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Home arrow Sociology arrow Crime, Deviance and Doping: Fallen Sports Stars, Autobiography and the Management of Stigma


Crime, deviance and sport

Criminology and allied disciplines are no strangers when it comes to sport, even if its study remains a rather marginal and somewhat neglected area. Reviewing the existing research and writings on the topic indicates that it covers three broad areas, although as we shall see, ‘doping’ (the use of illicit performance-enhancing drugs) is perhaps the least well studied.

The first connection between crime and sport explored by researchers is a negative one - meaning that they have been interested in identifying if, how and why participation in sport serves to direct people away from criminal and deviant behaviour. The focus of such work has fallen upon young people, in particular those from marginalised social and cultural backgrounds, who are usually held to be at greatest risk of involvement in criminal behaviour - they are certainly over-represented amongst convicted offenders (Muncie, 2009: 24-6). ‘Risk factors’ typically associated with crime and delinquency include low income, unemployment, poor housing, deprived inner-city neighbourhoods, poor educational attainment, and family conflict - the very circumstances deemed to be more commonplace amongst ‘lower’ social classes and minority ethnic groups (Farrington and West, 1990). It is against this background that researchers seek to evaluate the impact of sports participation as a positive influence that not only decreases likelihood of involvement in crime and delinquency, but also promotes desistance from crime amongst those who have already become involved in such behaviour (Cameron and MacDougall, 2000; Crabbe, 2000).

If such a relationship exists (as researchers claim) then how and why it occurs can be understood from a number of different theoretical perspectives. Social control theory, for example, considers those factors that cement individuals’ commitment to law- and rule-following behaviour. Key amongst these is the commitment to, and investment of time and energy in, ‘conventional activities’, including organised leisure pursuits such as sports. For example, Schaffer (1969) claims that participation in competitive school sports helps reduce delinquency. Similarly, Landers and Landers (1978) argue that participation in competitive sports serves to bolster investment in conventional social values by imparting a belief in fair play, cooperation, persistence, and rule-following.

Differential association may also be used to explain the relationship between sport and minimising delinquency. In essence a social learning theory, differential association centres upon the importance of individuals’ peer associations, especially during the formative years of childhood and adolescence, for establishing subsequent patterns of thought and behaviour (Sutherland et al., 1995). It is by association with delinquent others that people come to invest themselves in similar conduct, and conversely intensive association with non-delinquent peers engaged in socially approved activities (such as sport) can exert a ‘pro-social’ influence (Zamanian et al., 2012). Also from a subcultural perspective, it can be suggested that participation in competitive sport can afford marginalised young people opportunities to gain recognition, status and self-esteem, counteracting the kinds of ‘status frustration’ that comes from being otherwise excluded from mainstream notions of success such as scholastic achievement (Becker, 2008). The notion that sport can provide an alternative pathway to advancement for the socially excluded certainly configures the popular imagination. Steve James’ awardwinning documentary Hoop Dreams (1994) provides eloquent testimony to this belief, exploring the struggles of two poor, African American boys seeking to transcend their social marginality through the ‘dream’ of ‘making it’ as professional basketball players. Whether or not sport can make a significant impact upon crime and delinquency is an open and contested question (Chamberlain, 2013), and it continues to be a key focus for criminology’s engagement with sport.

A second dimension of criminology’s interest in sport addresses the links between sporting cultures (and subcultures) and predisposition towards criminal and anti-social behaviour. This work is particularly attuned to the risks associated with ‘hyper-masculine’ cultural codes that stress aggression and violence as markers of success and sources of identity and belonging. It has been suggested that the valorisation of aggression in competitive sports spills over into ‘off the field’ behaviour, predisposing male athletes to sexual aggression and violence against women (Forbes et al., 2006). This may be bolstered by a sense of superiority and entitlement conferred by the broader cultural esteem accorded to sports stars, particularly in the case of professional athletes (Welch, 1997). There is certainly no shortage of sports stars who have been identified with crimes against women - examples include golfer John Daly (charged with assaulting his wife), boxer Mike Tyson (convicted of rape), and former NFL running back O.J. Simpson (charged with the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman). Other sportsmen have been charged and convicted for a bewildering range of additional offences - interstate dog-fighting (NFL star Michael Vick), armed robbery and kidnapping (O.J. Simpson again), counterfeiting (soccer player Mickey Thomas), indecent assault and unlawful sex with a minor (soccer player-turned-coach Graham Rix), kidnapping and human trafficking (figure skater Wolfgang Schwarz), to name but a few. Whether or not professional sportsmen are in fact more likely than other men to engage in violent or sexual offences remains subject to debate - contradictory evidence is offered by various research studies (Smith and Stewart, 2003);

nevertheless, the question remains of ongoing interest for researchers and writers. This connection between sporting cultures, masculinity and violence has also been explored in relation to sports fans. In their study of fan behaviour at US collegiate football games, Rees and Schnepel (2008: 1) found that ‘the host community registers sharp increases in assaults, vandalism, arrests for disorderly conduct, and arrests for alcohol-related offenses on game days' However, Roberts and Benjamin (2000) note the consensus view amongst researchers that crime and disorder involving fans is generally less frequent in North America than in Europe, where ‘football hooliganism’ has been considered a notable and persistent problem. Explanations for the ‘hooliganism problem’ vary widely, but often converge on a combination of social class, gender and racial factors - for example, the assertion of white working-class masculinity in the face of increasing social marginalisation, which find an outlet in expressive violence and the staging of collective, ritualised combat (Dunning et al., 1988; Ward, 2002: 457-8). The incursion of racist and ultra-nationalist sentiment into football-related violence has certainly been a consistent feature of the game in England and other continental European countries over recent decades (Giulianotti et al., 1994; Garland and Treadwell, 2010).

The third dimension of criminology’s engagement with sport has taken shape through a growing interest in professional sports as a site for various forms of financial crime, fraud and related misconduct. For example, Hill (2009a, 2009b) explores the dynamics involved in the organisation of ‘match fixing’ by football officials, and how this is inter-connected with illicit large-scale gambling. Maennig (2005: 189) charts various other forms of corruption apparent in professional sports, including the manipulation of decisions about host venues for large events, the allocation of TV coverage and other commercial rights, awarding of contracts for venue construction, and the awarding of positions within sporting bodies. The issue of doping (use of illicit and banned performance-enhancing drugs - PEDs for short) can see seen as a related issue. Doping in professional sport has been explored from a number of perspectives. Scholarly discussion centres variously upon the extent of such drug use (Baron et al., 2007; Sjoqvist et al., 2008); the efficacy of drug-testing regimes established by authorities such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) (Hanstad et al., 2008; Kayser and Smith, 2008); legal questions related to evidence of doping offences and responsibility for tackling them (Nafziger, 2005; Showalter, 2007);

and the ethics of both doping and of the regulatory regimes established to counter it (Hanstad and Loland, 2009; Kirkwood, 2012).

In a more socio-cultural vein, a number of scholars have examined mass media representations and press coverage of doping scandals, spanning sports including skiing (Laine, 2006), cycling (Schneider, 2006), the Olympic Games (Barnard et al., 2006; Kennett and Ward, 2010), and individual sports stars such as Ben Johnson (Jackson, 2004), Carl Lewis (Denham, 2004), and Marion Jones (Mean, 2013). These studies have shown how media and popular discussions of doping reflect wider sentiments about national pride and identity, ethnicity, and gender. Media discourses of doping have also inevitably been subject to analysis through the time-honoured sociological lens of ‘moral panic’ theory. Such accounts suggest that the problem has been exaggerated and sensationalised, with anti-doping moral entrepreneurs playing a key role in defining the issue according to their own particular interests (Christiansen, 2007; Goode, 2011).

A small number of studies have used ethnographic methods to explore attitudes towards PED use amongst both amateur and professional sportspeople. For example, Klein (1986, 1993) examined the competitive subculture of bodybuilding in Southern California, illuminating how participants normalised steroid use as part of their training regimes. Wilson et al. (2004) interviewed track and field athletes about doping, tracing their ‘ethical inconsistencies and ambiguities’ in relation to the use of PEDs. Lentillon-Kaestner and Carstairs (2009) interviewed a number of ‘young elite cyclists’ to elicit their views about the acceptability of doping amongst amateur and professional riders. Closest in spirit and approach to the present work is criminologist Ophir Sefiha’s (2012) research on elite pro cyclists. Through participant observation and interviews he examines accounts of doping offered by the athletes, and analyses them through the lens of Sykes and Matza’s (1957) concept of ‘techniques of neutralisation’. Such techniques are, he demonstrates, routinely ‘employed to excuse and justify PED consumption’. My analysis seeks to develop and build upon the work of Sefiha and others, with a few crucial differences of approach and focus. First, the research discussed above is drawn from interviews, rather than focusing upon autobiographical narratives. This difference is significant. Research interviews are typically private disclosures offered under conditions and expectations of anonymity; this is especially true where participants are asked to disclose involvement in criminal activity or to discuss otherwise socially sensitive experiences (Israel, 2004). In contrast, autobiographies are publicly available texts intended to reach a wide audience, and clearly identify the person or persons involved. As such, autobiographical accounts are quintessentially forms of public performance, amounting to the mass-mediated staging of self and identity for the consumption of readers. Second, the athletes I focus upon are not only professionals, but notable sporting stars, who have enjoyed a high level of public visibility, status, esteem as well as the material rewards that come with success in the international sporting arena. As we shall see in the next section, these individuals’ standing as sporting celebrities plays a pivotal role in how they and their actions are constructed, perceived and understood by others, and how they represent themselves in the face of scandal and disgrace. Third, in light of the intense public ‘naming and shaming’ they experience as ‘dopers’, Goffmans (1968) concepts of stigma and ‘spoiled identity’ occupy a central place in my analysis - facing, handling, resisting and transcending the stigma that comes with public shaming becomes a driving force in the narratives offered by fallen sports stars.

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