While the benefits of sports participation for girls and boys are well known, less publicized are the downsides of such participation. A study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University published in the October 2007 issue of 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.
Analyzing data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health on nearly 100,000 students grades 7-12, the study found a positive relationship between participation in middle school and high school interscholastic sports and fighting off the field, with the strongest correlation for football players, who were nearly 40% more likely than non-athletes to be involved in a serious off-the-field fight, and wrestlers.
By contrast, the study found that involvement in a non-athletic extracurricular activity decreased the likelihood of getting into a fight by over 25% and that age, family and socioeconomic status, parent attachment and school commitment also made fighting less likely.
Note of caution about results
The new study, however, does not suggest, much less establish, that playing aggressive contact sports causes kids to become more violent off the field, only that they are related.
Sociologists have suggested a number of explanations for the correlation, such as that contact sports attract athletes who are more prone to violence in the first place.
Benefits to boys of sports
The study confirms what has long been known about youth sports: participation is often a mixed blessing.
On the plus side, boys gain enormous benefits from sports. Sports:
Help keep boys active and physically fit
Provide boys a healthy way to channel their intense physicality and aggression
Help boys develop self-control
Help boys develop self-confidence
- Develop social skills and friendships (Indeed, sports are central to boys' social relationships)
Studies also show that boys who play sports in high school get better grades and do better on standardized tests than those who don't.
Finally, participation in sports makes it less likely that a boy will:
Use drugs, or
- Think about or commit suicide
Downsides of sports for boys
On the negative side, as MomsTeam founder and editor-in-chief, Brooke de Lench, points out in her book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, youth sports appear to promote a "jock culture," and have been criticized for:
putting athletes on pedestals and above the rules (i.e. lower academic standards, bending or ignoring team or league rules to avoid suspension of star athlete)
promoting a culture where racism, sexism and homophobia are tolerated, and
- promoting or at least tolerating on and off-the-field violence.
Reducing Off-the-Field Violence: Some Advice
The authors of the study give the following advice on ways to reduce off-the-field violence by athletes in contact sports:
Preclude problematic youth from contact sports
Make it clear that off-the-field violence will not be tolerated or condoned; and
- Avoid fostering an aggressive, violent or "winning is everything" atmosphere.
For her part, De Lench makes additional suggestions in Home Team Advantage for ways mothers - indeed all parents - to break the link between participation in contact sports and off-the-field violence, including:
Teaching healthy masculinity: let your son know that he does not need to play sports, particularly aggressive, contact sports, in order to prove his masculinity and heterosexuality, and that there are healthy ways to deal with physical and emotional pain and learn ways to resolve conflicts in a nonviolent way; and
- Avoid reinforcing the jock culture by insisting that your son's school treat athletes and non-athletes the same and by strictly enforcing team and league rules, such as rules requiring the suspension of athletes violating the no-drinking policy.
Kreager, Derek A. et. al. "Unnecessary Roughness? School Sports, Peer Networks, and Male Adolescent Violence." American Sociological Review 72:705-724 (2007).
De Lench, Brooke. Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports. New York. HarperCollins, 2006.