Sport and violence. Why some athletes behave aggressively?

sport and violence

“Titushky” (“титушки”) is a word which came thundering into the socio-political vocabulary of the former Soviet Union countries. In Ukraine, this word labeled young boxers and fighters, who were recruited from various sports around the country and were later mobilized and incited against opposition during the EuroMaidan, January 2014.

These athletes were named “titushky” after the name of one of the first offenders identified in the protests. His name was Vadim “The Romanian” Titushko, hence the labeling of all other violent individuals. The massive participation of these young people, mostly athletes, was considered to be a special tactic, used in order to intimidate the Ukrainian opposition within EuroMaidan clashes that took place in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities [1], [2], [3].

This example from the recent history of conflicts and social rebellion shows us how athletes are being used as mercenaries; their brute force is exploited by all kinds of different military, political and underworld leaders, which round up their assault groups or gangs with young people well trained in gyms. This is the point where a delicate aspect related to sport-aggression relationship is reached, i.e. the readiness of people with sports experience to get engaged into violent actions and the role of sport in the process of cultivating a vengeful spirit in men. And it’s not only about the social environment in which this aggression can be spilled, but also about the athletic contests themselves, which are characterized by rivalry and violence.

Many sport psychology researchers agree on the fact that the actions in sport can be described as being aggressive and violent, the fight often ruthless, especially in contact sports like rugby, hockey, boxing, wrestling etc. [4], [Lemieux et al., 2002, Burton, 2005]. Physical contact, aggression and violence often represent the main sources of enthusiasm in athletes, giving them pleasure and fueling their motivation to participate in the contests. The abundance of violence in sports has started to be seen as a social problem [5] [Tenenbaum et al., 1997; Kerr, 2004].

In order to better understand how the dyad sport-aggression works, it is important for us, in the first place, to observe a specific feature of aggression, which we could call the cascade effect, or the autocatalytic effect of aggression. What do we mean by that? Ethologists have found that, contrary to eating, drinking and sex, aggression seldom has a saturation condition. For example, if a hungry person eats, then his threshold of responses to a different amount of food rises, rendering him more indifferent to food.

In the case of aggression, however, it is often the opposite: after the first expression of anger, or after the first attack, the threshold of responses to the irritant factor decreases, but the tendency to attack keeps rising. The authors of some studies have revealed this behavioral phenomenon. Aggression facilitates the apparition of another assault, and this chain reaction can continue until physical exhaustion is reached [Sevenster, 1961; Geen et al, 1975; Manning, 1979].

The autocatalytic effect of aggression explains the escalation of violence in armed conflicts, but also clarifies the genesis of aggression in sport; contrary to expectations, the very act of sport practicing does not always manage to satisfy the aggressive impulses of individuals, but gives them the opportunity for a repeated manifestation.

A series of studies by psychologists have confirmed the link between sport and violence in general and stimulatory influence of sport on aggression in particular [6]; especially in men that were practicing such sports as wrestling and American football. The competitive activity does not decrease aggressiveness, but intensifies it [Patterson, 1974; Arms et al., 1979]. We can often see such cases in media; when boxers, fighters and practitioners of martial arts behave violently and assault people in situations where the use of force is not required.

I shall bring another example, from a completely different context. This is the case, which has already become famous, of the Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez who, during the 2014 World Cup (in Brazil), bit Giorgio Chiellini, an Italian defender. Afterwards, FIFA found out that Suarez had bitten at least eight times in his football career [7].What is the cause of this athlete’s extravagant behavior? One could say it is due to frustration [8]. By the way, Mike Tyson, who was involved in perhaps the most famous biting incident in sports history (he took a chomp out of Evander Holyfield’s right ear in a Las Vegas world title bout in 1997), has defended Luis Suarez. Tyson says: ”Sometimes you can just become highly frustrated” [9].

But it’s more than that. Here, just like in other athletic situations, we can see the autocatalytic effect of aggression in action. Suarez is a striker, demonstrating a bold, aggressive manner of playing soccer. During the highlights of the game, the physiological arousal that the athletes experience reaches very high levels, game frauds are seen often; goals, as an expression of the fatal strike, are accompanied by shouts, euphoric and theatrical gestures. In the case of Suarez, the arousal he gets from the game becomes uncontrollable, which is not an uncommon thing. What is uncommon is the way he breaks loose – by biting his opponents. This is also a way to release nervous tension. He can’t help himself, even if he knows that he’s going to be punished and suspended from many games important to his career.

An important role in the appetite for acts of aggression plays the sensation of pleasure, and it looks like Suarez experiences pleasure whenever he bites. From the evolutionary point of view, at the core, hunting and killing represented a survival behavior for human beings and the acts of aggression were rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction at the neurophysiological level, due to the elimination of the neurotransmitter dopamine, also called the “hormone of happiness.” The physical contact itself, fighting, were accompanied by an immediate injection into the brain of the so-called opioids – substances with analgesic effect which reduce, for a short time, the pain caused by injuries, but also generate a euphoric moment [Nell, 2006, p. 215; Couppis, 2008].

Therefore, an act of aggression generates a state of satisfaction, which, in order to be experienced repeatedly, requires new acts of aggression. This could be an explanation both for men’s passion for hunting and aggressive sports, as well as the autocatalytic effect of aggression. Ethologists have identified a similar behavioral phenomenon in animals, also called the “winner effect.” An individual who has won a skirmish increases his chances of winning the next fight. This effect is due to the fact that individuals that are already involved in physical competitions become more experienced and skilled in battle, but also receive an “injection” of dopamine into the brain, which makes them more prone towards other confrontations and other victories. Their neurochemistry literally changes: they demonstrate more dominant gestures, impose themselves in the hierarchical plan and are searching for the context of a new fight, which could offer them a “dopamine pleasure.” [Schwartzer et al., 2013]. The “winner effect,” specific to the animal world, is, in many ways, important for understanding the athletes’ appetite for competition and combat.


© Dorian Furtuna, ethologist

1. Бить, резать, убивать. «Титушки» как элемент политической борьбы на Украине // Михаил Тищенко. Лента.Ру. 27 января 2014 /
2. Titushky //
3. The Titushki Generation // by Lesia Mazanik. Sean’s Russia Blog. 1 February 2014 /
4. Aggression and level of contact within sport // by Luci Smith. The Sport in Mind. August 12, 2014 /
5. Violence and Aggression in Sport // June 4, 2008 /…
6. Violence and Aggression in Sport //…
7. Luis Suarez ‘has bitten EIGHT people on the pitch’ // by Scott Hesketh. Daily Star. 29th June 2014 /…
8. Luis Suarez needs therapy to overcome urge to bite // by Dr Saima Latif. The Telegraph. 25 Jun 2014 /…
9. Mike Tyson backs Luis Suarez over biting scandal as former heavyweight champion says: ‘It was just the heat of the moment’ // by Sean Gallagher. Daily Mail. 10 July 2014 /
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