Are Getting More Violent? Are Ya Kiddin'?

If sports reflect society, it's time to reflect on changing the culture

Ray Rice talking domestic violence with his wife.
“Ray Rice Knocks Fiancee Unconscious, Drags Body From Elevator”…”Oscar Pistorius Shoots Girlfriend Reeva Steencamp”…”19 Year Old Hockey Players Film Sex Tape with Underage Girl”… “Florida Coach Caught Raping 13 Year Old Gymnast by Her Mother”…”Parent Arrested for Altercation with Coach In Little League Playoff Game”…These are the recurring headlines that have me shaking my head. I have been writing and presenting about violence in sport for well over a decade—treating athletes at all levels with anger problems and treating victims of the same. During my time, I have often stated that the population of athletes was not the same as the population of inmates that I have also been treating for almost fifteen years. However, as the transgressions increase in severity, this can no longer be a “when you get around to it topic”. No longer can we wait for society or even sport psychologists to speak up about how to stop this. So, I will.

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When we have maniacal parents on the sidelines calling for the heads of the players opposing their children…and they’re eight years old….there’s something wrong. When we have athletes involved in sexual assault over and over and over again with no sign that the heinousness and arrogance can only be challenged by the idiocy of also taping it and showing to everyone--and there still isn’t justice? We must have gone mad.


When we have Oscar Pistorius, a glamorized Paralympic athlete catapulted to stardom in a wonderful story of a boy born with disabilities achieving what biology deemed was impossible, doing the unthinkable, we are shocked? In one of his interviews, he announced that he “refuses to think about what I can’t do”, and so he does what would seem unreachable, and he demonstrates that he can do what others believe he can’t. He learns, with the help of everyone lauding him and giving him every perk celebrity status can give him, that he can do what he wants. He has his own set of rules, and his behavior escalates with reckless gunplay and accusations of domestic violence. When he shoots his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, striking her with four hollowpoint bullets, killing her, the world is aghast. As if there were no signs?

When we have Aaron Hernandez, now of New England Patriots infamy, remaining imprisoned pending trial for now being suspected in the deaths of three different people, we wonder how this could have happened? The history of violence and criminal involvement dated back to his college days. People knew. They didn’t care. Well, they cared enough to not draft him in the first round like his athletic talent would have dictated; he was drafted in the fourth round and was a steal. The character card in the draft is not determined on moral grounds, it is determined on football decisions. Will this guy fit in, work hard, help us win, and not be in jail so he can be on the field? It isn’t personal, it’s business.

Did anyone along the way really stand up and say, “That’s it. No more. What can we do to stop this?” No. Not then. And not now.

And then there is domestic violence. Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice has admitted to striking his then-fiancé who he has since married. The video footage, which may not tell the whole story, but it was certainly compelling to see an unconscious woman dragged out of an elevator. She chooses to not press charges. This is not uncommon in domestic violence. He accepted a plea deal that avoids jail time if he completes a diversionary program. This is not uncommon for first time offenders. During interview opportunities, Rice has said many of the right things. Perhaps he will make a difference in the prevention of domestic violence.

When an athlete gets a longer penalty for being nanograms over the acceptable level of marijuana than they get for beating up their girlfriend, it means someone other than Josh Gordon is smoking and there aren’t enough pink breast cancer awareness ribbons that will wipe that away. But before you blame the NFL or Commissioner Roger Goodell, consider a couple of things. First, no other NFL Commissioner (or counterpart in any other professional sport) has done more to hold athletes accountable for deviant behavior than Goodell. And while there was uproar about the two game suspension of Rice being too short, there were plenty of fans that gave him a hero’s welcome when he returned to Raven-land. A standing ovation.

Why? You want the truth? Can we handle the truth? We selectively don’t care. Our society continues to look the other way, offers very little accountability, and then has the nerve to be surprised that each transgression is superseded by something even worse.

I don’t care who you are. You get arrested. You’re suspended without pay until the charges are cleared. Not, “can we postpone the jail time until the offseason”? That will motivate you to avoid problems and expedite resolving the matter. If you’re found guilty, the team is fined and forfeits draft picks.

But those are the pros. Anyone have any idea how hard it is to tell a young professional athlete with more money than they can count that they should be cautious? Adolescents that are poor think they’re invincible. Pros know they are. And they need to be fearless because if they stopped and thought about how dangerous what they do is, they wouldn’t be able to do the things that amaze us. So it isn’t easy. But it is a lot easier if we change the culture starting with the youngest players.

Coaches that abuse their players. I’m not even talking about the hidden sexual predators that aren’t detected by the background checks. I am talking about the coach that berates a player to the point of tears. That shreds their self-esteem and then discards them because they know there will be another player that wants their spot. We cannot stand for this any longer. Parents who stand by and watch, and let these coaches do this to their children, it is deplorable. If you see something wrong, say something. If parents are acting the part of the ogre and their child is shrinking to avoid the embarrassment, coaches and sports organizations need to speak up.

Look, we live in a violent society. Disgustingly so. To think that we won’t have that represented in the sports world to some degree is unrealistic. Sports are a reflection of our culture. Our ugliness will be seen there. I have yet to see fans refuse to watch a player because of the immoral things they have done. Sports are not losing money because of this. But when we as society say, “Enough is enough. No more. We will not support players, teams, organizations who represent the worst we have to offer.”

Where are the psychologists, especially the sport psychologists? We, collectively, have been unacceptably silent. There are very few voices out there in the darkness. Transgressions occur and what do we have to say? Video games are bad. Are ya kiddin’?


Mitch Abrams, Psy.D. is a clinical sport psychologist specializing in anger management, sexual assault prevention and the treatment of trauma.


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