The purpose of this paper is to develop a working definition of positive deviance and use the definition in an analysis of behavior among athletes. It is argued that much deviance among athletes involves excessive overconformity to the norms and values embodied in sport itself. When athletes use the “sport ethic”—which emphasizes sacrifice for The Game, seeking distinction, taking risks, and challenging limits—as an exclusive guide for their behavior, sport and sport participation become especially vulnerable to corruption. Although the sport ethic emphasizes positive norms, the ethic itself becomes the vehicle for transforming behaviors that conform to these positive norms into deviant behaviors that are prohibited and negatively sanctioned within society and within sport organizations themselves. Living in conformity to the sport ethic is likely to set one apart as a “real athlete,” but it creates a clear-cut vulnerability to several kinds of deviant behavior. This presents unique problems of social control within sport. The use of performance enhancing drugs in sport is identified as a case in point, and an approach to controlling this form of positive deviance is discussed.
The authors are with the Sociology Department at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, CO 80933-7150.