Teenage boys who play sports like football and basketball are usually very popular with members of the opposite sex. But, according to a new study, teen athletes who engage in one or both of these sports are almost twice as likely as other boys to have recently been abusive to their girlfriends.
In the study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers found that the hyper-masculine attitude that is often cultivated among players in certain sports may lead to aggression off of the court.
According to the National Institute of Justice, a National Violence Against Women Survey reports that approximately 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner every year in the U.S.
One in Three Young Adults Experience Violence
According to the study authors, one in three young people experience physical, psychological, or sexual violence in romantic relationships at some time. Eyeing the evidence that there is a connection between violent sports and dating abuse among college athletes, the researchers confirmed that this association also exists in teen athletes.
Evaluating survey data from another study of California high school students in grades 9 through 12, the researchers found that 1,648 male high school athletes had been involved in at least one relationship with a female for more than a week.
The teens replied to the survey about their feelings on gender and what's expected from males and females in relationships. The teens also revealed if during the previous three months they had physically, verbally, or sexually abused a partner. The boys also discussed their engagement in several high school sports, including basketball, football, soccer, volleyball, wrestling, baseball, tennis, golf, swimming, cross-country, and track and field.
276 of the boys reported being involved in some type of relationship abuse. Comparing answers about gender attitudes and rates of relationship abuse among athletes in various sports, the researchers found that those who held hyper-masculine attitudes were three times more likely to have recently abused their female partners.
Football and Basketball Players Are Most Aggressive
Which sports lend themselves to more hyper-masculine attitudes? Football and basketball players were more prone to hyper-masculine attitudes about gender and relationships compared to wrestlers, swimmers, and tennis players.
Boys who played both football and basketball were twice as likely to have abused their dating partners as the other boys, while boys who only played football were about 50 percent more likely to have abused their partners.
Lead study author Heather McCauley, ScD, MS, a social epidemiologist in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, told Healthline, “This indicates there is something in the context of these youths beyond their hyper-masculine attitudes that makes these boys more likely to use violence in their dating relationships. We hypothesize this may be related to the status and resulting power of these sports in society, the misperception that violence is a normal part of dating relationships, and the belief that their peers are doing the same thing.”
McCauley went on to explain that engaging coaches to discuss healthy relationships is an innovative strategy to tackle these issues because coaches are often role models for these boys during the critical developmental period of adolescence. “Student athletes are similarly important targets of intervention because they are often visible role models for other students in their schools with the potential to shift norms around violence in the greater school community,” said McCauley.
"Coaching Boys into Men" (CBIM) is an evidence-based bystander intervention program that teaches coaches to discuss masculinity and healthy relationships with their athletes over the course of a sports season. “Our evaluation found that boys exposed to the program were less likely to abuse their dating partners compared to athletes without exposure to the program," McCauley said. "We are excited by what appears to be a sustained impact CBIM has had on both participating coaches and athletes and are currently working on ways to incorporate CBIM into community sports programs."
Non-Athletic Extracurriculars Help Prevent Fights
A separate study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, which was published in American Sociological Review, suggests that athletes who participate in contact-heavy team sports, such as football, are more likely to commit violence off the field.
The study analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which included nearly 100,000 students in grades 7 to 12. The researchers found a positive relationship between participation in middle school and high school sports and fighting off the field. The strongest correlation was for football players, who were nearly 40 percent more likely than non-athletes to be involved in a serious fight off the field.
The study’s authors caution that their findings do not necessarily establish that playing aggressive contact sports causes kids to become more violent off the field, only that they are related.
On the bright side, the study found that involvement in a non-athletic extracurricular activity decreased the likelihood of getting into a fight by over 25 percent. What’s more, age, family and socioeconomic status, parent attachment, and school commitment also contributed to making fighting less likely.