Sport’s other language

Genuine or fake? Sreesanth’s display of aggression after dismissing Andrew Symonds (right) seems to irk the Australian during the recent one-day international match in Kochi.-AP Genuine or fake? Sreesanth’s display of aggression after dismissing Andrew Symonds (right) seems to irk the Australian during the recent one-day international match in Kochi.

Three key points of aggression in sport are: is it instinctive or conditioned? How closely related are instances of on-field aggression and crowd violence? And at what rate is aggression fed back into the system, with kids mimicking their heroes? These questions need to be addressed. They concern sport’s premise, they shape its future, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

An absorbing debate has been unfolding over the past few weeks — a debate that contests the authenticity of the aggression seen in the India-Australia one-day cricket series. Thanks to the time difference between the countries and the media’s need for daily itemised news, the debate has progressed in contrived drips. The Australians, in the voices of Ricky Ponting, Stuart MacGill and Glenn McGrath, contended that the Indians, in trying to “fight fire with fire”, were playing a game that didn’t come naturally to them. Robin Uthappa responded by saying India’s aggression wasn’t fake. Unsaid by Uthappa, but piped in by television anchors, was the idea that India’s young cricketers were representative of a New India: fearless, vibrant, unshackled.

While the debate — and its mediation — isn’t without holes (the theory of a New India, for instance, has aired since Sourav Ganguly’s time as the prickly rebel), it has been surprisingly multi-layered. It has touched on three key points, even if only in allusion. Namely: Is aggression in sport instinctive or conditioned? How closely related are instances of on-field aggression and crowd violence? And, deriving from both questions, at what rate is aggression fed back into the system, with kids mimicking their heroes?

Administrators everywhere must address these questions. They concern sport’s premise, they shape its future. As an institution of cultural life and a money-earning spectacle, sport needs to engage with these questions. Yet, there have been few definitive studies.

Michael Smith of Toronto’s York University wrote ‘Violence in Sport’ in 1988; more than 12 years later, a colleague, Greg Malszecki, bemoaned the fact that sport still wasn’t seen as a serious area of research. Where breakthroughs have been achieved — the establishment of the relationship between team identification and fan violence, for one — administrators have been loath to act.

Some of the trouble lies in definition. Aggression is a lot of things: a healthy self-expressive drive; behaviour that leads to assertion; violent, hostile attack. Worse, there’s overlap. Also, the definitions don’t translate across disciplines, particularly in contact and non-contact sports. Boxing and tennis, to take a pair at random, condone different acts of aggression; even within boxing, a shuddering uppercut is looked at differently from, say, a nibble on the ear. When accused of breaching the acceptable, what we often see is one party claiming the moral high ground by one definition, even as the other counters with another version.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in trying to establish if aggression is instinctive or learnt. Allied to it is the divergence between two schools of thought, one saying sport fans aggression, the other arguing it works as a release valve. But, we shall come to it by and by.

First, the matter of aggression’s roots. There’s a view that it’s a “legacy of our primitive past”, but the origins aren’t entirely clear. It’s safe, however, to say that both predisposition and conditioning contribute. Even the most naturally aggressive person — the raw dog of the US college sport circuit — has been conditioned by the time he or she is spotted. It’s impossible to separate the genetic advantage, so to speak, from the abrasion of the environment in which a person grows up. How much of Ayrton Senna’s drive, for instance, was natural and how much wrought from a privileged childhood in Sao Paulo?

Then there’s positive reinforcement: sports rewards aggression with the generosity of a Sultan on silk cushions. Whether “naturally” aggressive people are attracted to sport or whether aggression is acquired along the quest of success, few, if any, of sport’s success stories preclude aggression in its most elemental definition. The garb may differ. Anil Kumble, for some reason, is seen as meek. An interesting thing happened at the end of the Oval Test earlier this year: Rahul Dravid, another whose physical restraint is misread, was asked if he was surprised the gentle Kumble tangled with Kevin Pietersen. Ever the canny user of stereotypes in press conferences, Dravid began to agree before checking himself and saying Kumble was one of the most aggressive cricketers he knew.

Evident in the incident was the power of perception. Little wonder that the perception of sport as a “cathartic alternative for war”, as former Olympics official Avery Brundage put it, is more powerful than its reality. Built into the perception is the idea that sport contracts its practitioners within a different set of rules from society; here, aggression is allowed, but it’s controlled, it’s for the greater good. Almost subversively, the perception drew from sport’s origins in the Greeks’ and the Romans’ ritualised training for war.

Most insidious of all was the co-opting of language: the language of war became the language of sport. Evidence may be had from sport’s metaphors: the most evocative of them — and the most hackneyed — mine war and conflict. Sample this from the perceptive writer Gideon Haigh on the Australian cricket team: “You remember when you were a kid, and looked up, and wanted to join, the toughest gang in town? This is the toughest gang in international cricket. It’s got its own codes and creeds and customs, and it speaks with one language.” With the appropriation of language, the sanitisation of aggression in sport was complete.