It is not clear if on-field violent behavior leads to off-field violence. Common sense suggests that people who become accustomed to using physical intimidation and violence in sport naturally revert to those behaviors when facing conflict outside of sport. Athletes who hang out at bars, restaurants, or clubs are often targets for other tough guys, who bait them with insults and disrespect. The athlete, who feels his manhood is being challenged, may struggle not to respond with physical force. However, athletes who do respond physically may be simply reflecting cultural upbringing that was established outside of sport. Sport may not be the cause of violence, but rather a result of the athletes’ upbringing or natural disposition, which led them to choose a violent sport. As we saw in chapter 13, young males from lower socioeconomic classes tend to embrace sport to prove their masculinity. Any challenge to their manliness compels them to respond or lose face in front of their peers.
Alcohol consumption and binge drinking add to the problem of violence. In chapter 7 we discussed studies showing that athletes are more likely than nonathletes to binge. Athletes who are not in full command of their faculties are more likely to lose control and commit violent acts.
A sensitive topic for many athletes is the apparent rise in violence against women among male athletes. Most men would be quick to say that they respect women and certainly don’t intend women harm. Here are some statistics from the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes on its website at ncava.org:
- A three-year study showed that while male student-athletes make up 3% of the population on college campuses, they account for 19% of sexual assaults and 35% of domestic assaults on college campuses.
- Athletes commit one in three college sexual assaults.
- The general population has a conviction rate of 80% for sexual assaults, while the rate for athletes is only 38%.
These statistics were gathered from 107 cases of sexual assault reported at 30 Division I schools between 1991 and 1993 (Crosset, Benedict, and McDonald 1995). Critics of this study say the sample size was relatively small and was not controlled for the use of alcohol, the use of tobacco, and the man’s attitude toward women. Those three factors are the main predictors of a male’s inclination toward gender violence. More recent studies have corroborated the study by Crosset and colleagues, and one researcher concluded that “a disproportionate number of campus gang rapes involve fraternities or athlete groups” (Simmons 2002). However, Todd Crosset (1999) reviewed the published research on violence against women by male athletes and concluded that while male athletes seem to be more frequently involved in sexual assaults than other male students, the differences between the two groups were not statistically significant.
Domestic violence is the number-one crime perpetrated by athletes (Benedict and Yaeger 1998). In almost every case, the domestic violence involves male athletes who play violent sports physically abusing wives or girlfriends. In 2010, starting running back Steve Jackson of the St. Louis Rams was accused of beating up his girlfriend while she was nine months pregnant with his child. His former girlfriend, Supriya Harris, said that Jackson “forcibly grabbed my arm, flung me against the door and repeatedly pushed me to the ground.” Jackson took Harris to the hospital and told her to tell the doctors she had fallen in the shower. Ten days later, she delivered their child, but the couple separated four months later after he threatened her again (TMZ 2010).
Yet it is not clear that athletes are any more involved in serious crime than the general population is. In a follow-up study, Blumstein and Benedict (1999) showed that 23% of the males in cities with a population of 250,000 or more are arrested for a serious crime at some point in their life. That compares with the 21.4% of NFL football players who had been arrested for something more serious than a minor crime as reported in Benedict’s earlier study (Benedict and Yaeger 1998). In fact, when Blumstein and Benedict compared NFL players with young men from similar racial backgrounds, they discovered that the arrest rates for NFL players were less than half that of the other group for crimes of domestic violence and nondomestic assaults. Is it difficult or nearly impossible to turn the violence off as soon as practice or the game is over? The majority of athletes who display violent on-field behavior don’t continue their aggression off the field. If they did, the court records and news media would surely let us know. We simply do not have enough research to address this question, nor do we have complete data on the incidence of domestic violence by athletes. Most families prefer not to publicize such incidents until they become frequent or incapacitating, and most women do not wish to press charges.
Some athletes do develop a sense of entitlement as their fame grows (Benedict and Yaeger 1998). Whatever city they’re in, male athletes are surrounded by female groupies. The athletes often treat these women with disdain and yet are still tempted by their offers of sex. Wilt Chamberlain, a former great NBA player, boasted in his autobiography that he had slept with over 20,000 women . . . which, if true, shows a definite degree of deviance (ESPN 1999).
A notable case involved boxer Mike Tyson, who attacked and raped Desiree Washington, a church- going beauty queen with a squeaky-clean image. Although Tyson was convicted and sent to jail, Washington’s career, psyche, and reputation were sullied forever. Typically, the male aggressor contends that his victim was “asking for it” and acting like a “slut.” Tyson claimed that he did not rape Washington, but once she filed charges he became so angry that he said, “I just hate her. Now I really do want to rape her” (Rivers 2003).
More recent cases of violence or rape charges against prominent superstars such as basketball player Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and football player Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers illustrate just how difficult it is to evaluate the facts of the cases. While both players admitted to a consensual sexual relationship, they denied having forced themselves on the women. It is no secret that there are many cases of women who actively pursue a relationship with a famous athlete and then later renounce their responsibility for it. Although some of these cases make high-profile news reports, the legal process is often lengthy and costly and in the final analysis reveals only shades of gray in assigning blame.
Perhaps no case captured the public’s attention as much as that of O.J. Simpson, who was accused but found not guilty of killing his wife Nicole in 1994. As a football player, Simpson had won the Heisman Trophy in 1968 while at the University of Southern California, and he went on to stardom in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills and then the San Francisco 49ers. Simpson followed his football career as an on-air television sportscaster and was a familiar television personality. In spite of widespread suspicion of his guilt, Simpson was acquitted of all charges. However, in 1997, he was held liable in civil court for the deaths of Nicole and her acquaintance Ron Goldman, who had been at her home. O.J.’s case is often pointed to as the ultimate example of a professional athlete who avoided punishment because of his money and fame.
Could reports of violent behavior by professional football and basketball players be rooted in the racist fears of the U.S. public? You’ll recall that table 11.3 showed the percentage of African Americans in 2008 in the NFL to be 66% and in the NBA to be 77%. With such dominance also comes some jealousy and suspicion on the part of whites about violent black men since they see violent behavior on the football field or the basketball court. According to the National Opinion Research Center survey sponsored by the National Science Foundation at the University of Chicago, 56% of Caucasian Americans believe African Americans are more violent than whites are (Lapchick 1999). Also, of the 1,600 daily newspapers published in the United States, fewer than half a dozen have African American sport editors in cities where there are pro franchises. The United States appears to have Caucasian American sport journalists writing for a Caucasian American audience that may already have prejudiced views of African American men.
While there is no question that violence occurs, when it involves football or basketball athletes it receives exhaustive media coverage. Since African American men dominate those sports, if they are involved in violent behavior it is practically guaranteed that the case will be widely publicized. African Americans such as Satch Sanders, who helped the Boston Celtics win eight world championships, are outraged by the violent portrayal of African American athletes. They point to the millions of dollars that famous athletes donate to schools, charities, and youth foundations. Most professional athletes are solid family men who respect their wives, mothers, sisters, and women in general. Joyce Williams-Mitchell is the executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women’s Service Groups and an African American woman who hates the violent image of athletes. She says, “It is a myth! Most batterers are men who control women through their profession, and they include police officers, clergymen, dentists, and judges. Athletes get the headlines, though, and an unfair public rap. Men from every profession (regardless of race) have the potential to be batterers” (Lapchick 1999).
As already stated, we need more research before coming to any conclusions about violence and sport. Rather than rely on sensational examples from the press, we need solid data such as rates of occurrence to compare with the data for other groups of people. Drug and alcohol use should also be noted, since they and not sport may be the cause of violence. No one is helped by sensationalized reporting or hidden facts. We need to address this issue as a society and take steps to prevent violence (Hughes 2004).