Researchers say the "hypermasculine" attitudes
encouraged in some sports may foster aggression off the field, but
the locker room can also be a place to teach boys about healthy
relationships and avoiding violence.
"We need to create a safe place for our youth to discuss healthy
masculinity, healthy relationships and the idea that violence never
equals strength," said Heather McCauley, a researcher at University
of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the Children's Hospital of
Pittsburgh of UPMC, who led the study.
In the U.S., women experience 2 million injuries from intimate
partner violence each year, and nearly one quarter of women
experience violence by a current or former spouse or boyfriend at
some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.
Recent research suggests that one in three youth experience
physical, psychological or sexual violence in romantic
relationships, McCauley and her coauthors note in the Journal of
Violent sports and dating abuse have been linked among college
athletes, but McCauley's team wanted to know if the association
could be seen in even younger athletes.
They analyzed data from 16 Northern California high schools that had
participated in surveys for another study.
A total of 1,648 male high school athletes who indicated they had
been in at least one relationship with a girl for more than one week
were included in the analysis.
The boys, who were in ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades,
were asked about their attitudes toward gender and what's expected
from males and females in relationships.
They were also asked if they had physically, verbally or sexually
abused their dating partners during the previous three months.
The boys were asked about their participation in high school sports,
including basketball, football, soccer, volleyball, wrestling,
baseball, tennis, golf, swimming, cross-country or track and field.
The researchers found that 276 boys reported being involved in some
type of relationship abuse.
When the researchers compared the survey answers about gender
attitudes and rates of relationship abuse among athletes in
different sports, they found "boys who had hypermasculine attitudes
were three times more likely to have recently abused their female
dating partners," McCauley said. "That's in the entire sample and
it's a pretty strong association."
Moreover, football and basketball players tended to have more
hyper-masculine attitudes about gender and relationships than
wrestlers, swimmers and tennis players, who held more equitable
attitudes about males and females.
Overall, 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.
"It was really fascinating — boys who play football and basketball
were more likely to hold hypermasculine attitudes compared to their
peers playing in other sports," McCauley said.
"But interestingly, even after accounting for these attitudes, boys
who played football or both football and basketball were more likely
to have recently abused their dating partners," McCauley said.
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"So this indicates that there's something in the environment of
these youths even beyond these gender attitudes that is sending the
message that it's acceptable to use aggression and violence off the
field and in their dating relationships," she said.
In past research, McCauley has also studied the Coaching Boys into
Men program, created by the organization Futures Without Violence to
engage men and boys in the prevention of violence against women and
"We found that one year later, boys who were exposed to the Coaching
Boys into Men program reported less abuse perpetration against their
dating partners, so it certainly is an exciting program for sure,"
Coaches present the program to student-athletes throughout the
season, McCauley said. Lessons include how to step in and say
something when students see peers doing something they shouldn't be
doing, and promoting nonviolence and discussing healthy masculinity.
Michael Merten told Reuters Health that he isn't surprised McCauley
and her colleagues found that football players perpetrated more
violence. "You're telling these football players to hit someone or
knock him out — is that spilling over into relationships?" he asked
Merten, from the Youth and Family Health Research lab at Oklahoma
State University in Tulsa, was not involved in the new study. But he
has previously examined the role of sports participation and
competitive attitudes on acceptance of dating violence in teens.
He said there's a "spillover theory" that says "what you do in your
everyday life tends to spill over" into relationships.
"So it's kind of like mixed messages — and this is what is
happening early with youth sports — (kids are told) to do one thing
in the sport, yet when you're in the context of relationships, that
behavior's not acceptable," Merten said.
Still, it's up to coaches to teach the kids that while it's okay to
be aggressive in the sport, they still have to do the right things
away from the game, he said.
Athletes who have a win-at-all-costs attitude, or a 'high win
orientation' might be more prone to violence, Merten added.
"I think we are dealing with some of these athletes — it's probably
that attitude that leads to more violence," he said
"But the thing I found in my work in this area was that just because
someone participates in sports doesn't make them more likely to
perpetrate violence or have worse attitudes — you have to look more
specifically at each individual."
Journal of Adolescent Health, online Feb. 28, 2014.
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