Assault. Rape. Head injuries. Drug abuse. DUI. These words have appeared in newspaper headlines for decades -- but NOT in the sports pages, until recently. Nowadays stories of athletes behaving badly are regular fare in the sports news.

Just recently we have seen two brawls in a single Yankees/Red Sox game, which resulted in injuries and fines. Basketball player Kobe Bryant was accused of rape. Tampa Bay football player Warren Sapp was fined $50,000 for shoving and using abusive language to officials. New York Jets football player John Abraham was benched after being arrested for driving while intoxicated. USC basketball player Rolando Howell pleaded no context to a charge of criminal domestic violence.

Such stories are now so common, that we are no longer surprised by them. In fact, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, around 100 athletes per year -- that's two per week -- are accused of rape or other violence toward women. Research has shown that athletes also have a high incidence of risky behavior: drug abuse, reckless driving, gambling and promiscuity. These behaviors tend to result in trouble with the law.

It's ironic that so many champions, who made it to the top through determination, focus and discipline, could display such poor judgment off the playing field.

Many people blame the "system" which pays athletes exorbitant salaries and provides instant celebrity and privilege. The young men become spoiled and quickly learn to feel entitled to get what they want when they want it. Critics of the system also point out that wealthy athletes can afford expensive defense attorneys who manipulate the courts to dismiss charges or reduce penalties against them. And the fans are very forgiving, willing to overlook "mistakes" made by their sports idols.

To some extent all of this is true. Situations and environment do influence behavior. But that's not the whole story when it comes to athletes behaving like brats.

We know from research studies that professional athletes have certain personality characteristics that undoubtedly enhance their game, but at the same time make them more likely to get into trouble.

First, athletes are more aggressive and competitive than most people. That's a given - how else would they rise to the top? People who are aggressive and competitive don't back down from a challenge - whether it's in the face of the opponent on the playing field, or in response to the word "no" in the bedroom.

A second characteristic of professional athletes is their confidence. Confidence gives one a feeling of control and optimism, which is essential during a close game. Confident people focus on the positive and minimize the negative. While this is very useful on the court or on the field, it does not always work in the real world.

An inflated sense of confidence is one of the factors that leads athletes to take more risk than the average person. Risk is an inherent component of success, especially calculated risk. You would think that if athletes applied these risk-calculating skills to their lives as well as they did to their game, they wouldn't be so prone to alcohol and drug abuse, reckless driving, gambling and promiscuity.

The athletes who get into trouble probably do some calculating of risk. But because of their psychological defenses, their calculations are way off. They minimize the consequence of risky behavior, in order to justify it. Thus, when an opportunity comes up, they convince themselves that nothing bad is going to happen and nobody's going to get hurt.

Add to this mix athletes' need for stimulation. Most of these guys thrive on action, quick-changing situations, and uncertainty. This is what gives them the edge until the very last second of the game. But when the game is over, such personality traits aren't turned off. The athletes continue to seek excitement.

The need for stimulation, combined with miscalculating risk, is what compromises the judgment of people who drive recklessly, use drugs, get into physical fights, engage in adultery and commit acts of violence. To that extent, sports stars have to work harder than the rest of us to stay out of trouble.

Author's Bio: 

Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Camp Hill, PA, and author of "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-defeating Behavior" (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001)

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