Violent Athletes Must Learn to Vent Their Anger in Other Ways

by Reggie Soni | 11/19/97 6:00am

A look at November 6th ESPN Sportszone website gave an observant viewer a rather chilling sign of the times. One thread ties together three seemingly different stories together. The first story highlights the success of the Carolina Hurricanes against the Detroit Red Wings despite losing the goalie Sean Burke, who has been arrested on charges of assaulting his wife. In the side column is a story about Jose Caneso being arrested for allegedly beating his wife. Another story talks of Gilbert Brown, nosetackle for the Green Bay Packers Beating accepting a punishment, while admitting to a judge that he beat his live- in girlfriend during an argument.

When one adds this to the recent trial of Wifredo Cordero of the Red Sox and Dennis Johnson, former star of the Celtics, a disturbing picture begins to develop. Sports stars past and present are not learning how to control their anger in meaningful ways. Now first off I will admit that I don't have all the facts to each of these cases. But the very fact that these verbal disputes escalated into something more than just an argument points to a problem.

The problem, I believe, has to do with a general manner in which athletes are trained to deal with setbacks. Not enough emphasis is placed on dealing with anger off the field in sports today. Too often after losing emotional games or dealing with injuries that keep players off the field, there is not an emphasis on controlling anger or finding ways to constructively deal with it. Rather, athletes are encouraged to channel that anger into the next game -- holding in their feelings of anger to unleash on their next opponent. Unfortunately, the next "opponent" is too often a spouse or significant other. The net result is many of our most celebrated stars (such as Celtic legend Robert Parish and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Warren Moon) ending up in court or on TV talking about how sorry they are. Well unfortunately sorry is not enough, nor is hiding behind the excuse of the tough life of a sports star.

While the job may be grueling players must learn to vent their anger in safe and harmless ways. I believe there is an unfair mantra in sports that once you leave the field "it's all over." The athlete is expected to go home and be calm, happy, and well adjusted. For example, to expect football players to merely put on a happy face after three hours of emotional often violent behavior is not rational. Rather it is incumbent on sports franchises to help players deal with their feelings of anger in post-game situations. Furthermore, I think all athlete's (and actually everyone in general) should take classes in conflict resolution with spouses or significant others. This would help players understand the nature of their anger and help them realize that the physical violence so often condoned and encouraged on the field is an illegal and illegitimate way of solving problems off the field.

I honestly feel that none of these players would be quite so likely to have hit their wives or girlfriends if conflict resolution was a high priority in collegiate sports. And this is not just about football. My examples site basketball, baseball, and hockey as well. Golfer John Daly, recent winner of the British Open, faced similar charges himself. Thus these problems are ones that all athletes face because of the nature of the business they are in. Nevertheless, that does not serve as a legitimate excuse. College athletes need to be more rigorously aware that managing setbacks on the field and managing them in other aspects of their lives can be analogous but are in many ways dissimilar.

Finally I think fans must take a stand on this issue. For Canseco, this is his second accusation of spousal abuse (the first being a 1992 conviction of ramming his first wife Esther's car). His baseball star status likely resulted in the slap on his wrists. Fans and the public need to show that such behavior by an athlete is not tolerated, no matter what kind of feats they accomplish on the field. Obviously athletes are not solely responsible for the condition of spousal abuse today. However, their unique position as role models means that their habits can have a large influence on youth. Society must therefore demand better behavior from athletes, while not putting unreasonable physical demands on them (i.e. realize they are not machines for our amusement and abuse but are real people).

I am unsure if the Dartmouth College Athletic Department has any program that addresses managing off-field conflicts and problems. I would be very glad if that is the case and commend the school for having such a program. If not, I propose that DCAD institute such a program. This is not implying that all of our hard working athletes are wife beaters in the making. In fact, I believe most athletes are fiercely dedicated and have a passionate drive to win. Nevertheless, such fierce behavior can turn negative. Warren Moon, noted as one of the true gentlemen in professional football, appeared as shocked himself that he could behave this way. Early intervention at the collegiate level could prevent such problems from occurring later in life and would hopefully result in ESPN only using the verb "hit" when referring to the ball.