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Aggression in sport and society.

What is aggression?
The term 'aggression' refers to all behaviour intended to destroy another persons property, or to injure another person, either psychologically or physically.

Those who see sports as a cure for aggression generally base their arguments on assumptions made about human instincts, the connection between frustration and behaviour, and the learning that occurs during sport participation.

The human instinct of aggression.
According to Freudian theory, all humans possess a 'death instinct', sometimes referred to as the death wish. This death wish takes the form of destructive energy inside a persons psyche, if this energy is not released intentionally, it will eventually build up and be involuntarily released in the form of aggression against oneself, or against others. The only way this potentially destructive energy can be controlled, is by finding an activity through which it can be released safely, this form of release is termed catharsis.

Peter Marsh (1978, 1982), a British social psychologist, has expanded the ideas of Freud and many other ethologists, arguing that sporting events serve as occasions for 'ritual confrontations' between fans. In analysing the behaviour of young, male soccer fans in England, he concludes that these confrontations are relatively harmless, symbolic displays of aggressive energy. They are highly structured and predictable, and serve to control the extent to which aggression is expressed in other sphere's of life. In fact, Marsh argues that if aggressive behaviours associated with soccer were suppressed, the rates of violent crime and fighting behaviour in non-sport settings would increase.

There are four weaknesses in using instinct theory to argue that sports are a cure for aggression in society:
1. There is no research support for the notion that aggressive behaviour in humans is the product of biologically based destructive energy. Studies of other animals suggest that aggression may be natural.
If someone could put up a convincing case that humans do have aggressive instincts, it would tell us little about human behaviour, we would still have to explain why the rates of aggression vary from one group to another, and why they vary over time within any one single group.
2. The theory assumes that all sports are effective outlets for the aggressive energies of both players and spectators. However, it is quite certain that all sports activities do not provide the same opportunities for release of aggression, for example, some sports do not involve direct physical contact between opponents.
3. Thirdly, there are no research findings that support the idea that sports participation provides a catharsis for the supposed aggressive instincts of players or spectators. Numerous studies show that the existence of popularity of contact sports goes hand in hand with aggression and violence in societies around the world.
4. The fourth weakness in the instinct theory is that it constantly refers to the aggressive behaviour of men, it ignores women and the ways through which so called aggressive instincts and impulses are released in the women. Since women are not usually involved ion warfare or other forms of group violence, as well as involvement in heavy contact sports to the same extent as men, what are their outlets of their aggressive instincts?

The instinct argument provides no valid support for the notion that sport participation can serve as a cure for violent behaviour among players and spectators. References made to "releasing feelings of aggression" are continually made without thinking about the theoretical model implied by such a statement.


Coakley, J.J. (1994) Sport In Society: Issues And Controversies. St.Lois, Times Mirror Routledge.

Jarvie, G. (1994) Sport and Leisure In Social Thought. London, Routledge.

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