Over the years, high school sports have traditionally been seen as a positive factor in students’ lives, giving them something to do, keeping them away from delinquency and deviance, teaching them teamwork, instilling in them team spirit and school pride, and providing many with college scholarships. But what of the darker side of sports? What of the associated violence, which may take many forms, and can include many actors, including the players, the cheerleaders, the coaches, the parents, and the fans?
A high school student receives a serious head injury during a football game. Another athlete goes back on the field with a partially healed broken bone and loaded with painkillers. A student suffers a ruptured spleen as a result of an athletic team hazing. Two parents get into fisticuffs at a youth hockey game, and one of them ends up dead. What do we mean by violence and high school athletics? In fact, we mean all of the above, and more.
Some sports, by their very nature, are violent; a certain amount of aggression is allowed, even encouraged. Certain coaching styles may encourage higher levels of aggression. Some high school athletes are rewarded by coaches when they hurt other players, and they may be rewarded again when they receive college scholarships or professional offers to play. Violence on the court or field or rink may be defined as aggressive, dangerous, or excessive unwarranted behaviors that go beyond the bounds of safety and good sportsmanship. Sometimes this violence is intensified because of long-standing team rivalries, rivalries between individual teammates, the desire to win, and the urging of coaches, fans, and parents. One study found that more than 6% of high school sports injuries were caused by illegal actions on the field, particularly in girls’ basketball and both boys’ and girls’ soccer. When sports violence gets out of hand and goes beyond the realm of what is expected, there are restrictions and penalties to punish those who carry it too far.
Students participating in high school sports suffer millions of injuries each year. Two important factors link these injuries to the concept of violence. First, many of these injuries occur in sports that we consider to be violent by nature–football, hockey, rugby, wrestling, and boxing, for example. Second, recurrent injuries are deemed to be more harmful, yet the reality is that many students are encouraged to play before their injuries are completely healed and while loaded up on painkillers to get them through the game. These are unique forms of violence, but violence nonetheless. Recurrent injuries typically involve the head, the ankle, the shoulder, and the knee, and include injuries such as concussions, sprains, strains, and tears. Some injuries may have a permanent effect on the student’s lifelong health, just as surely as if they had been brutally mugged on the street.
While a small number of studies differentiate between genders, the majority of research on sports violence has focused on males. Recent research indicates that there is a correlation between males’ participation in high school sports and their propensity to engage in fighting, drinking and binge drinking (also correlated with violence), and violence in social settings other than sports. Other studies have found no relationship between sports participation and violent delinquency for either boys or girls; in fact, some researchers have reported that sports can keep young people occupied between the peak hours of juvenile delinquency, from 3:00 p.m.to6:00 p.m.–that is, after students get out of school, but before their parents arrive home from work. These findings are not necessarily contradictory; one set of studies finds that students who are involved in sports are more likely to get into physical fights than those who are engaged in other activities; another set of studies finds that athletes are less likely to engage in fighting than students who are not involved in any organized activities whatsoever. Some studies have broken down the propensity to fight by the type of sports activity, and found that football players and wrestlers (and even their non-athletic friends) are much more likely to engage in fighting than those playing tennis, basketball, or baseball. Rates of violent and aggressive behaviors among sports participants are similar across rural, suburban, and urban settings.
Some researchers have proposed a direct link between the jocks in the school and the proliferation of school shootings. For example, at Columbine High School, many felt there was a “cult of the athlete,” meaning that the coaches and jocks ran the school, not just on the field, but in the halls and any other place where jocks were to be found. It was alleged that student-athletes harassed, humiliated, intimidated, and used violence against the outcasts, such as shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. In fact, there is a strong pattern of school shooters having been bullied mercilessly (albeit not exclusively by athletes) before they acted.
Another type of violence occurring in high school athletics is hazing. Although there has been widespread publicity about and public outcry against this practice, hazing continues to occur in the schools, and it is very often associated with high school sports teams. Some people believe that hazing today is much more vicious than it was in years past. As a result of hazing, a number of young people have been sexually assaulted, slapped, slugged in the stomach, beaten with hockey sticks or sand-filled bats, dropped on their heads or faces, and piled upon by multiple team members. Youngsters have suffered broken arms, concussions, lacerated/ ruptured spleens, broken noses, head injuries, and dental injuries as a result of being hazed. Making the problem even worse is the fact that many times coaches are aware of hazing, but do not intervene to stop it. Some forms of hazing have been comparable to adult criminal activities; consequently, some coaches and players have been charged with criminal offenses, and school authorities have been charged with not reporting instances of child sexual abuse.
Dating violence and sexual assault are among the most prevalent forms of violent crime, in general and specific to athletes. A number of studies have found a correlation between participation in aggressive high school sports and the attitudes of the (male) players toward women. These males have been found to hold more sexist attitudes toward women, and to demonstrate more hostility toward women; they are more likely to use coercion in dating relationships, and are more likely to buy into the rape myths. (Typical rape myths include “no” really means “yes,” she was asking for it, and women enjoy being raped.) According to some scholars, success on the field, success with women, and violence are all tools that can raise one’s status in the process of male bonding. Of course, although there appears to be a relationship between sports participation and the acceptability of violence in dating, not all athletes are violent in their personal relationships. One scholar, in looking at the relationship between dating violence and sports participation, found that the significant factors were not simply athletic participation or competitiveness, but the need to win or hypercompetitiveness (a “must win” attitude, or the “need to win at any cost”).
Sometimes sporting events, particularly evening events, attract unruly crowds, and sometimes students end up dead, as in the case of a California honor student who was shot to death after a high school football game. From Mississippi to Nebraska to Alabama, from football to basketball games (particularly between schools engaged in fierce rivalries), we are seeing everything from after-game brawls to after-game gunshot wounds. Sometimes violence can be attributed to students, at other times to the unruly out-of-school crowds attracted by the game.
Violence does not have to involve the players themselves. It may involve the parents, the coaches, the referees, and the fans. The violence of the parents even has its own name: youth sports rage. In some cases, parental rage has resulted in the death of a coach or another parent, such as the case in Massachusetts where two hockey dads got into a deadly fight–in a bizarre twist, they brawled over the use of violence in the children’s hockey game. Youth sports rage has become such a problem that some states, such as New Jersey, are creating or upgrading laws to deal more harshly with parents who become violent in the presence of children at sporting events. While some believe this type of behavior is on the increase, this perception is difficult to confirm; it may be that the media hype associated with the most sensational cases is driving this belief.
One theory that helps to explain violence off the courts is the cultural spillover theory. Simply stated, it suggests that violence by players off the field is the result of society legitimizing violence when it leads to certain socially approved goals or outcomes (such as winning a sporting event)–a modern twist on the old adage, “The end justifies the means.” Research indicates that for older players on highly competitive teams, there is indeed a correlation between their sports violence and their violent behavior or their attitude toward violence in certain other settings. Older select league hockey players are more likely to let hockey violence spill over into violence in other sports. By comparison, younger house-league boys are more likely to be involved in domestic violence (although researchers are not certain as to why this is so).
The modeling theory suggests that young children tend to model their attitudes and behaviors on what they see. It is fair to say that young children emulate the behavior of their parents and other close relatives, and that they emulate other role models as well. Professional athletes tend to become role models for young children. The behavior of many professional athletes, both on and off the field, is deplorable, ranging from sexual violence against women, to sponsoring of dog fights, to bar-room brawls, to one former athlete’s murder of his wife and her friend. The behavior of the fans, including the child’s own relatives, in front of the television or in the stands may also have a deleterious effect on the young child. Children see that in athletics violence is greatly admired and valued, particularly when it leads to a victory. Also, in many cases, the child’s games have become so important to the parent, and the parent has such high expectations for performance and the winning of the game, that many children are probably playing much more aggressively than they would if their main objective was to hang out with their friends and have fun. Children may also admire their coaches and look to them as role models, while many coaches, intent on winning, push children into behaviors that inappropriate for their age and incompatible with our societal values.
Other perspectives that help to explain the elevated levels of violence among some athletes include the theory that some young athletes, who because of their “jock identity” tend to belong to the “in-crowd,” are greatly admired, believe they are above the law, and are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior to demonstrate their masculinity. Jock identity is more highly correlated with violence than mere athletic participation. Among the studies that looked at gender, the correlation was higher for males than for females. Another theory is simply that contact sports create positive reactions to violence and/or aggression.
A number of groups have emerged that focus on reducing violence involving and surrounding athletics. Athletes Helping Athletes trains high school athletes in motivational speaking related to violence prevention, among other things. The National Coalition Against Violent Athletes (NCAVA) and Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) are two groups that work with athletes and with the public to foster violence prevention through education and outreach programs. MVP encourages young men to become “empowered bystanders” who confront abusers and support victims.
Several other possible solutions have been proposed by a variety of researchers and organizations. Good sportsmanship should be stressed for all players, but especially for youths. Parents, coaches, and children should sign a contract agreeing to maintain civil and non-injurious behaviors on the field and in the stands. Players should not be encouraged to engage in activities designed to “take the other team (or player) out.” Fair play and fun should be encouraged. Tougher penalties (such as not being allowed to play for a certain amount of time) could be meted out for on-court misbehavior and violence.
Some believe that youth sports organizations should be licensed, just as day care centers and other organizations are. Background checks should be conducted on coaches. Coaches who believe in nonviolence should be hired and then trained in violence prevention.
Unruly spectators, including parents, could be banned or (as in some places) placed far enough away from the field that they cannot attack a coach or referee or yell inappropriately at the players. Perhaps more violent spectators, and even some overly violent athletes, should be prosecuted in a criminal court.
Finally, with regard to dating violence, mentoring programs could take an athlete-to-athlete approach to speak out against violence and teach athletes about healthy relationships. All of these measures could help emphasize the positive aspects of sports and reduce the some of the associated violence.
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