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International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology i\ Routledge

Vol. 9, No. 2, June 2011, 1 4 3 - 1 5 5 « ^ Taylor^Fr.„cl.C™

Antisocial behavior in soccer: A qualitative study of moral disengagement


Alan Traclet^*, Philippe Romand", Orlan Moret^ and Maria Kavussanu''

"Institutes of Sport Sciences and Social Sciences, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland:
School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Birmingham, UK
(^Received 14 August 2009: final version received 4 December 2009)

This study was designed to examine (a) the moral disengagement mechanisms athletes use when
they engage in antisocial behaviors in soccer and (b) whether the fiequency of these mechanisms
differs depending on the type of behaviors. Participants were 30 soccer players competing at a
regional level. During a semi-structured interview, these participants were presented with
video clips of their antisocial acts that occurred during regular games and were asked to
explain why they engaged in these behaviors. Their explanations were coded based on the
moral disengagement mechanisms described by Bandura (1999). Content analyses revealed
that (a) the more frequent mechanisms used by the players were displacing responsibility to
others (e.g., referees) and moral justification, and that (b) cheating acts and instrumental
aggression elicited more displacement of responsibility than hostile behaviors.
Keywords: moral disengagement; immoral behaviors; stimulated recall interview; sport
context

Antisocial behaviors, as defined by Sage, Kavussanu, and Duda (2006), include acts intended to
harm (i.e., hitting or retaliating to a bad foul) or disadvantage another (i.e., cheating behaviors
such as faking an injury or running down the clock). They are common in sport and have been
observed in athletes from different sexes, ages, and competitive levels (Coulomb-Cabagno &
Rascle, 2006; Kavussanu, Seal, & Phillips, 2006; Kavussanu, Stamp, Slade, & Ring, 2009).
Several studies have investigated antisocial behaviors in sport (see Kavussanu, 2008) and evi-
dence shows that athletes may approve more of such behaviors under certain circumstances
such as when the score is close or when the act is a retaliation (e.g., Conroy, Silva, Newcomer,
Walker, & Johnson, 2001). In addition, many athletes accept a certain amount of cheating and
aggressive acts as part of the game (e.g.. Romand, Pantaleon, & Cabagno, 2009). These findings
raise the questions about what leads athletes to act antisocially and bow they may explain or
justify their antisocial acts.
A useful theoretical framework for understanding antisocial behavior in sport is Bandura's
(1991) social cognitive theory of moral thought and action. According to this theory, individuals
develop moral standards, which regulate conduct through evaluative self-reactions. For example,
people feel guilt when their actions violate their moral standards, thus they typically refrain from
behaving in ways that will result in negative affect. However, people are able to violate their
moral standards without experiencing affective self-sanction through the selective use of eight
psychosocial maneuvers, collectively known as mechanisms of moral disengagement. These

* Corresponding author. Email: alan.traclet@gmail.com


ISSN 1612-197X print/ISSN 1557-25IX online
© 2011 Intemational Soeiety of Sport Psychology
DOI; 10.1080/1612197X.20U.567105
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144 A. Traclet et al.

mechanisms reduce or eliminate evaluative self-reactions, thereby decreasing subsequent con-


straint on future transgressive behavior.
The moral disengagement mechanisms have been grouped into four sets. The first set operates
on the reprehensible conduct by cognitively reconstming it so it is not viewed as immoral and
includes moral justification, euphemistic labeling, and advantageous comparison (Bandura,
1999). Moral justification involves making conduct socially and personally acceptable by portraying
it as serving moral or socially worthy purposes (Bandura, 1999); an example in sport is protecting
team honor or reputation. Euphemistic labeling is the selective use of language that cognitively
disguises culpable activities as benign or less harmfial (Bandura, 1999). In sport, athletes may
talk of "letting off steam" when in fact they act aggressively (Boardley & Kavussanu, 2007). Advan-
tageous comparison involves comparing less reprehensible (e.g., aggressive language) with more
reprehensible (e.g., physical violence) acts making the former appear trivial (Bandura, 1999).
The second set operates by minimizing the perpetrator's role in harming others and includes
displacement and diffusion of responsibility (Bandura, 1999). In sport, displacement of responsi-
bility occurs when athletes view aggressive acts as resulting from coaches' social pressures or
referees' decisions. An example of diffusion of responsibility is when players attribute responsa-
bility for their antisocial behavior to their teammates, which can occur when all members are
involved in decision-making about antisocial practices. The third set includes only one
mechanism and centers on the consequences of one's actions by disregarding or distorting
these consequences (Bandura, 1999), for example, when athletes deny the seriousness of the
opponents' injuries (Boardley & Kavussanu, 2007). The fourth set includes dehumanization,
which involves depriving victims of human qualities and may occur in sport when aggressors
describe their opponents as animals and laeking feelings; this set also includes attribution of
blame, which occurs when people view themselves as faultless victims that were made to
engage in detrimental acts by forcible provocation (Bandura, 1999), for example, when players
blame the victim for their own behavior (Boardley & Kavussanu, 2007).
Several studies support the link between moral disengagement and antisocial or transgressive
behaviors. For example, Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, and Pastorelli (1996) found that moral
disengagement was positively associated with delinquent behaviors in elementary and high
school students. In the sport context, moral disengagement has been linked to frequency of anti-
social sport acts (Boardley & Kavussanu, 2007, 2008), and male soccer players have been found
to display higher levels of moral disengagement than basketball/netball players (Boardley &
Kavussanu, 2008). Finally, moral disengagement has emerged as a positive predictor of antisocial
behavior toward opponents and teammates in hockey and netball players (Boardley & Kavussanu,
2009). Such results suggest that moral disengagement mechanisms may account for antisocial be-
havior in sport.
Although past research using quantitative methodology has consistently reported a link
between moral disengagement and antisocial behavior, most studies examined the overall con-
stmct of moral disengagement rather than the specific mechanisms (e.g., Bandura et al, 1996).
In addition, some studies have measured moral disengagement using questionnaires (e.g.,
Boardley & Kavussanu, 2008, 2009), which have some limitations. For example, questionnaires
may not capture concrete aspects of the situation and emotions that are commonly experienced
when athletes behave aggressively. In addition, questionnaires do not allow appreciation of the
complexity of the rationalizations individuals use when trying to explain or justify their
conduct (see Patton, 1990).
To address these issues, a qualitative approach combined with observation is needed. This will
help to better understand how athletes view their antisocial acts and may allow researchers to
better understand the meaning of the participants' experience and the complexity of their justifi-
cations (Romand & Pantaleon, 2007). For instance, stimulated recall interviews, which consist of
International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 145

asking people to discuss their own behaviors, may highlight the value systems and
normative reference points that the athletes may use to explain their acts and may bring out the
meanings they give to their decisions and acts (Shapcott, Bloom, & Loughead, 2007). Such a
technique may also permit a fijll exploration of the factors influencing the players' justifications
for antisocial behaviors, such as coaches and referees (Long, Pantaleon, Bruant, & d'Arripe-
Longueville, 2006; Shapcott et al., 2007).
Moral disengagement has been investigated in relation to cheating or aggressive behavior in
sport in some interview studies. For example. Long et al. (2006) revealed that male rugby and
soccer players articulated some reasons for transgression where mechanisms of moral disengage-
ment were clearly evident, such as protecting of teammates (i.e., moral justification) or blaming
the victim (i.e., attribution of blame). Shapcott et al. (2007) found that female ice hockey players
mentioned coaches' social pressures and referees' behaviors, when explaining their aggressive
acts, which may be relevant to displacement of responsibility. Finally, Cordon, Long, Smith,
and d'Arripe-Longueville (2009) found that elite basketball players used several moral
disengagement mechanisms (i.e., displacement and diffiision of responsibility, attribution of
blame, minimizing or distorting the consequences, and euphemistic labeling) to explain their
transgressive behavior. However, these studies did not compare different types of antisocial
behavior, thus we do not know whether athletes used moral disengagement more frequently
for some behaviors than others.
Different types of antisocial behavior occur in sport. One type is cheating (non-aggressive)
behavior, which are behaviors intended to disadvantage another player using deception, for
example, not respecting the distance or running down the clock. The distinction has also been
made between two types of aggressive acts, which are behaviors aimed to harm another individual
(Silva, 1980; Stephens, 1998). The first type is instrumental aggressive behaviors, which are per-
formed as a means toward an end, for example, the goal of winning. The second type is hostile
aggressive behaviors, which are performed solely for the purpose of harming and are an end in
and of themselves. The instrumental aggressive acts are often accepted and encouraged in
team sports, whereas the hostile aggressive acts are viewed as unacceptable and are discouraged
(Loughead & Leith, 2001).
Compared to cheating, aggressive acts may have severe consequences (e.g., injuries) and ath-
letes may focus on different explanations or justifications for these behaviors. In addition, the need
to give reasons for the behavior may be more salient when the aggressive act is viewed as unaccep-
table (Widmeyer, Dorsch, Bray, & McGuire, 2002). For instance, individuals could attribute their
hostile behaviors to uncontrollable responses such as anger or frustrations, which may justify the
act. In past research, hostile or reactive behaviors elicited a higher level of justification than did
instrumental behaviors in a university context (Pena, Andreu, Grana, Pahlavan, & Ramirez,
2008). In sport, Traclet et al. (2009) found that soccer players used certain justifications (e.g., "It
was out of my control") more frequently for hostile than instrumental aggressive acts. Thus, the
type of behavior (cheating acts vs. instrumental aggression vs. hostile aggression) in which the
players engage may influence the frequency of justifications they use for their antisocial acts.
Taken together, the majority of the studies discussed above would suggest that moral disen-
gagement mechanisms are relevant for antisocial acts in sport. In order to increase our understand-
ing of the reasons and the motives underlying antisocial sport behaviors and to address the
limitations of previous questionnaire-based studies (e.g., not capturing concrete aspects of the
specific situation, lack of appreciation of the complexity of the athletes' rationalization, etc.),
in this study, we used a qualitative methodology to examine the mechanisms of moral disengage-
ment used by soccer players to justify their own antisocial behaviors while playing soccer.
Specifically, we investigated cheating (e.g., running down the clock) and aggressive acts (both
hostile and instrumental). Soccer was selected because it is a contact sport and has therefore
146 A. Traclet et al.

the potential for acts of cheating and aggression (Conroy et al., 2001; Kavussanu, 2008). Finally,
the relationship between the type of antisocial behaviors and moral disengagement in sport has
received very little research attention. Thus, a second purpose was to determine whether the
frequency of the moral disengagement mechanisms that players use differs depending on the
type of behavior (i.e., cheating vs. instrumental aggression vs. hostile aggression).

Method
Participants
Participants were 30 French male soccer players ranging in age from 16 to 22 years old (M =
19.23, SD = 2.49). They belonged to six teams competing at a regional level (i.e., the intermediate
and fiñh best adult level in the French soccer championships). At the time of data collection,
participants had been playing organized soccer for an average of 7.68 seasons {SD = 4.76) and
had been playing in their present team for an average of 1.82 seasons {SD = 0.86).

Instruments
We used a stimulated recall interview combined with a systematic observation of actual antisocial
behaviors (described next) as the main method of data acquisition. This method involves record-
ing players' antisocial behaviors on the field and then discussing these acts with the players during
an interview.

Antisocial behaviors. Systematic observation of participants was used to identify antisocial


behaviors, specifically cheating and aggression. Each team was videotaped in three competitive
soccer games, thus 18 games were recorded in total. Two trained researchers, familiar with
observational coding, coded all antisocial acts, using Pfister's (1985) behavioral typologies.
This classification provides a list of cheating (e.g., running down the clock) and aggressive
behaviors (e.g., aggressive tackling, hitting, or holding). This classification also differentiates
between instrumental and hostile forms of aggression in soccer through various behavioral
categories such as "illegal tackling or tripping," "holding," "striking" (for instrumental aggres-
sion) and "repelling," "retaining," "hitting," "against the opponents," "against the referees,"
and "against the teammates" (for hostile aggression). The two researchers observed and coded
all of the videotaped games individually and discrepancies in interpretation and classification
of behaviors were discussed until over an 85% agreement was reached.
Next, we selected video clips that displayed behaviors frequently occurring in soccer based on
the findings of past observational sttidies (e.g.. Coulomb & Pfister, 1998; Kavussanu et al., 2006,
2009). This was done to take into account the diversity of antisocial behaviors that occur in soccer.
The same four categories of behaviors were retained for all participants: cheating (i.e., not respect-
ing distance or running down the clock), instrumental aggression (i.e., aggressive tackling or
holding), hostile aggression against an opponent (i.e., hitting or kicking), and hostile aggression
against the referee (i.e., pushing or beating). Overall, for each player, a videotape that included
four clips with the same player's antisocial acts was created. Each clip presented an antisocial
act including 30 seconds of the game preceding each act so that players could recall the
general context of the event. Participants were able to replay each clip as many times as needed.

Stimulated recall interview. The stimulated recall interview (SRI) was used to examine the
moral disengagement mechanisms used by players to justify the antisocial behaviors presented
in the video clips. It has been suggested that this technique (i.e., asking individuals about their
International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 147

own actual behaviors and provoking verbalizations in relation to these behaviors) would help
them to mention elements or justifications in reference to actual events (Shapcott et al., 2007).
This also allows researchers to identify information considered as relevant by the participants,
and to better understand the meaning participants give to their actions (Vermersch, 2003).
The SRI began with a brief discussion about the player's age, competitive level, and years of
experience to put participants at ease. Then we asked key questions directing participants to elicit
a description of the situation in which the behavior presented in each clip occurred (e.g., "Why did
you carry out this behavior? When and where was it?"). Follow-up questions were asked to evalu-
ate reasons and/or justifications leading athletes to the act (e.g., "What were the reasons leading
you to this behavior? What was this behavior for?"). Additional questions on the athletes' social
environment (e.g., referee, coaches and teammates, impact of the competitive context, and
conceptions of rules and transgression) were asked to better understand the participants' moral
disengagement when the reasons for the behavior were not obvious (Rubins & Rubins, 1995).

Procedure
Following approval by the Ethics Committee, the coaches of the six soccer clubs were contacted
about participation in the current investigation, and all agreed to participate. Permission to
conduct the study was then obtained from the players and the parents of the players who were
less than 18 years old (« = 8). The study was conducted in two phases. The first phase involved
videotaping soccer games (three for each player) and creating videotapes with clips for each
player. The video camera was positioned at the high middle of the stands with large plans of
the entire field to allow greater accuracy in the observed antisocial acts and not perturb partici-
pants. The second phase involved interviewing the players using the SRI a few days following
the last-recorded game. Each interview lasted approximately 45 minutes and was tape-recorded
and subsequently transcribed verbatim. Participants were informed that all answers would be
kept confidential and were encouraged to provide honest responses to maximize internal validify.

Data analysis
Interview data produced a great deal of information that was coded into Bandura's (1999) mech-
anisms of moral disengagement. The content of the tape-recorded interviews was divided into sets
of information (called meaning units), that is, comprehensible ideas that can stand alone (Tesch,
1990), and each behavior fype was analyzed separately. Because our interview guide was
designed to obtain information about reasons for antisocial behaviors rather than to mention
directly the moral disengagement mechanisms, this content analysis started inductively and con-
tinued deductively. This was done to ensure the categories were embodied in the data and that new
emerging categories could be identified (see Corrion et al., 2009). Three social scientists, who had
previously published research on morality and aggression and were familiar with qualitative
methods, coded the data independently and compared and discussed the codes until they
reached consensus (see Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Finally, a chi-square analysis was conducted
to examine the relationship between behavior fype and moral disengagement mechanisms.

Results
Players' responses and moral disengagement
The analysis of the corpus revealed that players used 162 justifications during the 30 interviews.
Table 1 presents the number of responses and exa.nples of quotations for each of the moral
148 A. Traclet et al.

Table 1. Number of responses and typical quotations for the moral disengagement mechanisms.
Moral disengagement Numbers of
mechanisms responses Examples of quotations
Displacement of 45 The referee never whistled for the fouls.
responsibility The referee was in favor of the other team.
The coach shows us how to cheat.
It is necessary to show to the coach you are a grafter that you
win balls and get fouls.
The parents say some horrible things, and this influences the
players in a big way.
Professional players pretend, lie and cheat, so we play like that
too.
Diffusion of responsibility 12 Everyone does shirt pulling in the team, so I do it too.
Moral justification 38 I'm a defender: my job is to prevent the opponent from
scoring, even if I have to make a small foul.
Euphemistic labeling 17 Cunning (for cheating).
A waming statement (for physical attack).
Attribution of blame 30 He was looking for it.
He must have tackled me at least five times.
Distortion of 19 Cheating is not too bad or it's not that serious.
consequences

Note: Participants never mentioned dehumanization and advantageous comparison mechanisms.

disengagement mechanisms identified in this sttidy. It can be seen that, participants used more
often displacement of responsibility and moral justification, followed by attribution of blame,
and they never used advantageous comparison and dehumanization. In the next section, we
have described in detail the use of these mechanisms of moral disengagement by our participants.
We have included information related to the different sets used as a function of the type of behav-
ior in which the players engaged. Moreover, we have assigned a number from 1 to 30 to each
player when reporting their responses to maintain the players' anonymity.

Displacement of responsibility. This mechanism operates by obscuring or minimizing the role


of the individual in the harm he or she causes; people do not feel personally responsible for their
actions but view them as stemming from the dictates of authorities (Bandura, 1999). In sport,
players can displace responsibility for their antisocial acts on coaches and referees, who are the
authority figures in the sport context. Most players pointed out that the referees' decisions or
behaviors were the most frequent reasons of their antisocial conduct. For instance, one participant
reported:

The referee never whistled for the fouls, he never gave out any cards even though tackles came flying
in taking our legs out and hacking us to pieces. We felt forced to take justice into our own hands, and
so the match degenerated (8).

Similarly, another participant reported, "the referee was in favor of the other team, and it was
so obvious. When that happens, you get angry and end up fouling" (28).
Finally, participants displaced their responsibility for cheating and aggressive acts on referees
who were not consistent and impartial in calling penalties and determined the athletes' confidence
of being able to aggress without being penalized:

It depends on the referee. Some let play go on when there is a shirt pull and others don't call anything; so,
one no longer knows how to act and react, where to draw the line, and this make it easier to aggress (24)!
International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 149

In addition, another participant stated, "In soccer, the referee whistles fouls. Thus, when he
doesn't catch us.. .and it is his responsibility" (2).
Another frequently mentioned person held responsible for players' cheating and instmmental
aggression was the coach. In particular, participants' responses indicated that the negative and
positive behaviors of coaches might explain why they behave aggressively. For instance, one
participant seemed to be afraid of being reprimanded by his coach when he said, "if I let him
get passed me and he goes on to score, the coach will hold it against me, and I may not play
the following game, therefore I was obliged to push him" (22).
A complaint echoed by participants was that their coaches indirectly encouraged cheating and
aggressive play either during the training session or the competition:

The trainer showed us how to do it [running down the time]. Before arriving in this team, I did not do it
very often (8). We've been drilled about this game for the last two months. So we are mentally and
physically prepared like soldiers. And just before the game, the coach gives us another inspirational
talk to get us going. When you get on the pitch you are in it 110% and feel ready tofight(3).

Finally, athletes mentioned at times other agents to justify their antisocial acts, such as parents.
For example, one participant mentioned that attitudes held by parents encourage them to use anti-
social actions and aggressive techniques and said, "when a young 8 year old kid hears his dad say
destroy your opponent, he doesn't ask why, he just tries to do or die, and this happens a lot" (1).

Diffusion of responsibility. This mechanism operates through division of labor, group


decision-making, or group action (Bandura, 1999). In sport, athletes can diffuse responsibility
by attributing their acts to decisions made by the team. For example, one participant reported,
"this day, all the team had decided to play aggressively against this opposite team" (3).
Another participant diffused the responsibility of his act on their teammates who frequently
used cheating acts, "everyone does shirt pulling in the team, so I do it too" (4).

Moral justification. This mechanism involves making conduct socially and personally accep-
table by portraying it as serving moral or socially worthy purposes (Bandura, 1999). Several par-
ticipants justified the morality of their deviant actions in terms of social or moral purposes, such as
preserving the team's success or reputation. For instance, two participants said, "I'm a defender,
my job is to prevent the opponent from scoring, even if I have to make a small foul" (20), and "I
believe this opponent is going to score. Thus I kick him to protect our advantage" (29).

Euphemistic labeling. This mechanism is the selective use of language that cognitively
disguises culpable activities as benign or less harmful (Bandura, 1999). A lot of players used
euphemistic language to disguise reprehensible behaviors as benign and/or less harmful. Specifi-
cally, cheating and physical aggression became respectively "being cunning" (7) and "a waming"
(23). In addition, one participant said, "You put your hand up to claim the ball in a 50/50 situation.
It's not cheating, it's just a reflex" (11).

Distortion of consequences. This mechanism operates by distorting or disregarding the


consequence of one's actions (Bandura, 1999) and was used by several players. For example, a
participant tried to justify his cheating acts by decreasing the seriousness and illegal aspect of
the behavior, "I caught his foot by tackling, but I scarcely touched him" (18).

Attribution of blame. This mechanism operates when individuals consider themselves as


blameless victims driven to behave aggressively by forcible provocation (Bandura, 1999). Two
150 A. Traclet et al.

participants explained how being hit by an opponent resulted in their aggressive behavior: "During
the first half, he must have tackled me at least five times, pretty dangerously too, so the first chance
I got, I gave as good as I had got" (12) and "He was looking for it; he wanted to show who was the
strongest... so I showed him it was me" (19). Another player used similar words to blame his
victim, "the guy kicked me in the ankles... so in the end, I pushed him over" (29).
It is important to note that at times, participants articulated two or more mechanisms in their
justifications, and it was difficult to differentiate between them. For instance, when a participant
stated that "some teammates play aggressively without being penalized" (29), this may include
either diffusion of responsibility on teammates or displacement of responsibility on referees.
This finding suggests that there may be an overlap between these mechanisms and thus, such
quotes were exeluded from the results presented in the next secfion.

Behavior type and moral disengagement


The second purpose of this study was to examine whether the type of antisocial act was associated
with the use of moral disengagement mechanisms. Table 2 presents frequencies of each
mechanism per type of the type of behavior. Displacement of responsibility (27.8%) and moral
justification (23.5%) were the two most common mechanisms, and were significantly more

Table 2. Moral disengagement mechanisms as a function of the type of antisocial behavior.

Antisocial behavior
Moral disengagement Cheating Instrumental Hostile aggression Hostile aggression
mechanisms behavior aggression (opponents) (referees)
Displacement of responsibility
All occurrences («) 22a I4b 2c 7d
% within mechanism 48.9 29.1 4.4 15.6
% within behavior 55 21.8 7.1 35
Diffusion of responsibility
All occurrences («) 5ä 6ä 0 Ic
% within mechanism 41.6 50 0 8.4
% within behavior 12.5 9.3 0 5
Moral justification
All occurrences («) lie I9c Ic 7d
% within mechanism 28.9 50 2.6 18.4
% within behavior 27.5 29.7 3.7 35
Euphemistic labeling
All occurrences («) 2c 8d 2c 5d
% within mechanism 11.7 47.1 11.8 29.4
% within behavior 5 12.6 7.1 25
Attribution of blame
All occurrences («) 0 9d 21a 0
% within mechanism 0 30 70 0
% within behavior 0 14 75 0
Distortion of consequences
All occurrences («) 9c 8c 2b 0
% within mechanism 47.4 42.1 10.5 0
% within behavior 22.5 12.6 7.1 0
Note: Percentages in the same row or column that do not share subscripts differ alp < .001 in the chi-square significant
difference comparisons.
International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 151

frequent than attribution of blame (18.5%), distortion of consequences (11.5%) and euphemistic
labeling (10.5%), )¿{5) = 30.1, Phi = .42,p < .001. Interestingly, the 6 (Mechanisms) x4 (Types
of Behavior) chi-square test was also significant, ;t^(15) = 62.2, Phi = .62, p < .001.
This analysis indicated that the use of moral disengagement mechanisms was associated with
the type of behavior and that some acts elicited more justifications than others (see Table 2). More
specifically, cheating and instrumental aggression elicited a large number of justifications {n = 55
and 61, respectively), in particular displacement of responsibility and moral justification mechan-
isms,/5S < .001. Hostile aggression against opponents was less justified (n = 28) and attribution of
blame was more used in this case,/) < .001. Finally, even if hostile aggression against the referee
elicited a few justifications {n = 17), participants justified such acts using the displacement of
responsibility and moral justification mechanisms,/?s < .001.

Discussion
The main purpose of this study was to examine the moral disengagement mechanisms used by
soccer players to justify their antisocial acts using a qualitative methodology. A secondary
purpose was to examine whether the type of antisocial behavior in which players engaged is
associated with the use of certain mechanisms. In this section, we will discuss the referee,
coach and teammates, and behavior type as factors associated with the use of moral disengage-
ment mechanisms.

The referee: A crucial agent in sport morality


Quotations yielded one crucial authority figure (referees) in the mindset of players to justify their
behaviors. Specifically, participants often displaced their responsibility for their actions on the
referees by attributing their aggressive acts to bad officiating. For instance, participants reported
that inconsistency or lack of impartiality in the referees' decisions led to their feelings of injustice
and subsequent aggressive play. These results are in line with studies indicating that bad officiat-
ing is one of the main causes of misconduct in sport (e.g., Shapcott et al., 2007).
This is the first moral disengagement study that has found evidence that players displace the
responsibility for their actions to the referee. The displacement of responsibility on referees sup-
ports research on moral reasoning (Bredemeier & Shields, 1986), responsibility and justice (Long
et al., 2006) in the sport domain. In their theory of game reasoning, Bredemeier and Shields
(1986) proposed that competitive sport is an environment that decreases athletes' sense of
moral responsibility and referred to referees as authority figures in the game to whom players
may displace responsibility. Long et al. (2006) also highlighted how athletes may transfer the
responsibility of their acts to the referees. Therefore, viewing referees as the agents that are
responsible for players' antisocial acts may be particularly convenient for team sports athletes
as they can abdicate any formal rules and cognitive control, giving this task to referees.
Past research has also suggested that players exhibit less control and commit more aggressive
acts because the referees do not look at them (Coakley, 1998; Shapcott et al., 2007). For instance,
Coakley underlined that inconsistent officiating allows players to use aggressive behaviors
knowing that no penalty would be called on them. In other investigations, "not getting caught"
was a justification frequently reported by team-sport athletes (Dodge & Robertson, 2004;
Shapcott et al., 2007). In the present study, some participants also indicated that they were
more likely to aggress when they felt that referees would not detect them. In team sports, pena-
lization is the most costly consequence for players and teams engaging in illegal or aggressive acts
(e.g., ejection from the game and playing shorthanded; Widmeyer et al., 2002). Thus, it may be
easier for athletes to rationalize the aggressive acts and to displace responsibility of their acts on
152 A. Traclet et al.

referees when there is lower probabilify of punishment. Indeed, athletes seem to believe that the
referees' decisions would influence their confidence of acting aggressively without being
penalized.

The role of coach and teammates


Our results also suggest that players also displace responsibilify to coaches and teammates and are
consistent with quantitative and qualitative research on moral disengagement in sport (e.g.,
Boardley & Kavussanu, 2007; Corrion et al., 2009) that has shown that displacement of respon-
sibilify on coaches and teammates was strongly related to antisocial acts. Team-sport athletes are
under the influence of their team, and their coach has a great deal of power and control over them.
Competing for a key position, intimidation of key opponents, or coach's expectations of success at
all costs, can lead to athletes' feeling the need to cheat and aggress. Therefore, by displacing their
responsibilify to the coaches, athletes are able to employ unfair tactics that they would not nor-
mally use. Ogien (1995) translates this idea into the phrase of "submission in superior loyalties":
the athletes justify their acts by the responsibilify that they have to carry out a mission that is
praiseworthy and valued socially by the coach and the team.
Our findings also suggest that participants disengaged morally by diffusing responsibilify.
This could occur in different ways, but one way is when players attribute responsabilify for
antisocial practices to their teammates when team members are involved in decision making
regarding the use of antisocial practices (Boardley & Kavussanu, 2007). For instance, when
participants stated that the team had decided to play aggressively and felt that everyone does
some immoral acts, they diffused responsibilify for their acts to their teammates. This moral
disengagement mechanism takes advantage of the fact that when everyone is responsible, no
one actually feels personally responsible, and this reduces or diffuses the personal accountabilify
felt by each individual (Bandura, 1999).
Our findings suggest that athletes use moral disengagement mechanisms to justify their be-
havior. These findings highlight that the group (i.e., coaches and teammates) plays a prominent
role in the attitudes of children, teenagers, and adults in promoting antisocial conduct. For
instance, if the coach reinforces some aggressive behaviors or if teammates engage in certain
behaviors, athletes may be inclined to do the same and to justify it. This reinforcement and
modeling are consistent with the social learning theory (Bandura, 1973). Indeed, athletes
appear to be highly receptive of their coach's communications or teammates' behaviors,
leading them to consider some acts as forbidden and others as acceptable.
In past research, the moral justification and euphemistic labeling mechanisms have been very
highly related (Boardley & Kavussanu, 2007). Both of these mechanisms may restrain athletes
from detrimental conduct by acting on the same aspect of the conduct, and therefore, may
have a similar function. In the present study, when participants evoked social/moral purposes
or used euphemistic language to refer to reprehensible behaviors, they may have been able to
reconstruct their cheating and instrumental aggression as legitimate actions.

Moral disengagement and behavior types


An interesting finding was that the fype of antisocial behavior was associated with the frequency
and fype of moral disengagement mechanisms used by the soccer players. Thus, participants more
frequently displaced responsibilify on others and more oflen justified their cheating and instru-
mental aggression than they did for their hostile acts. This finding is contrary to previous research
in team sport that has found justifications were more likely for hostile behaviors in daily life and in
team sport contexts (Pena et al., 1996; Traclet et al., 2009). Bandura et al. (1996) also found that
International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 153

highly moral disengagers are the most readily angered and are prone to hostile feelings. One
possible explanation for our finding may be the function and usage of the moral disengagement
mechanisms. Specifically, there are many psychological maneuvers by which self-sanctions can
be disengaged from antisocial conduct (Bandura, 1999). The fact that displacement of responsi-
bility and moral justification were more often used for the instrumental aggression suggests that
the social learning process could develop the use of these mechanisms. According to the social
learning theory (Bandura, 1973), instrumental aggression is a leamed behavior governed by
unwritten collective norms, that is, being aggressive may lead to success even though it is
against the rules.
In contrast, the hostile antisocial acts are performed solely for the purpose of harming may
decrease the athletic performance (Silva, 1980), are often viewed as totally illegitimate and are
discouraged by both players and coaches (Loughead & Leith, 2001). Therefore, such conduct
may be more difficult to justify. However, some players also displaced their responsibility for
certain forms of hostile aggression against the referee. This also suggests that there could be
some justifying circumstances (e.g., a bad officiating) in the situation, which prompt players to
attribute their hostile acts to external factors and to displace responsibility to others (Traclet
et al., 2009). In other words, the same circumstances surrounding hostile behaviors may at
times inftuence judgments about their justification and acceptance. This is in line with previous
research (e.g., Conroy et al., 2001; Tucker & Parks, 2001) that shows that judgments about
which acts are legitimate vary between sports and specific circumstances.

Future research
Although most participants reported mechanisms of moral disengagement similar to those found
in past research (e.g., Boardley & Kavussanu, 2007; Corrion et al., 2009), some quotes refiected
the use of more than one mechanism. Recent qualitative research has also identified multiple
moral disengagement mechanisms in individual quotes (e.g.. Long et al., 2006). Similarly, in a
study that developed an instrument to measure moral disengagement in sport (Boardley &
Kavussanu, 2007), the displacement and diffijsion of responsibility mechanisms formed a
single factor, which was termed non-responsibility, and the moral justification and euphemistic
labeling mechanisms also formed one factor, which was labeled conduct reconstrual. Thus
moral disengagement mechanisms may operate simultaneously. Future research could examine
whether employing multiple mechanisms of moral disengagement is associated with the fre-
quency of antisocial behavior in sport. Finally, fiature research should examine the importance
of different factors that may infiuence moral disengagement in sport, such as type of behaviors
and sports, situational background, and competitive level. This may lead to a more comprehensive
understanding of moral functioning in the sport context.

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