December 18, 2012

Sports Heroes

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

 The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. You’ve probably heard this saying if you ever played or watched sports. I’ve been thinking of this phrase a lot lately as I follow the rapid downfall of Lance Armstrong. As most people know the seven-time winner of the Tour de France and creator of the Livestrong Foundation was found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career. As a result, he was stripped of his Tour victories, dropped by a number of sponsors such as Nike, compelled to sever all ties with Liverstrong, and even had an honorary degree he received rescinded from Tufts University.

Armstrong is the latest of a growing list of athletes who have had their reputations severely tarnished because of accusations, admissions, or convictions for using banned substances such as La1steroids, testosterone, and erythropoietin (EPO). As a way to get an edge on their competitors, these athletes supplemented their rigorous training regimes with illegal pills, injections, and transfusions. 

As I pointed out in a previous post, mainstream sociology is not too eager to analyze the world of sports. Much of what transpires in the athletic arena flies under the radar of sociological analysis. The blind spot that sociologists have toward studying sports is particularly troubling as it pertains to athletes using performance-enhancing drugs. Common explanations for why athletes use drugs rely on standard psychological reasoning: athletes are selfish, egotistical, maniacal, narcissistic, and compulsive liars.

Such explanations may be true,  but if we only settle for these neat and tidy individual-based reasons then we are missing a major part of this story. Where do these personality traits come from? How do they arise? Why do we see them particularly manifest in the world of sports? And how do we (the audience) react to them? Implicitly, these are all sociological questions that cannot be addressed through personality-based explanations.

Although it is uncommon to find sociologists addressing these issues directly, we can apply existing social theory to this sports-based problem. For example, in The Wilding of America: Money, Mayhem, and the American Dream, sociologist Charles Derber argues that we are seeing an increase in “wilding” behavior in the United States. Derber defines wilding as a “vast spectrum of self-centered and self-aggrandizing behavior that harms others.” Wilding grows out of the mixture of rugged individualism and raw capitalism and produces the poisonous effect of unrestrained self interest without any moral compass. In other words, one becomes a selfish, egomaniacal athlete because of a social process; not because of some defective personality trait or gene. 

Derber describes two types of wilding that have reared their ugly heads in the world of sports. Expressive wilding is engaging in self-centered behavior for one’s own sheer enjoyment. Seeking pleasure for oneself regardless of those who may be hurt or disturbed by your actions is a classic example of expressive wilding. The actions of Tiger Woods epitomize this type of wilding; his decision to engage in a series of extra marital affairs demonstrated little or no regard for the feelings of his wife, kids, and family.

The other type of wilding that Derber describes is even more common in sports. Instrumental wilding occurs when one places personal gain, greed, and financial advancement above anything else. For this type of wilder success is the ultimate goal and they are willing to do anything and everything to achieve personal victories. In sports, we often refer to this as the win-at-all-costs mentality and the use of performance enhancing drugs that have been linked to Lance Armstrong, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and others is a perfect example. 

In many respects, it should come as no surprise that we see these incidents of wilding in sports. All La2of the fame and fortune that we bestow upon star athletes is the ultimate embodiment of individualism and capitalism run amok. Even at a very early age, young athletes learn rather quickly how wining in sports is a sure-fire method to achieve personal gain. From little league to high school to college and then the pros, we see countless examples of our ongoing obsession with placing star athletes on a pedestal where we can adorn them with praise and special treatment.

At the professional level this mentality is not only part of the individual’s psyche but it is also deeply entrenched in the institutional structures of sports. Team owners, league commissioners, managers, and coaches are equally guilty of this wilding behavior. They knowingly condone and even support the inappropriate activities of their athletes only until more powerful institutional forces compel them to take action.

What I find particularly perplexing about this process of hero making is that when athletes demonstrate a strong moral fiber, when they emphasize social interests instead of self interests, and when they exemplify a level of empathy that truly embodies the idea of teamwork in the broadest terms possible, then they are often criticized, shouted down, and even punished. 

La3A few years ago I interviewed about twenty athletes from various levels (professional, collegiate, and amateur) who used their positions in sports to speak out against a host of social and political injustices such as war, racism, homophobia, sweatshop labor, and environmental degradation. In an article titled, “Boos, Bans, and Backlash: The Consequences of Being an Activist Athlete,” I describe how many of these athletes were told, often quite loudly and forcefully, that sports is no place for promoting social justice so they should just shut up and play. 

If you compare the public reaction to the two sets of athletes I’m discussing—the self-centered wilders and the social-oriented activists—you should see some very glaring ironies. The wilders are only criticized when they are caught and only then are they admonished for acting against the so-called cherished values of sports: fair play, sportsmanship, and teamwork. On the other hand, activist athletes are often criticized as soon as they voice their opinions even though the actions for which they are being criticized embody those same cherished values.

Distinguishing heroes from villains is never as easy as it seems. Even in the world of sports where we have clear-cut winners and losers, it’s not always obvious who to cheer for or who to boo. As sociologically-informed sports fans maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is not which athletes we make into heroes; rather, we should ask why we place so much symbolic (and often financial) value on those who excel in the world of sports? This question really gets at the study of human social behavior which, as you should know, is the definition of sociology itself.


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Durkheim identified different types of suicide; would you follow his example and identify different kinds of "wilding" or selfishness depending on the type of society?

I don't think all sport players are following this examples. It differ from person to person. Yes, it is quite difficult to distinguish a real heroes from villains but you can't say all players behave the same.

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