Here We Go Again: Another Professional Athlete Arraigned

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It shouldn’t come as a surprise when sports heroes carry their aggressive behavior out of the competition arena into daily life. Society does not demand of them to have a mature conscience or character — on the contrary, we enable aggressive personalities by valuing winning above all else.

Well, it’s happened yet again! Another sportsman has been arrested and charged with a major crime, and this time, once more for murder. Aaron Hernandez, until just recently a tight end for the New England Patriots (he was released from the team shortly after his arrest), and, by all accounts, a popular and rising American football star, was arraigned on charges that he instigated and participated in the killing of an acquaintance he thought had “disrespected” him. His arraignment came on the heels of a lawsuit filed by another of his acquaintances who said that, after an argument during a raucous trip to a strip club, Hernandez shot him in the face. And investigation into Hernandez’s recent activities has brought him under a cloud of suspicion that he might also be involved in a multiple homicide that occurred two years ago. Police are now actively re-investigating that case. Unfortunately, Aaron Hernandez is just one more example of a major sports figure (e.g., Oscar Pistorius, Michael Vick, etc.) whose aggression on the field of play was widely applauded and richly rewarded, but which also went completely unchecked elsewhere. This naturally invites folks to wonder what it is about sports personalities that appears to make them so prone to uncontrolled aggressive behavior.

I have long suggested that it should really come as no surprise when one of our on-the-field “warriors” engages in a brutal act outside of the competitive arena. And I’ve written about the reasons we see so much of this kind of behavior in my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing as well as in several online articles (see, for example, “A “Sportsman’s Instinct””, “Understanding the Channeled-Aggressive Personality”, and the Series on Aggressive Personalities). Still, because of how important and persistent the issue is, it always merits another look.

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The problem is not that all sports persons are simply uncontrolled brutes capable of all sorts of unspeakable actions. This is far from the truth. There are still some individuals of remarkable integrity and character in the sports world. But competitive sports is a natural magnet for certain kinds of personalities — the kind I call “aggressive personalities,” especially one of the sub-types I call the “channeled-aggressive” personality. And for various reasons, mostly having to do with money and the unquenchable public appetite for “winning” at all costs, aggressive personalities have slowly come to outnumber the individuals of more sound character in the competitive sports world.

There’s been a lot of “cultural enabling” going on in professional sports for some time now, which is why so many channeled-aggressive and other aggressive personalities, as opposed to their assertive counterparts, find a home there. The days have long passed when owners, managers and coaches — not only leery about the damage a potentially “loose cannon” might inflict on a team and on the sport, but also concerned about the image a player might project of the team and to its fans — were careful to bring on board only those individuals they thought to be not only athletically gifted, but also of impeccable character. And the public demand for winning at all costs only makes it harder for character to be considered as an important prerequisite for playing the game. As a result, teams primarily hire those with the brute physical prowess and talent that can help lay waste to opponents, ignore their makeup, and simply hope and pray that no catastrophes occur arising out of character issues. Sadly, as a result of this lack of consideration of character, we have all gotten what we clearly have been willing to pay for.

The folks I label channeled-aggressive are very different from tough, dedicated, strong, “assertive” personality types. Assertive personalities energetically pursue their goals, to be sure. But they also have an intact and well-developed conscience. When a person has a mature conscience, their innate and unwavering regard for the welfare of others and the horror they would instinctively feel when merely tempted to behave in the manner of an undisciplined brute keep them from crossing important social boundaries or exceeding acceptable behavioral limits. It’s a very different story with aggressive personalities. They lack a mature conscience. Sometimes, they’re without conscience altogether. And while some (as in the case of the channeled-aggressive) will half-heartedly assent to confining their aggression to sanctioned activities (e.g., competitive sport, military service, big business dealings) and tempering it, they don’t have any real compunctions about crossing important behavioral lines, and will do so whenever they feel sufficiently justified or think they can get away with it. In character, they’re very close cousins to antisocial and sociopathic personalities, so they’re bound to cause trouble. And employers always incur a fair degree of risk and take on a huge liability when they hire them. For in the end, neither money, prestige, personal power, nor all the best in the way of opportunity and social support can tame and control them. That’s a job only a sound conscience and an intact, mature character can do.

How I wish I were writing a piece on how all the incidents of “arena warriors” run amok have forced the powers that be in the professional sports world to have a change of heart and mind. But alas, I don’t think the day is coming any time soon. There’s still far too much monetary and public pressure to maintain the status quo. But in time, and with enough outrageous behavior on the part of the thugs in uniforms, perhaps the time will come when we all make up our minds that character really does matter after all. And when, as a society, we finally decide to stop rewarding (and thereby “enabling” and even promoting) the character-deficient among us, perhaps we’ll get something in professional sports that we haven’t seen for a long time: heroes we can all look up to and our children can rightfully aspire to be like.

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