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Physical aggression, conflict, and violence have long been inherent elements of sporting endeavors, dating back to Roman and medieval contests such as gladiatorial sports, chariot races, and jousting. Current anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests a link between participating in aggressive contact sports and an increased risk of using violence both in and outside of sporting events. In high-contact sports, such as rugby or American football, rough physical exchanges are integral to the game and may contribute to a team’s likelihood of winning, thereby increasing the appeal of aggressiveness. Other sports can be characterized as rule-bound fighting, such as boxing and wrestling. As inherently competitive undertakings, games and matches often inspire intense rivalry and conflict between athletic opponents that can involve physical intimidation and altercations. Athletes in sports characterized by tacit or overt support for verbal and physical intimidation during sporting contests may be at risk for having these behaviors spill over into other arenas of their lives, such as intimate relationships. The vast majority of research on violence in athletics involves male athletes, and high-contact sports such as American football, ice hockey, basketball, rugby, lacrosse, and wrestling are dominated by and nearly exclusively involve men. Therefore, this discussion will focus on violence among male participants in these sporting categories.
Violence During Sporting Events
In a widely cited attempt to categorize types of violence in sports, Michael Smith identified four levels of sports-related violence. The least extreme level is brutal body contact, which is the “legal” contact considered to be inherent in the game, such as tackling in American football or punching in boxing. The second level is borderline violence, which is contact that may breach the official rules of the sport, but which is still widely accepted and rarely criminally prosecuted or even penalized during the game itself. Examples might include side-line scuffles or throwing elbows during basketball or soccer. Quasicriminal violence is aggression that breaks game rules, tacit codes of conduct, and often criminal laws, and can result in serious injury, such as a vicious late hit or a sideline attack with a hockey stick. Finally, criminal violence is severe aggression by athletes during or after sporting events (such as postgame attacks on rival players or coaches) that results in critical injuries or death and often culminates in criminal prosecution.
The prevalence of nonsanctioned aggression during sporting contests is difficult to quantify. Evidence suggests that a majority of coaches and players view instances of verbal intimidation as a widespread problem in sports, and that over one third of coaches feel that athlete violence has reached problematic levels. Across studies, researchers estimate that aggression in the context of sports events constitutes between 10% and 15% of all violence depicted on television.
Athletes’ Violence off the Playing Field
Most studies of athletes’ aggression outside of sports events examine the behavior of adolescent and college-age competitors. Male participation in high-contact athletics appears to be associated with an increased risk for non-sports-related aggression, such as fighting or hurting friends or peers. Male athletes may also be at increased risk of other nonviolent antisocial behavior, such as vandalism or theft. Further, entry into aggressive sports can be associated with an increase in violent conduct among boys.
Other evidence suggests that mere participation in athletics does not, by itself, increase the likelihood of aggression, but that the characteristics and norms of particular sports teams and/or athletes themselves may ameliorate or exacerbate risk for violence. Athletes who endorse toughness as desirable; who identify with rigid, stereotypic notions of masculinity; who use alcohol excessively; and/or who have engaged in on-field violence are at greater risk of generalized aggression outside of sports events. Further, coaches who emphasize and reward extreme aggression or toughness increase the likelihood of violent behavior among their athletes. Older players and participants on more skilled, select teams are more likely to use or endorse the use of violence. These factors may be of more importance in determining risk for aggression than is membership on an athletic team.
Athletes and Violence Against Women
Extensive attention has been paid to sexual and physical violence against women by male athletes. On an anecdotal level, mass media accounts are replete with stories of professional athletes who have been accused of or charged with physical or sexual assaults against their female partners or acquaintances. Indeed, college athletes are overrepresented among defendants in sexual assault complaints filed with campus judiciary systems, and participation in “aggressive” sports such as football or wrestling is related to both self-reports of sexually aggressive behavior and to physical aggression with a female partner among some high school and college-age men. Athletic participation is also associated with increased levels of rape myth acceptance and endorsement of interpersonal violence.
Similar to more generalized violence off the playing field, however, the relationship between athletic participation and violence against women may be impacted by additional factors. The connection between athletic team membership and aggression toward women tends to diminish once factors such as attitudes, problem drinking, and perceived male support for aggression have been accounted for. Thus, binge drinking, the degree to which males endorse attributes of “traditional” masculinity (such as toughness, dominance, and sexual prowess), and norms of disrespect for women among peers may be more critical determinants of a male’s risk for intimate aggression than whether or not he participates on a particular athletic team.
Theories of Violence and Sport
Although the relationship between sports and violence is likely complex, theoretical explanations for the link tend to fall along two lines. Invoking cultural spillover theory, Gordon Bloom and Michael Smith have suggested that sports can become arenas in which violence is legitimated and rewarded, increasing the likelihood that the use of violence is perceived to be acceptable and will subsequently spill over outside the sports arena into public and private settings. Violence and aggression in sports may be glorified and supported in multiple ways. Excessive roughness or intimidation during a game may increase an athlete’s or team’s chance of winning, reinforcing the strategic value of violence. Athletes report that extreme toughness is sometimes encouraged by coaches and modeled by teammates, and that status and perceptions of competence may be conferred on team members who are willing to use excessive force or to fight. Fans and the media may also contribute to an athletic atmosphere in which violence becomes normalized and legitimized. Research suggests that, in addition to the action and display of athletic skills, the opportunity to view violent incidents is a top reason that viewers tune into televised sports. Violent incidents during games may get as much or more media air time than the outcome of sporting events. Taken together, these multiple reinforcers for aggressive behavior during competition may increase an athlete’s sense of entitlement to the use of force or violence in other contexts.
The second explanation focuses more specifically on the role of masculinity both in athletic participation and in aggression. Sports have been identified as an arena in which boys are socialized into and can demonstrate stereotypical traits associated with masculinity, such as dominance, achievement, toughness, rejection of anything perceived to be feminine, and suppression of emotion. Participating in all-male high-contact sports can serve both to expose boys and men to hypermasculine attitudes and beliefs and to provide them with an acceptable outlet to display traditional masculinity. Although certainly not universal, athletes report that coaching and training may be infused with “masculine” injunctions to “tough it out,” as well as sexist or homophobic insults comparing failure to being feminine or gay. Given the longstanding connection between adherence to traditional norms of masculinity and the risk for interpersonal violence, athletic teams that particularly reinforce narrow conceptions of masculinity, and that couple notions of masculinity with violence, may exacerbate risk for aggression among their male players.
- Bloom, G. A., & Smith, M. D. (1996). Hockey violence: A test of the cultural spillover theory. Sociology of Sport Journal, 13, 65-78.
- Forbes, G. B., Adams-Curtis, L. E., Pakalka, A. H., & White, K. B. (2006). Dating aggression, sexual coercion, and aggression-supporting attitudes among college men as a function of participation in aggressive high school sports. Violence Against Women, 12, 441-155.
- Smith, M. D. (1983). What is sports violence? A sociolegal perspective. In J. H. Goldstein (Ed.), Sports violence (pp. 33-15). New York: Springer.
- Young, K. (2000). Sport and violence. In J. Coakley & E. Dunning (Eds.), Handbook of sports studies (pp. 382-107). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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