Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Spring, 1998

News from a Social Psychology Perspective

Aggression in Sports: The Case of
Latrell Sprewell

Analysis by
Jonathan Batt, Nathan Brown,
Michael Perry & Merritt Posten

    In early December 1997, professional basketball player Latrell Sprewell of the Golden State Warriors physically assaulted and threatened to kill his coach, P.J. Carlesimo. As a result, the Warriors voided his multi-million dollar contract; then, the NBA suspended him for an entire year, the harshest non-drug-related penalty ever dealt. Sprewell's hope for a lessening of the penalty came to fruition this month when an arbitrator ruled that his contract had to be reinstated and the suspension reduced. CNN/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has provided commentary on the sequence of events; there are some interesting links on this page you might want to check out. Sprewell gives his side of the story on an ESPN sponsored websight, where one can listen to a RealAudio statement of Sprewell's testimony. In order to see some fans' reactions to the event, a transcript of a talk show is an insightful link to be explored. Among the numerous social psychological concepts that can be seen in this event, aggression, attribution in people's perceptions of the event, and the differences in the norms or standards that apply to celebrities versus those that apply to ordinary people will be probed in the following analysis.

    One interesting social psychological factor included in the news analysis of Latrell Sprewell is that of social norms and standards. Moreover, it is the idea that sports is an area of life in which it is permissible to suspend usual moral standards (Miedzian, 1991). Social norms and standards deal with what our society determines is normal and acceptable. What is normal and expectable in our society is determined by the situation. For instance, in this particular plight, Sprewell -- a NBA player and a very wealthy individual -- was not criminally prosecuted for assaulting his coach. However if the situation was reversed, and an individual was choking, attacking and threatening to kill his boss at work, he/she would surely be prosecuted in a criminal court of law. In class discussion, the majority of participants agreed that there is a double standard for people with money and status. It was also agreed that individuals who posses large amounts of money or status, consider themselves above the law and frequently do get away with committing a crime.

    Another fascinating social psychological concept raised in the Latrell Sprewell case is attribution. A fundamental tool used in accessing attribution is the Lewinian equation {B=S+D} which affirms that a persons behavior {B} is believed to be a joint function of the situation {S} the person was in, and the person's particular predisposition's {D} to act. Notwithstanding, the simplicity of the equation can be misleading, as a plethora of errors can occur throughout the cognitive process. When one juxtaposes the negative stance that the NBA's administration took with some of the NBA player's attitudes -- some of whom called for a boycott of the NBA's all-star game in support of Sprewell -- it is apparent that people's perceptions and attributions of Sprewell differ.

    Gilbert (1995) suggested that misunderstanding the situation was a principal impetus in derailing attributional analysis, as while "situations are often invisible, behavior can be seen, heard, touched...." While no one condones Sprewell's actions, Sprewell himself later apologized for the incident, the abusive situation he was in can not be ignored. Indeed, if people recognize the presence of a situation, they often underestimate the capability of that situation to affect behavior, as their psychological construal generally will not include all of the intricate details (Ross & Nisbett, 1991; see also Gilovich, 1987). Although the overall class consensus was that Sprewell was fortunate not to be in jail, individual class members, who had experienced abusive coaches, were more sympathetic to Sprewell, and placed some of the blame for his actions onto P.J. Carlesimo. Additionally class discussion stated that as a consequence of his actions, the name Latrell Sprewell will forever be associated with ignominy.

    A stigma is defined by Webster's dictionary as, "a brand made by a red hot iron; any mark of infamy." This definition is accurate and very useful when the term stigma is used in a social psychological setting. It also gives great imagery to the lifelong impact that an incident or way of life can have on a person. A stigma can be formed immediately by a 'red-hot' or 'burning' image or incident that then forms the public's opinion of that person. Media and public opinion can cast an image of someone that can become very hard to disassociate from the person.

    Nevertheless, there are degrees of stigmatization, and how closely the person is linked can greatly effect the degree to which they are set apart. Link and Struening (1997) discuss degrees of stigmatization this way, "Stigma is therefore a matter of degree, as a mark or label in the extent to which that it a person apart the person can be strongly or weakly linked to a variety of undesirable characteristics." When the class was given the names of Madonna, Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson, a variety of responses and characteristics linked to each one of them was volunteered. Apparently the stigma varies from how each individual is seen in relation to how society sees them as a whole. Also discussed was the difference between a stigma and a stereotype, and how the two concepts differ. A stereotype is a categorization or a group of people as a whole, whereas a stigma is on an individual level. For example, a stereotype could be of NBA players in general, while within the NBA group, certain players have stigmas, such as Dennis Rodman, and now Latrell Sprewell.

    In Latrell Sprewell's case, the fact that he stormed off the court then actually came back two specific times to choke his coach, branded him with a negative stigma. He has the possibility of always being known as 'the guy who choked his coach' or as 'the guy who the NBA came down hard on.' The branding or the stigma that this affair has caused Sprewell has resulted in a multitude of negative repercussions, whereas the multiple gold medallist Michael Johnson's stigma fashioned him into Nike's new poster boy. Not a single sponsor has rushed after Sprewell, and it is doubtful that any will in the future because of what his name is now associated with; the impact that a stigma has can last a lifetime. There are many more aspects of stigmatization, and new RESEARCH is shedding more light on this multi-leveled issue.

    Aggression has several prominent, and some not-so-obvious connections to the controversy that Sprewell has caused. Baron and Richardson (1994) defined aggression as "any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment." According to this definition, not only was Sprewell aggressive in assaulting Carlesimo, but Carlesimo was acting aggressively by yelling at Sprewell, as were the NBA and the Warriors' management by punishing him. However, the physical nature of Sprewell's behavior is why his aggression has been dealt with more seriously. Green (1995) makes a distinction between affective aggression that is characterized by negative emotion, and instrumental aggression where the perpetrator is unconcerned with any feelings toward the victim. Sprewell's aggression would certainly be affective, as it was accompanied by a great deal of negative emotion. The NBA and the Golden State Warriors' punishment was instrumental, forasmuch as their motivation was to harshly penalize his behavior, and hope to deter other athletes from assaulting their coaches. Carlesimo's verbal abuse can be seen as either type of aggression, or more likely, a combination of both. He was attempting to improve Sprewell's game, yet he was probably angered that Sprewell was not putting forth an effort P.J. deemed worthwhile.

    It appears that professional sports are becoming increasingly more violent, especially basketball, with the actions of such players as Dennis Rodman and Latrell Sprewell. Social psychologists have discerned a number of influences that may be involved. One of the factors discussed in class was the development of schemata or scripts for situations. It was remarked that sports players have scripts for resolving problems with physical action, thus when problems arise, they immediately seek to act, aggressively if necessary. Another influence mentioned was the violence inherent in our society, and the media. There are a number of models of aggression and the processes that lead to aggression, each considering different factors in contrasting ways. As an example, Berkowitz's cognitive neoassocianist model, takes cognitions, emotions, and expressive motor patterns into account, but due to its depth, it was not discussed in class (Bushman, 1996). Briefly mentioned in the discussion were ways of reducing or preventing AGGRESSION.

   Incorporating many different social psychological principles, the case of Latrell Sprewell offered the opportunity to explore topics such as attribution, stigmatization, aggression and the norms and standards of society; each aspect can link to the other. Attributions that one might make in the case of Sprewell can often be traced to the stereotypes they hold, and the accepted norms that they relate to certain situations and people. In the aftermath of this phenomenon, it is undeniable that the issues brought up will not easily be removed, fixed or forgotten. One reason why this case seems to draw society's attention is due to the fact that in-group/out-group relationships were challenged. Sprewell attacked a member of an in-group (his own team), thereby clashing with the normal transference of aggression in a typical in-group/out-group conflict. This final aspect completes the other concepts by combining Sprewell's aggression with the attributions of his teammates, thereby challenging the social norms, and leaving Sprewell with a stigma that may last the rest of his NBA career, and quite possibly for the rest of his life.


    Baron, R. A. & Richardson, D. (1994). Human Aggression. New York: Plenum.

    Bushman, B. J. (1996). Individual differences in the extent and development of aggressive cognitive-associative networks. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 811-819.

    Gilovich, T. (1987). Second hand information and social judgement. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 23, 59-74.

    Link, Bruce G. (1997). On stigma and its consequences: Evidence from a longitudinal study on men with a dual diagnosis of metal illness and substance abuse. Journal of Health & Social Behavior, 38, 177-190.

    Miedzian, Myriam (1991).  Boys will be Boys: Breaking the Link between Masculinity and Violence. New York: Double Day, Inc.

    Ross, L., & Nisbett, R. (1991). The person in the situation. New York: McGraw Hill.

    Tesser, A. (1995). Advanced Social Psychology. McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York.

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 23:33:12 . This document has been accessed 137+  4,960 times since 1 Jan 1998. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman