Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

“…the psycho-social aspects of sport are that it helps siphon off aggression from certain sorts of people. In that, its useful to prevent those types from taking out their aggression in other less seemly ways, so sports do serve some limited constructive social purpose.”

RS Janes; co-editor and co-owner: LT Saloon

Is this sound science, or psycho-babble we have come to believe? Something between the two?

I have heard this claim, far less well phrased, many times. I am sure that at least a few children who grew up involved in sports may have had some aggression siphoned off. How many? How much? Good questions. Is there any solid proof that this actually happens to a greater extent than sports encouraging more aggressive attitudes towards others off the field? Is it possible that sports offers a confirmation; a form of acceptance, that some geekier, “stranger,” less “acceptable,” kids may not get at all?

Tie the two together. We have one group gaining acceptance through supposed “channeling,” or “funneling” aggression, and another that still doesn’t fit in and is not part of “the team.” The assumption is; once channeled, once funneled, aggression won’t simply increase and spill over elsewhere. What do we base that assumption on, other than hope? Since winning often requires encouraging and increasing channeled aggression, does the way we handle sports with our youth provide a platform that grows, ferments and builds up some bullies?

I’m not claiming “all.” I am asking, “Too many?”

We assume, if a player learns to control aggression and their attitudes during games and practice, that control spills over into the way they treat others off the field. In more than half a century my own experience; often as the target when I was young of those who supposedly have had their aggression “channeled,” and observing children in my career… it spills over in less than desirable ways on a regular basis. Instead of learning to use that control off the field, too many learn that society values their aggression. Then while going to class, walking home or on the school bus, they find convenient targets who are valued less than they are. This is not the intended message, I’m sure.

While jocks find a niche’ for their developing attitudes in school sponsored acceptance, we add in socially accepted cliques many schools have. What’s between the two? A neat little pocket outcasts fall into that also paints a target on them.

Occasionally, to use a cliche’, payback’s a b…i…t…c…h. Seems, in the past two decades, some students have decided to retaliate by painting their own targets: violently expressing their own powerlessness… and Columbine is not, by any means, the only example. This is a war that has gone on long before anyone reading this was born, it has simply gotten worse probably because winning, rather than actual sportsmanship and character, have become so much more important.

Have we, in some cases. channeled aggression by creating an environment for more aggression?

I am not claiming that most players, school systems, coaches and gym teachers intentionally encourage or do any of this. I certainly am not insisting that this is the intent behind sports in general, though the “genetic” imprint of sports leads back to some of the most vicious and brutal games in humanity’s history. I am saying this system that’s supposed to channel aggression hasn’t been designed very well for all; and I don’t just mean players.

The question is simple…

“Is this mantra; that sports funnels off aggression rather than encouraging it, really valid?”

I would love to see data proving this. It would certainly be best if it was from something other than some sports organization, or some study commissioned by them. And how do we know for sure if sports didn’t exist, or wasn’t promoted by our schools, that it would all be worse? Maybe overly aggressive children would have to face that demon rather than finding a form of institutionalized acceptance of it, no matter how intended?

Here are two more, even easier and common, comments to pick apart regarding sports …

“Sports teaches sportsmanship.”


“Sports builds character.”

I must start right out the rhetorical race-gate with a simple observation in question form. Whose definition of “sportsmanship,” or “character?” How does one prove lack of such would be worse?

Snap quiz time…

Let’s see if anyone can offer me an example of this. Two countries. Neither is at war, or being invaded/infiltrated. Same time period and they are about equal socially and economically. One of these with very popular, highly aggressive, sports that acted far less aggressive towards other nations. The other with less “channeled” aggression through sports that was far more aggressive. Extra credit: the country with less aggression-based sports invaded the one with far more. Got an example?

Uh, I didn’t think so.

My guess is it almost always happens the other way around.

Here are a few simple suggestions that might help us make sports better and more helpful to society. The best way to start would be with the youth in schools, summer programs, church youth programs: any activity that involve sports. I will phrase the suggestions around school programs.

1. All are important. All are made to feel “part of” the bigger team: their school. And I don’t mean pep rallies. They’re a bit too much like mindless indoctrination, though may serve a purpose as I will explain later.

How individuals function and feel at home within the team is more important than the team as a whole. More important than winning or “the game.”

2. Adults should always supervise games when team members are picked by students. Separate off the best players and make team captains pick from the rest first. They could even assign certain students non-player roles from the start; before sides are chosen. These would be roles that must be respected, like being an umpire.

3. Adults listen carefully for comments and attitude. Be ready to take away more talented players from one team and give them to another if necessary. Supportive behavior is rewarded. Bad, boorish, behavior has consequences.

4. Couple talented players with the least amongst the group pre-game, during the game and post game. Make sure they help, and learn to respect, each other… or at least behave in a respectful manner. Everyone has talents and something to teach another.

5. A large part of a gym teacher’s job should be teaching sportsmanship, character and helping to funnel aggression, not planning how to win games. “Winning” should be at the bottom of the sports list of “things to focus on.”

6. Make national sports teams more focused on “local.” Local owners, local players: local everything. Local schools are farms for the majors. We need to reward through advancement more in society.

7. Teams and coaches, off season, work together on public projects and with kids: encouraging actual sportsmanship offering lessons in real character-building.

8. Game time: if they win they win, if they lose they lose. Losing should be viewed as a positive thing: maybe better than winning, because it is part of the necessary solid foundation to build character and sportsmanship upon. Save any pep rally like activities for after a loss; building up the spirit of the whole school. Little “rah,” more “how can we improve and help each other, because we are good.”

9. Team members, students without the slightest interest in sports, teachers and coaches work with each other. Doesn’t Math, or Science, have implications when it comes to sports? How about the struggles of humanity throughout history and in literature? Draw parallels.

10. Introduction of more games that are less radically competitive to the extreme, more mutual goal oriented where “we all win when we achieve,” would be wise.

Some of what I suggested goes on already, but far less than we need. I know: I have been working in schools as an entertainer since the early 80s and substituting since the late 90s.

Re: introduction of more games… more mutual goal oriented.

To solve some problems we need cooperation on a very large scale, or at least rational; less combative, discussion. Why is it that we think having a common enemy to hate is the only solution?

I don’t want to take your Yankees tickets away from you or rip the tailgate off your truck. Slap that sucker down and enjoy!

I firmly believe that sports could be used to channel aggression, build character and teach sportsmanship: especially if we start young with a few simple suggestions like I offered. But first we at least have to discuss what we mean by these terms rather than assuming we all mean the same thing. And as long as winning is more important than any of this, well excuse me if I’m more than just a bit of a cynic.


Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.

Copyright 2009
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
All Rights Reserved

By Ken Carman

Retired entertainer, provider of educational services, columnist, homebrewer, collie lover, writer of songs, poetry and prose... humorist, mediocre motorcyclist, very bad carpenter, horrid handyman and quirky eccentric deluxe.

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RS Janes
14 years ago

Ken, I’ll post a more detailed response soon, but just to deal with this one sentence:

You wrote: “Is there any solid proof that this actually happens to a greater extent than sports encouraging more aggressive attitudes towards others off the field?”

Yes there is and I have seen it with my own eyes. I have seen ex-boxers, still in good shape, taunted by jerks trying to bait them into a fight. These guys could have easily mopped up the floor with the idiots, but they had learned from their years in the ring to control their aggression and their temper. Black belt martial arts instructors also do not initiate violence and control their aggression — in fact, they do everything they can to avoid a fight and only respond if attacked. And those are just two examples.

IMO, it is the insecure weaklings who display these aggressive attitudes off the field, and I’ve seen the bullies, like Cheney, who have never indulged in a physical contact sport in their life — and I’m not including luxury sport fishing or hunting for stocked ‘wildlife’ here — but are aggressive nevertheless, albeit with other people’s lives and well-being.

After three or four hours on the football field, or fifteen rounds in the ring, the average athlete is so exhausted they have no energy left to be aggressive.

RS Janes
14 years ago

Ken, I’m not disputing that there are jocks who are jerks — that much is obvious. I’m just saying those jocks who are the kind of jerks you describe are also, as I mentioned in my previous comment on this thread, pathetic insecure weaklings who bully others — usually as a group, I’ve noticed — to cover for their own inadequacies. In my short experience playing football, boxing, etc., it was always the poorer players who engaged in bullying off the field, possibly taking out their frustrations for their inability to play the game well.

Something that has changed radically in the forty-plus years since I indulged in sports as a player is the concept of sportsmanship. Thanks to the misquotation of that Vince Lombardi line about winning being the only thing, generations of kids, and their parents and coaches, have been raised to think that winning by any means is more important than playing fairly and by the rules and, if you lose, not acting like a baby or a bully about it. In my day, my football coach, as much of a pinhead as he was in many ways, would have benched you if you had acted in an unsportsmanlike way, and you would have been off the team if he caught you cheating.

In this age of steroids and Barry Bonds-type celebrities, billionaires who brag about what a-holes they are, not to mention Bush, Rove and Cheney, the notion of fair play has gone out the window, in politics, business and sports. I think this is where the points of your essay apply most accurately.

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