10. Sports, Drugs, and Violence

By Beck, Daniel; Bosshart, Louis | Communication Research Trends, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview
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10. Sports, Drugs, and Violence


Beck, Daniel, Bosshart, Louis, Communication Research Trends


Where big money is at stake people go as far as possible. In sports, that means that some readily risk damage to their own health and to the health of competitors. Athletes who take drugs create--as long as they are caught!--scandals and sensations, i.e., news values for the media. Athletes who are utterly violent against their opponents create entertainment value. Both values are highly marketable and profitable for media.

The history of drug use in sports is as long as sports history itself. The Greeks and Romans were already known to use plants, mushrooms, or animal parts such as horns or the secretions of testes as a way of improving physical or mental performance. In the modern era, already in the 19th and early 20th century, riders, cyclists, and long distance runners took various chemicals to aid performance. Thomas Hicks, marathon winner of the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, collapsed after the race--he had repeatedly taken doses of strychnine and brandy in order to stay on his feet. However, he was allowed to keep his medal (Cashmore, 2000, p. 191). Later, progress in sports medicine improved pharmaceuticals to treat sports-related injuries; at the same time, new supplements to promote competitive performance were developed. But up to the 1960s, the risks of taking drugs in sports (that had become obvious with the amphetamine-related death of the British cyclist Tom Simpson at the 1967 Tour de France) were discussed rather than the morality of it. Harsh denunciations of sports performers found to be taking drugs began to appear only from the 1980s (Cashmore, 2000, pp. 192-193). The famous cases of drug enhancement by short distance runner Ben Johnson at the 1988 Summer Olympics, by soccer player Diego Maradona at the 1994 World Cup, or by various cyclists at the 1998 Tour de France as well as the systematic supply of East German athletes with pharmaceuticals during the Cold War show that nowadays, taking drugs to improve performance in sports is unanimously considered wrong, as it is not fair and not consistent with the principle of equal opportunity among all competitors at a sports event. So the media label athletes taking drugs as cheaters. Nevertheless, several scholars have noted that cases of athletes taking drugs are often reported as extraordinary single events and that structural problems in sports that may be related to drug use are almost never mentioned (Donohew, Helm, & Haas, 1989; Hills, 1992; Vom Stein, 1988).

Since sport is a kind of war with strict rules to limit extreme violence, the violence in sports should never exceed a certain level. However, violence in sports (like drug taking) receives extensive discussion nowadays. Violence by athletes occurs, for example, when they try to win by foul, mainly in sports which allow a great deal of body contact. Sports fans can also be very violent. Hooliganism is a problem at big sports events and has made it necessary that police forces guard stadiums at these events. Whereas Americans have primarily studied player violence, British scholars have mainly examined spectator violence, focusing on soccer hooligans (see overview in Kinkema & Harris, 1998, p. 45). Whereas the media sometimes legitimize player violence as part of the job of professional athletes, reinforce the "sports as war" metaphor, and report violent acts extensively (Trujillo, 1995), they blame the hooligans for driving away more "respectable" fans and see the source of spectator violence in the hooligans' mindlessness, without discussing broader societal problems that may contribute to the situation (Young, 1991). But violence in sports is not a new phenomenon. Many claim that the amount of violence in sports has even decreased during the past centuries. In ancient times and in the Middle Ages excesses of violence at sports events seem to have been much more common than after the introduction of strict rules in early modern age (Goldstein, 1989). And when the media began to cover sports events, they commented on cases of violence in a negative way: They stated that winning by foul was not fair, and they made it obvious that violence among spectators was dangerous for other spectators.

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