Ken Jones: The currency of aggression on an inflationary curve

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The Independent Online

Towards the end of his life, stirred by unseemly behaviour in games playing, Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, the raciest of American sportswriters, wrote a column called, 'Whatever Happened to Frank Merriwell?' Murray recalled a time when Merriwell was the fictional hero of every American little boy. Today among the young, and probably their elders, he would provoke salvoes of raucous laughter. Because, to use the quaint old phrases, he played fair, he gave his all and lost with a smile. He held to the naive delusion that sport is synonymous with sportsmanship.

Towards the end of his life, stirred by unseemly behaviour in games playing, Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, the raciest of American sportswriters, wrote a column called, 'Whatever Happened to Frank Merriwell?' Murray recalled a time when Merriwell was the fictional hero of every American little boy. Today among the young, and probably their elders, he would provoke salvoes of raucous laughter. Because, to use the quaint old phrases, he played fair, he gave his all and lost with a smile. He held to the naive delusion that sport is synonymous with sportsmanship.

What brought this hurrying to mind was the offensive attitude adopted by the England fast bowler Simon Jones after taking the wicket of Ramnaresh Sarwan during the second Test against the West Indies in Trinidad. On his way to a five-wicket haul that should accelerate rehabilitation from a career-threatening injury, the Welshman approached the West Indies vice-captain with a brandished fist and a scowl. Although, as my colleague Angus Fraser was quick to inform us, the International Cricket Council is attempting to stamp out assaults on the spirit of the game, leniency prevailed. Along with Brian Lara, who was reported for remarks made to the umpires, Jones forfeited half of his match fee.

A pretty safe bet is that Jones's mentors, in the substantial belief that aggression is a quality to be desired in fast bowlers, were not greatly moved by his misdemeanour. This is loose thinking on their part but not surprising. In every sporting field coaches try to stoke hotter and hotter fires in their players. Many convince themselves that the only way to get professionals to practise and play at a proper level of intensity is to bang a drum loudly. But where is the pride in an athlete who needs that sort of stimulation? And the character?

Some years ago, I was directed to an article by Warren Johnson, at the time professor of health education at the University of Maryland. "Athletes draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable aggression at different points," he wrote. "I interviewed eight men, all of whom wanted to be more aggressive in their games. To find out just how much they wished to be, I put each into a deep hypnotic state and asked him whether he would like to receive suggestions that would make for the most aggressive possible behaviour short of poor sportsmanship. All eight said they would. I asked each how he would react to suggestions that would make him totally aggressive, to the point of not caring if he hurt other players or broke the rules."

Two of Professor Warren's subjects were so alarmed that they immediately began to emerge from their "trances". Four others stated emphatically that they did not want such suggestions and would not follow them. But the last two, a champion swimmer and a professional grid-iron footballer, said that any increase in aggressiveness would be welcome, the more savage the better. Not too surprisingly, both men were hot-tempered and prone to brawling in bars, and had more guilt problems than the other six. They were also far more successful than the others as competitive athletes.

The problem is that there isn't necessarily a direct correlation between psychological aggression and physical aggression. Some of the least hostile sweethearts on the planet are prizefighters. Some of the most hostile louts trade in shares. The aggression of sports performers who dominate by skill or force without any specific intention toward hurting an opponent is advantageous rather then destructive. It represents a process of integrating aggression in an acceptable manner.

Milan's aggressive response to conceding an early goal at home against Deportivo in the Champions' League on Tuesday was a key factor in their 4-1 victory. Martin Johnson's aggressive play (if not always legal) and leadership was central to England's success in the rugby World Cup. The great years of West Indies cricket were shaped around the natural aggression of outstanding fast bowlers. Aggression and Australian cricket go hand in hand.

The currency of sports aggression has been devalued by inflation; an inflation of language. In the verbal overkill of this sporting life it has become an instrument of triumphalism. It is to be hoped that someone will put Simon Jones in touch with a responsibility wider than that of winning a cricket match.

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