Wabash Graduate: Basket-brawl a Chance to Educate

December 1, 2004

The Indianapolis Star editorial section of Sunday, Nov. 28, took a detailed look at the much-publicized basketball brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers. The Star editorial page editors solicited essays from four points of view: a college basketball coach, athletic director and college professor. They also sought the opinion of sports psychologist Chris Carr, a 1982 Wabash College graduate. Carr’s essay follows:

The "basket-brawl" incident that occurred in the Pacers-Pistons game on Nov. 19 has received excessive media attention and public scrutiny. As a psychologist who specializes in sport psychology and counseling issues related to athletes, to me it represents many social, behavioral and psychological issues.

The event is an opportunity to educate and create awareness about some of the unique aspects of individual and group dynamics in the sport arena.

First, the fan behavior in this incident is frightening. When I take my family to an Indiana Fever basketball game, I feel pretty secure that I won't have to shield my daughter from a drunken fan or charging player. Yet, in my role as the sport psychologist for the Kansas City Royals baseball team, I was in the clubhouse at US Cellular Field the night two fans (a father and son) came onto the field and attacked our first-base coach.

I remember the surreal feeling I had as I watched this event unfold while seated in the clubhouse, then having to process the variety of human emotions as the players came back to the clubhouse after the game. Feelings of anger, confusion, disbelief and fear of safety permeated the environment. All of this due to spectators (both later found to be under the influence of drugs) who believed they could "cross the boundary" by going onto the field of play.

The national response swiftly condemned the fans involved. Yet when verbal insults and mean-spirited words are spewed at players across the boundary, there seems to be a sense of acceptance. ("They're just being fans.")

I was appalled when watching fans throw cups of liquid on the players at the Pacers-Pistons game, but as a professional I understand this behavior. Social psychologists call it "de-individuation." This means that people often behave differently if they are in a crowd than if they are by themselves. This "mob" mentality is often dangerous and aggressive because individuals feel detached from accountability. ("I got caught up in the emotions.")

When you add intoxication to the mix, individuals feel even less connected to their own values and morals.

Without the application of specific consequences, I doubt that overall fan behavior will change, and those few will continue to disrupt enjoyment of the game for all.

And fans can change the dynamic. I remember being with the Royals at Fenway Park in Boston for a series. One fan who sat next to the visiting team dugout was vile and disrespectful of the Kansas City players. In the sixth inning, security came down and removed him from his seat. Shortly after his removal, another staunch Red Sox fan leaned in the dugout and said, "I didn't pay $200 to sit and listen to that idiot." People can make a difference.

The second issue of concern was the players' behaviors in Detroit. Elite athletes do not differ from the general population in prevalence of mental health diagnoses. Yet the world of sport often casts a wary eye on providing psychological resources for athletes. When I spent five years as psychologist for the athletic department at Ohio State University, I was one of only a few full-time psychologists who provided care for student-athletes.

In professional sports, there are nutritionists, strength/conditioning coaches and medical specialists provided for the physical needs of the athlete. Yet there are very few qualified psychologists employed to care for the psychological health of those athletes. So when an athlete acts inappropriately, everyone is shocked and dismayed.

I'm not. I know that stressors such as fan behavior often tax athletes' coping abilities. After all, they are paid very well for their athletic skills, not their coping skills. Psychological interventions can improve a person's ability to cope with adversity and develop new behaviors through the process of therapy/consultation.

But this requires motivation and psychological support. And consequences again play a significant role. If a person believes that consequences for behavior are significant, then a chance for change occurs. If consequences are seen as insignificant, behavior change is less likely.

Bottom line, an athlete can change behavior, but the motivation must be from within, not from agents, organizations or even family.

The brawl incident provides an opportunity to learn that we are all accountable for our behavior, even though the airwaves are filled with excuse makers for both fans and players. No matter what our backgrounds and rationales may be, we eventually must realize that for every action we take a consequence will occur that impacts not only ourselves, but others around us.

Carr, sports and performance psychologist for the Methodist Sports Medicine Center in Indianapolis, is sport psychologist for the Purdue University Athletic Department, the Indiana Fever and the Kansas City Royals.


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