Sport and violence

Violence in sport and violence by athletes out of sport presents a challenge to our field.

By Mitch Abrams, PsyD, Michelle Bartlett, PhD, and Tanya Prewitt-White, PhD

Although sports can bring out the best in people through teamwork, shared goals, competition and motivation, they also can be violent. Some argue that sports reflect society, whereas others suggest that athletes — especially in certain sports such as collision and combative sport — are inherently violent. However, we must remember that athletes are not more violent than nonathletes (Abrams, 2010). Regardless, violence in sport and violence by athletes out of sport presents a challenge to our field.

For an athlete to be successful in sport, it is critically important to be able to modulate one’s emotions (Hanin, 2000; Ruiz & Hanin, 2011). Some sports are violent by nature, but it is expected that the violence stay on the field. This expectation presents a unique challenge to athletes. Therefore, sport stakeholders — coaches, administrators, parents — must make systemic interventions at all levels of sport (preferably beginning with younger athletes) to limit violence in sport and set boundaries for behavior. To do so, we cannot treat athletes — because of their physical skills — as if they are exempt from moral expectations. Perhaps nowhere has this been more evident than in the recent case of Greg Hardy, a professional football player for the Dallas Cowboys. Though convicted for domestic violence following a domestic violence assault on his then girlfriend, Hardy’s case was dismissed following a financial settlement and the victim’s absence from a necessary trial appearance. Initially suspended for 10 games by the National Football League, this suspension was reduced by an arbitrator to only four games. Hardy followed up this incident and minor punishment with repeated episodes of minimization of his violent behavior and physically violent behavior with his team — including an incident where he slapped the clipboard out of the hands of a coach on the sideline. So, why was this athlete allowed to continue to participate following his egregious behavior? Because he could help the team win. These types of decisions send a powerful message to society that violence will be tolerated: a message that contradicts the values that sports are supposed to represent. As psychology professionals we must do our part to prevent and deal with violence both in and out sport at both the individual and institutional level.

Sports have often been the stage for violence that has intruded from society. From the Munich Olympics of September 1972 to the recent attacks at Stade de France in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, terrorists have often targeted sporting venues because of their connection and reflection of society. There will likely be more incidents like this in the future. And, in response, just as we saw following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, sports often provide an outlet to escape from a violent world — “an opiate of the masses” so to speak. Sports help us cope with violence, whether as a distraction or an opportunity for us to turn to our heroes. At our most troubled times, we yearn, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” We often look to our heroes in sport to deal with the violence in our world.

Violence is a part of sports both on the field and off. However, sports — athletes, coaches, fans — have the opportunity to be part of the solution and play an important role in society’s response to violence.

Key Points

  • While there are athletes that have engaged in egregious violent behavior, athletes, as a whole, are not a violent group.
  • As we live in a violent society, we will see this play out in the sports world as well.
  • Sports have been critical in the healing process from world horrors, including (especially) terrorist attacks.
  • Sport psychologists are well-positioned to prevent and treat violence, as well as the trauma that follows.


Abrams, M. (2010). Anger management in sport: Understanding and controlling violence in athletes. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics.

Hanin, Y.L. (Ed.). (2000). Emotions in sport. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics.

Ruiz, M.C., & Hanin, Y.L. (2011). Perceived impact of anger on performance of skilled karate athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12, 242-249.