The truth about aggression and sport may be hidden beyond sensational headlines

Sport is all about aggression. Some of us try and come to terms with this, occasionally, with a lot of digestive support of the literary kind — Sport is war minus shooting — that George Orwell offered. But most of us continue to pretend sport is all that a French Baron (de Coubertin) who knew little about human nature said — that it was about courage, honour, glory, bonding and selflessness.

But then, perhaps it is part of human nature not to delve too deep into human nature! For, if you engage in that dangerous exercise, you never know how many skeletons you might unearth and how many dark nights of the soul you might have to endure.

This is because sporting aggression cannot ever be viewed in the isolation of a playing field. You cannot be a Mike Tyson in the ring and a Mother Teresa in the drawing room, although that is precisely the sort of ideal mix that romantics such as the late French Baron were dreaming of.

As Lance Armstrong hides behind a thick curtain of drug-fuelled cognitive haze and the hero-of-all-heroes, Oscar Pistorius, breaks down time and again in a courtroom in Johannesburg even as the once-stunningly beautiful body of his girlfriend disappears from view under several chunks of earth in a graveyard, where are we to turn?

The truth-tellers and truth-seekers among us have nowhere to hide.

Along with Mr. Livestrong, the great cancer-beater and world beater, along with Mr. Blade Runner, the great disability-beater and world beater, we too are out there in the harsh glare, stripped of all our psychological prosthetics.

“Error has transformed animals into men; is truth perhaps capable of changing man back into an animal?” asks Friedrich Nietzsche’s madman, rather rhetorically, in the book ‘Gay Science’.

Spill-over effects

Amidst steroid abuse and alleged (ste)roid-rage that may have cost the life of a giving, caring, talented and beautiful young woman, what are we to make of the spill-over effects of sporting aggression which, in itself, may reward its possessor on the field of play?

In our wicked Wiki-world, the most readily accessible free encyclopaedia has so much to offer under the headline “List of professional sportspeople convicted of crimes” that you might well need a full hour to take it all in.

And then what? Where does that leave us?

Well, forget it. Let’s regain our sanity for a moment. Let’s imagine, John Lennon-like, that there is no sporting hell for us to ponder, and that “it is easy if you tried” to think sport is all about Federer’s poetic elegance, Messi’s balletic grace and Bolt’s lightning brilliance.

“You may say I am a dreamer. But I am not the only one,’’ wrote Lennon, inspiring tens of millions of people beyond all kinds of human boundaries. And he wasn’t the only dreamer, either. There were millions before him, and millions after him.

But do we keep dreaming or is it time to get real about sport, get our hands all dirty and sully our souls a bit just so we can keep awake at night and ring the psychiatrist for an appointment the next morning in a state of depressed nothingness, craving for that tiny bright spot of meaning and value in sport?

It can’t be all that bad, or can it? Perhaps it depends on whether you are the half-empty or half-full type. And it is wise not to dig too deep while dwelling on the wrong end of the sporting spectrum.

After all, sport does help redirect natural human aggression along agreeable channels when that human trait is most likely to manifest itself — during adolescence and a little later on.


For all its war-like nature, sport has time and again turned aggressive and competitive young men into statesmen-like figures. The former Australian captain Steve Waugh is a wonderful example of a man who made this transition and has become a supreme role model.

You can simulate the conditions of war in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a sports arena to gain an aggressive edge over opponents, yet once off the field shed that on-field persona like a sorry skin and present yourself as the most civilised and humane of athletes.

But that is not really the point of this column. The question is, does on-field aggression — and the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs with all their dangerous side effects — make a sportsman more vulnerable to off-field violent behaviour than the average Joe?

This is a very, very sensitive issue. It would be ridiculous to make a learned comment on the topic without irrefutable data to back up claims. But it is a subject that social scientists might find compelling as more and more cases of off-field criminal misbehaviour hit the headlines.

Yet, truth may well be hidden way beyond sensational headlines. A career sportswriter is certainly not equipped to travel that far.


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