Chris Uggen's Blog: physical size, violence, and culpability

Monday, September 12, 2005

physical size, violence, and culpability

The minneapolis strib and ap reported this weekend that Kevin Williams, the minnesota vikings all-pro defensive lineman, is charged with fifth-degree domestic assault. Domestic violence is horrible, whether it involves enormous athletes or anyone else, but we're especially outraged when a 6'5" 304 pound football player ends up in a physical altercation with a 5'7" woman. According to police reports, Tasha Williams had blood on her shirt and lacerations on her forearm when officers arrived. Her husband told police she had grabbed a knife -- of course she did, and I probably would too when facing someone twice my size (not that it would do me much good).

Does a large person have an even greater responsibility to avoid violence than a small person? Does an athlete have a greater responsibility than a non-athlete? I think so. As the parent of a son who approaches Williams' size, I've always taken the position that he should be held to a higher standard. Well, I'm not actually that noble. I've told him that he will be held to a higher standard. There are both humanitarian reasons for him to avoid violence -- he could really hurt somebody -- and labeling effects that will make violence an especially poor choice for him. I've always wanted to study the relationship between physical size and punishment severity -- my working hypothesis is that big kids tend to be waived into adult court and they tend to get tougher, more secure placements, all else equal. I can also hypothesize some race*size interactions and gender*size interactions that might be interesting to test.

Any aggressive move made by a burly 6'4" man (or mannish boy) looks and feels a lot different than someone 5'10" making the same move. Simply standing up quickly attracts a lot of attention in the former case but few would notice in the latter. Child A (lg.) once lamented that child B (sm.) never gets into trouble for her own violent behavior "because she's supposedly harmless," and I guess A has a point. But it is different -- a bigger person can generally do a lot more damage. So, in any serious fight, he'll be the first attacked and likely the first arrested. That said, I've been stoked about him playing football because it gives him a safe place to cut loose and (finally!) throw his body around with abandon. I always loved going full-tilt in contact sports, and I was really a pretty awful football player. Still, I liked the idea of testing physical limits and think I learned something from the experience, especially as an adolescent. Reading about football players and domestic violence obviously tempers this excitement, even if such violence turns out to be less common among athletes than non-athletes (frankly, I don't know the literature on this question, but I suspect that a number of good statistical controls would be needed to make a valid comparison).

I guess the danger is spillover -- if football somehow supports a culture of off-field macho/violent behavior then the risks outweigh the benefits. Plus, I'd wager that sociology professors tend to be some of the least physically aggressive people on the planet, so it seems especially deviant to celebrate violence in any form -- no matter how contained or institutionalized. Whenever I read something like the Williams story I want to start yelling at my son ("DON'T YOU EVER...), but he didn't do anything wrong. It is almost an involuntary reaction -- I see the story and start sputtering, until I'm quickly dispatched with a snarky comment (e.g., "yeah, dad, that's exactly what I was planning to do today before you read me that article"). So, I'll try to explain this one to him when I can be cooler about it. He's heard it all a hundred times before and he has a nice arsenal of conflict resolution skills -- he says things like "I'm too mad to talk to you right now, so I'm going to come back when I'm calmed down" (heaven knows, he didn't get that from me). Still, I just can't ignore something like the Kevin Williams story -- especially when Williams is playing the same position and when others seem all-too-eager to look the other way on what they'd euphemistically call "off-field problems."

Maybe there's a way to put a positive spin on it. Alan Page (#88 above) was a defensive tackle too. He was one of the most dominating and aggressive football players in history -- the first defensive MVP in national football league history. Now he's the first African American Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court (and, of course, a fine distance runner). I suspect that Justice Page didn't simply morph from being a fierce and aggressive young man into a thoughtful and reflective middle-aged jurist, but that he carried both capacities within himself throughout both careers. Perhaps he just knew where to draw the lines.

20 Comments:

At 10:52 PM, Blogger Penn State Punk said...

While I can’t be nearly as clear as you, there is more to the issue than size. There is something about the power associated with real success in athletics.... at whatever level that success occurs. The power and sense of entitlement that often accompanies elite athletic success (in some sports) is hard to quantify in any way that makes sense. That Kevin Williams should have reacted differently is clear, and while its hard to know the specifics of any encounter, however I think he would have responded the same way if a 300 person was waving a knife at him…. He would have gone after them.

One could argue its not about size, I knew a ton of hockey players and wrestlers that went after folks much bigger than them. To some extent, its about how people are conditioned to respond to real or perceived challenges and threats that they face. For many top athletes, its hard for them to fathom that are ACTUALLY being challenged, outside of the athletic field, it almost never happens in their lives, they just don’t know how to respond rationally. Moreover, we often DON’T do things because of the consequences of our actions. Yet many elite, or even good, athletes get passes on minor and major social and legal infractions…… and they have since the moment they were identified as “good or elite”…. for people like Kevin Williams, he has been treated as special almost his entire life. In many cases teachers, friends, coaches and partners look the other way……. they are simply used to acting how they want or feel, with fewer if repercussions attached to their poor behavior.

Look at Warren Moon, seemed to be good guy, said and did all the right things, but somewhere in the back of his head, the idea that he could just whack his wife during an argument seemed OK with him. And if I remember correctly, just like William’s wife, his wife didn’t want to press charges, and his agent and organization protected him with a huge PR campaign.

Funnier one…. Some one asked Shaq how he liked LSU…. he said “I don’t know, I never went, but they passed me anyway.” (I paraphrased). Now, Shaq seems to be a righteous dude (On the other hand, how would we really know if Shaq was righteous or a skunk, the NBA and Nike pump millions into protecting and promoting his image …..for instance, years later its pretty well known that PR handlers covered up much about Jordan’s gambling and womanizing while he was in the league). It might be about size, but its also about the way society treats these elite athletes.

 
At 11:21 PM, Anonymous chris said...

hey punk, privilege seems to be the issue here, right? i get your point -- i would have been *almost* as upset if the accused had been a 5'10" 180 lb millionaire cornerback. it fascinates me how some people make such productive use of their privilege (alan page, or post-presidency jimmy carter) and others just squander it self-indulgently. i guess more generally it comes down to the uses and abuses of "power," physical and otherwise.

 
At 11:14 AM, Blogger Brayden said...

The NFL is fascinating to me because of the way that it regulates and contains violence. People often associate American football with unrestrained aggression, but that's not very descriptive of the way that football is actually played. The entire organization of football is designed to channel violence in certain ways. There are rules about everything - including the kinds of violence that players use and the kinds of players that can use them. I suppose the NFL or other football leagues have to regulate violence so discriminately because without rules you would have serious problems on and off the field.

I agree with you that the mere size and athleticism of football players makes their violent crimes more serious than those perpretrated by their smaller and less athletic peers, but I'm not sure that football players are more violent off the field than the average person of their demographic status. Perhaps football trains indiscriminate violence out of most of them, although the exceptions stick out more because of their status and size. Have there been any studies done on this? Do we know that football players are more likely to beat their wives than non-players?

 
At 7:10 PM, Anonymous chris said...

brayden, i agree. even in gangs, "wanton" rather than purposeful violence tends to be negatively sanctioned. on football, i don't think there is a definitive study on the "more or less violent than others similarly situated" issue. for me, the problem is that it is difficult to isolate the treatment effect of football. athletes may self-select into sports on the basis of violence, they may have more violent opportunities (people hassle charles barkley more than they hassle me in bars), and arrest records are skewed by privilege. i could see capitalizing on a natural experiment in which a sport is discontinued or started in a high school, or setting up a difference in differences design, but it would be tricky.

my guess is that the effects are contingent on local or organizational culture and perhaps on the type of violence. some environments promote violence or other law violation (we can all name particular football programs) whereas others have a reputation for comparatively clean livin' -- and, of course, athletes self-select into these programs. one concern is that attitudes promoting or tolerating violence against women (or, more broadly, objectification of women) could be fostered in some all-male environments (gangs, fraternities, locker rooms). if escort services are retained as part of recruiting efforts, as has been alleged at one university, then i'd guess that the players would be more likely to treat women as property or sexual objects rather than human beings.

 
At 9:13 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

Ummm, just to break up the "guy factor" here...couldn't it also be that this guy is just a real big jerk? Don't mean to oversimplify...

 
At 10:19 AM, Anonymous chris said...

sarah, the simplest, most parsimonious explanation is usually best. most garden variety jerks don't get paid to hit people, but it may be a stretch to attribute too much to occupation or occupational subculture...

 
At 11:28 AM, Anonymous sarah said...

Could be. Would it be a stretch to say that the question afforded the three of you an intellectually veiled opportunity to talk about sports? =). Too bad the Vikings diplayed the SOS on Sunday. I can't decide if Vikings fanhood is more about affection or affliction...

 
At 7:40 PM, Blogger michelle inderbitzin said...

A couple of quick points:

I definitely think there is an entitlement issue coming into play with some professional athletes, but I also think it can work the other way. For some of these enormous guys, they are so publicly on stage all the time, they are and must be hyper-aware of how they are acting and how they may be perceived.

In my undergrad days, I tutored a lot of guys on the university football team that won the national championship that year.
These were young men playing their sport at the highest possible level on a very big stage, but they were still just guys trying to balance classes, families, and social lives with their responsibilities to the team.

Labeling theorist that I tend to be, I think there's plenty of domestic violence we never hear about, so the question for me is should professional/college athletes or physically large human beings be held to a higher standard than the rest of us? I'm not sure I think so. They can do some damage, but in my work with violent offenders it became really clear that guns--so readily available these days--are a powerful equalizer, and if we are going to aim for a higher standard, we should hold everyone to it.

 
At 8:01 PM, Anonymous chris said...

fair enough, doc jones. does a labeling perspective give any traction on how football stardom affects self-concept and (perhaps) secondary deviance? i guess, as brayden said, the violence is so regulated that most athletes can probably compartmentalize it well. i'd agree we should be judged by our actions rather than (mostly) ascribed characteristics such as size. the only exception, i think would be related to threats -- a big unarmed person threatening harm might legitimately constitute a greater threat.

sarah, you're probably right. i'm just trying to work through this strange attraction/repulsion thing i have with football. for baseball, however, my love is unconditional...

 
At 8:20 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

I can relate to your attraction/repulsion thing, only with regard to collegiate wrestling of which I became a fan during my nine-year exile in Iowa. It was quite against my "better" judgement, yet the phenomenal winning record and the legend of Dan Gable (who was still head coach when I was a student)was too much to resist. I've since thought of wrestling (traditional, not WWF or whatever it is nowadays) as the essence of sport - one on one, the strongest and the "smartest" (in terms of strategy, not necessarily IQ) win. I'm still not sure I feel comfortable with this attraction, but you don't want to sit next to me at a meet or you might go deaf or get an elbow in the jaw as I leap to inform the ref of his mistaken judgement.

I have a great appreciation for baseball as well, largely due to the influence of my spouse (a die-hard Cubs fan, although there really isn't any other kind of Cubs fan). But I like baseball in a more phiolosophical and introspective way than football or wrestling, both of which appeal to the brute within...

P.S. Whose idea was it to cancel the grad criminology class for next semester??????

 
At 8:36 PM, Anonymous chris said...

you have no idea how much i smiled reading your wrestling message, sarah. especially the bit about "the smartest (not necessarily IQ)"

:) seriously, wrestling is one of my favorites too...

 
At 5:01 AM, Anonymous valerio said...

i would just like to get back to brayden in regard to his comment about that "entire organization of football is designed to channel violence in certain ways". this seems to be one of the key issues here. in his "body & soul" (oxford, 2004), wacquant discusses this point, and puts a great emphasis on it. he is talking about boxing, though, but i think it can be used when discussing other sports as well, especially violent ones. anyhow, he makes his point about channeling violence by making references to sparring (maybe there is something similar in football training?).

Here are some quotes from wacquant:
"sparring warrants a close analysis because it demonstrates the highly codified nature of pugilistic violence. Moreover, being situated midway between "shadowboxing" and the actual fighting of a competitive bout, sparring allows us to discern more clearly, as if through a magnifying glass, the subtle and apparently contradictory mix of instinct and rationality, emotion and calculation, individual abandon and group control that gives the
work of fabrication of the pugilist its distinctive touch and stamps all training exercises, down to the most banal." (pg 80) And " what has every chance of looking like a spree of gratuitous and unchecked brutality in the eyes of a neophyte is in fact a regular and finely codified tapestry of exchanges that, though they are violent, are nonetheless constantly controlled, and whose weaving together supposes a practical and continual ollaboration between the two opponents in the construction and maintenance of a dynamic conflictual equilibrium." (pp 85-86)

so, my guess would be that football players have a more nuanced and stronger sense of responsibility and caution when it comes to use of violence, and thus are less likely to practice it "outside of the ring", although they have all the necessary prerequisites (size, skills, strength, and, well, the "sense of entitlement").

 
At 7:55 AM, Anonymous chris said...

right, valerio, boxing is really the ideal type here. i noticed that scott ledoux, minnesota's favorite (rocky-like) heavyweight fighter, is having a $100 admission "sparring match" as sort of a retirement party. from my very limited experience, however, even sparring is scary when there is a big size or (esp.) skill differential between boxers. the superior fighter can completely dominate and control the inferior one, and seems to do so coolly and "technically," showing none of the affect (or at least different affect than) one might see in a fight. but you're right -- if it was all about transferring the sport into one's personal life, then we'd expect boxers to be the most violent outside the ring. i'm betting that this isn't the case and that kids generally move from being (uncontrolled) streetfighters into controlled boxers once they start going to the gym every day. at least this is the promise or myth of using boxing as an anti-delinquency program. over time, the goal is to turn street toughs into powerful but controlled boxers.

 
At 10:18 AM, Anonymous valerio said...

chris, i'm adding one more wacquant's quote related to what you wrote about skill and size differences among sparring partners:

"The principle of reciprocity that tacitly governs the level of violence in the ring dictates that the stronger boxer not profit from his superiority, but also that the weaker fighter not take undue advantage of his partner's willful restraint…(pg 84)"

i don't know, i never did boxing, nor do i have friends who are doing it, but it seems to me that there is a strict logic behind it, one that manifests itself especially in sparring bouts. and this, in a way, can tell a great deal about the way athletes (in this case boxers) relate to violence.

 
At 2:32 PM, Anonymous chris said...

nice quote, valerio. my sparring experience was very limited, but i remember feeling completely "undressed" in a st. paul ring by a smaller guy who really knew what he was doing. i felt a little like a cat toy getting batted around. no permanent damage (at least none that i know of) but it cured me of ever wanting to become a boxer.

 
At 4:47 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

I think you made a good choice, Chris. Your brains are put to less damaging "scrambling" in academia than in the ring.

 
At 5:21 PM, Anonymous chris said...

honestly, sarah, there was little choice involved. i was somehow "referred to boxing" on the west side as a youth (did the nbhd house ever have a ring? maybe it was an east side gym). do any social workers or agencies still advise boxing for wayward youth, or is it all climbing and ropes courses now? i came away from the experience suitably chastened and humbled (and terrified of tiny men in shiny shorts).

 
At 9:06 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

Chris, you're hilarious. Speaking of frightening clothing, those pants in your next post? Wow.

I had a couple of kids I worked with through HIRED who talked about boxing at a St. Paul gym, but I don't know which. I think the general athletic diversion of choice for JDs is basketball, although kids leaving the Hennepin County Home School get memberships at the YMCA. Oh, and they get a library card, too. I've had a few good chuckles over that one. One kid also talked of an alternative school in Colorado involving a lot of outdoor adventure - rapelling, ropes, hikes. He was excited about the prospect of not hearing gunshots all the time while on his forthcoming wilderness trek. I did warn him of other hazards not commonly encountered in the inner city, such as bears. He was not in the least bit concerned.

I was in your neck of the U this morning at the social welfare history archives in Andersen looking at some settlement house records for the East Harlem delinquency project. A flier from circa 1944 advertised such diversions for youth as pottery class along with canning classes for wayward homemakers...

 
At 4:59 PM, Blogger michelle inderbitzin said...

Hey Chris,

Did you see the article in the NY Times about Jets' receiver Laveranues Coles? Here's the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/18/sports/football/18coles.html?hp

Years after the fact, he is telling his story about being molested as a boy.

It made me think about this discussion and whether it is particularly difficult for "tough" successful athletes to admit their own victimization. There's much more than that going on, obviously, but I do wonder whether top athletes in a very macho sport feel threats to their masculinity more acutely than non-athletes.

 
At 6:30 PM, Anonymous chris said...

wow, drjones, i hadn't seen that. i know that locker rooms are changing, but it is really encouraging to see somebody speak frankly about their abuse history in such a hypermasculine environment.

my favorite part, though, is pennington's line:
"He's a blue-collar guy like myself." Pennington got an $18 million signing bonus in 2004 and Coles received a $13 million bonus in 2003. i want to get me some of that blue-collar money :)

 

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