New Study Links High School Sports Aggression and Dating Violence
By Doug Abrams
The upcoming issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health features a new study that warrants attention from parents, teachers and coaches of boys who play high school football and basketball. The study found that boys in these two interscholastic sports were nearly twice as likely as other boys to have recently abused their girlfriends in dating relationships. Boys who played both sports were twice as likely to have been abusive, and boys who played only football were 50% more likely.
The study surveyed 1,648 male California high school athletes who had had at least one relationship with a girl for more than a week. The researchers, led by Dr. Heather McCauley of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, found a link between “hyper-masculine attitudes” and dating violence. The researchers found these attitudes more prevalent in football and basketball players than in boys who played other sports such as soccer, wrestling, baseball, or track and field.
The new study does not suggest that all, or even most, high school football and basketball players are prone to intimate violence. But the findings do suggest the value of violence-prevention efforts by parents and coaches who raise and mentor high school boys who play these two sports. To be on the safe side, perhaps these prevention efforts should also reach boys in other contact or collision sports. Sports often depends on controlled aggression within the rules of the game, but the rules of the game of life are much different than the rules that prevail on the athletic field.
Parents come first. Peers and adults outside the home influence children and adolescents, but parents remain primarily responsible for teaching social values and the essentials of healthy interpersonal relations. It should not take much for responsible parents to counsel their sons about mutual respect when they begin dating.
Because adolescent dating violence resembles student-on-student bullying, emerging research about bullying prevention can be helpful here. Children are not born with attitudes that reject violence, and they are not born respectful. Non-violence and respect can be learned, and violence and disrespect can be unlearned.
Researchers have found that parents can help prevent bullying by maintaining a household that rejects intimidation and fosters nonviolent conflict management while stressing civility and empathy. Studies have also shown increased propensity for bullying among children who are raised in homes that are marked by abuse, lack of clear disciplinary rules, or the absence of responsible parental supervision.
Teachers and Coaches
Most school-age children attend public schools, where teachers interact with students daily during the academic year. These professionals teach academic subjects, but they also teach what the Supreme Court calls “the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior” and “the shared values of a civilized social order.” Schools do not displace parental influence, but the Court is right that schools remain “a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.” This preparation and adjustment can be centerpieces of anti-violence and anti-bullying curricula designed for the general student body, athletes and non-athletes alike.
In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Dr. McCauley and several of her colleagues identify a special role for “athletic coaches as violence prevention advocates.” The point is well taken, not only because coaches are teachers in every sense of the word, but also because coaches have special opportunities, and thus special responsibilities, to influence their players with high standards. Interscholastic athletes may spend more time with their coaches than with any classroom teacher, and they may hold special respect for the coach forged by team cohesiveness.
Beginning at pre-season players meetings and continuing throughout the schedule and afterwards, the coach should instruct that wholesome personal relationships depend on keeping hands off other people, including girls. For athletes accustomed to local prominence and perhaps special treatment for years, the coach must dispel notions that athletic prowess confers entitlement to commit acts of violence outside the rules and expectations that apply to other students. In triumphs and setbacks alike, aggression must be left on the field, replaced in the greater community by civility and mutual respect.
The recent study of high school dating violence, and similar studies of dating violence committed by male collegiate athletes, mean that prevention efforts by parents at home, teachers in school, and coaches during and after the season must be as persistent as the risks they seek to counter. No prevention effort can reduce the number of unwanted incidents to zero, but significant reduction remains a worthwhile goal because every incident prevented means a victim spared. Dr. McCauley and her researchers point, for example, to positive results achieved by “Coaching Boys into Men,” a program that seeks to “inspire men to teach boys the importance of respecting women and that violence never equals strength.” http://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/content/features/detail/811/
Education is key to socialization, and parents, teachers and coaches are educators. Each performs a distinctive role, but the ultimate goal remains common. The unpalatable alternative to sustained prevention efforts can sometimes be mere reaction to incidents after they occur. Recent national headlines from Steubenville, Ohio and Maryville, Missouri illustrate that adult intervention appears too late once the victim has suffered physical and emotional injury, and once the perpetrator has suffered lasting social stigma or legal punishment.
[Sources: McCauley HL, Jaime MCD, Tancredi DJ, Silverman JG, Decker MR, Austin SB, Jones K, Miller E, Differences in Adolescent Relationship Abuse Perpetration and Gender-Inequitable Attitudes by Sport Among Male High School Athletes, Journal of Adolescent Health (in press 2014); Jaime MC, McCauley HL, Tancredi DJ, Nettiksimmons J, Decker MR, Silverman JG, O’Connor B, Stetkevich N, Miller E, Athletic Coaches as Violence Prevention Advocates, Journal of Interpersonal Violence (in press 2014); Reuters, Teen Boys Who Play Sports Twice as Likely to Admit Abusing a Girlfriend: Study, Mar. 26, 2014; Douglas E. Abrams, A Coordinated Public Response to School Bullying, in Our Promise: Achieving Educational Equity for America’s Children (2009)]