“It’s just a game” is a phrase and mindset that dominates the sporting world. It downplays how brutal sports and sportspeople can be, and it trivializes sports with real world implications in favour of fun and entertainment. It reinforces a culture of violence where toxic traits and antisocial behaviour are excused, and sometimes even encouraged, to achieve sporting success.
A 2019 review published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology examines the proliferation of “prosocial and antisocial behaviour in sports,” and its effects on athletes’ physical and mental states.
In the review, they discuss this idea of ‘Bracketed Morality,’ where players “morally disengage in sports”—temporarily suspending their sense of right and wrong—to improve their athletic performance. Engendered within competitive team sports, athletes conceive a parenthetical space that secludes traditional, societal rules and stances on violence and fairness to attain athletic achievements.
Some players purposely injure their opponents or cheat to leverage the game and increase the possibility of success, despite usually being kinder off the field. Ultimately, the competitive nature of sports leads them to exhibit these antisocial behaviours unseen off the field.
The idea of sports being ‘a game’ allows players to distance and disengage from their own actions—removing personal responsibility.
To an extent, sports already suspend morality. Football involves attacking other players to obtain possession of a ball. Off the field attacking another individual, especially so forcefully, would be considered battery—a criminal offense. However, since teams and players agree that football is a game, the rules that exist in society don’t apply.
Since all sports are physical to a degree, there always exists an element of risk for the physical welfare of a player. The psychological effects are not only a result of abuse within the system, but the rationale for participation—what athletes value determines the behaviour they model. Coaches can help shape athletic values through a motivational climate or a performance climate. Rewards, feedback, and treatment of players inexplicitly communicate the coach’s values.
Unfortunately, many athletes face abuse by their coaches who control them through pressure, rewards, and punishment. When authoritative figures possess so much power over an individual and their careers, athletes may feel compelled (or even coerced) to listen to the advice, even if it isn’t the most sound or morally correct. As a result, the goals of playing transform from one in pursuit of pleasure to one focused on obtaining accolades and rewards.
Conversely, the findings revealed that motivational coaches and prosocial teammates fostered “both enjoyment and perceived performance”—they had fun and were more aware of how they performed. When players have fun, they are more loyal and willing to devote time and effort to the team.
The review also states that “pro social teammate behaviour could also prevent burnout.” Burnout occurs when continual stress extracts the enjoyment from an activity previously deemed enjoyable. Positive behaviour by teammates correlates to achievement and generates “a more positive sport experience” and environment.
Negative expressions towards a teammate, in contrast, cultivate an inability to cope with the pressure and demands.
Antisocial teammate behaviour includes “verbally abusing, swearing, arguing, criticizing, and expressing frustration at one’s poor play.” Not without benefits, however, experimental research proves that antisocial teammate behaviour can be beneficial under certain conditions, such as during a two-minute free throw competitive.
While suspending morality partially comes with the game, completely forgetting morality and engaging in anti-social behaviour leads to anger and stress, which eliminates one of the most fundamental reasons for playing: fun.