Sports, violence, and rape culture
During the Louisville Cardinals’ regional semifinal game against Duke in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, sophomore guard Kevin Ware leapt to block a three-point attempt. Landing awkwardly, he suffered a compound fracture to his right leg. As Ware fell to the floor writhing in pain, with bone sticking through his skin, fans across the country gasped in horror.
It was one of the worst injuries seen in national-level basketball in living memory, but injuries in athletics are understood to be part of the game, albeit a tragic and seldom-discussed one – at least apart from the effects injured players will have on a team’s prospects.
But in recent years, there’s been at least a marginally increasing awareness of the rather pervasive and long-lasting physical effects of sports injuries – enough so that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno announced last August that their organizations were working together to combat the prevalence of traumatic brain injury both to soldiers and professional football players.
Physical injuries, however, aren’t the only risk of participating in sports. Over the last few years, we’ve seen horrific examples of what athletics can do, not only to players themselves, but to teams, communities, educational institutions – and of course, their victims.
The rape of a teenage girl by two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio last summer is only the most recent prominent example. In March, two high school football players in Torrington, Connecticut, were accused of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl, while four of their teammates were still under investigation for a “hazing scandal” from last fall.
In January, as previously covered here at Angry Black Lady Chronicles, two Notre Dame University football players were suspected of raping a female freshman of a neighboring college in August, 2010.
While Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thus far dodged any prosecution and remained a star player for the team, since 2010 he’s been haunted by multiple accusations of sexual assault and rape.
Athletics occupy a uniquely idolized space in U.S. culture, where playing sports is commonly seen as a means not simply to physical fitness, but to scholarships, fame, and fortune. The mere chance at NBA stardom was good enough for Kevin Ware to give his all – and suffer for it – during March Madness this year, and who can blame him? Professional athletes aren’t just rich and famous, they’re heroes.
There is, however, a dark side to athletics and American athletics culture, as the anecdotal examples above hopefully illustrate. The conventional wisdom has always been that participation in sports leads to better-adjusted students who wind up becoming upstanding citizens in successful careers.
During a recent dust-up here over the topic of video games and violence, I suggested to my interlocutor that any measurement of “aggression spikes” in brain chemistry caused by video game play was meaningless unless it was compared to similar such “spikes” in other activities, such as football. This was pooh-poohed, but as it happens, there are researchers who are looking at the prevalence of violent behavior – not just biochemical “aggression spikes” – in male athletes.
One such researcher is sociologist Derek Kreager of the University of Pennsylvania, whose 2007 paper “Unnecessary Roughness” was published in The American Sociological Review. Using a massive dataset spanning more than a decade and thousands of student athletes, Kreager found that participation in contact sports makes teenage boys significantly more likely to be involved in a serious physical fight or other violent altercation.
Kreager found that playing football in middle- and high-school increases the likelihood of getting into a physical fight by more than 40 percent, while wrestlers are 45 percent more likely than nonathletes to get into a fight (nonviolent sports had the opposite effect, with tennis players being 35 percent less likely to fight).
But Kreager found another interesting trend in his data – it wasn’t just football players who demonstrated an increased propensity for fighting. Male students whose peer groups consisted primarily of football players also showed a significantly elevated rate of fighting.
The risk of fighting increases with higher proportions of football friends. Males with all-football friends are expected to have a 45 percent probability of getting into a serious fight, more than 8 percentage points higher than males with all-tennis friends. Like Haynie’s (2002) examination of the relationship between delinquency and delinquent friendship networks, this analysis suggests that embeddedness in homogeneous peer networks most effectively constrains individual behaviors toward group norms and increases opportunities for group-related behavior. In this case, the norms and opportunities associated with all-football friend networks are positively associated with increased male violence.
This should really be utterly unsurprising. To be successful in football, players must learn to physically dominate others. Failure to do so means replacement by someone who can. In football, “better” is synonymous with bigger, stronger, faster, and – yes – more aggressive.
While the majority of players may be able to compartmentalize these traits and keep them on the field, is it shocking at all to learn that there is a significant number of players who cannot? And in the penumbra around the field – in the locker rooms and sports bars and cafeterias and clubs and celebratory parties – it might be mildly argued that a culture of hypermasculinity is developed, maintained, worshiped, and shielded from change.
But a fish rots from the head down. Coaches and athletics departments often either passively allow or actively encourage this culture, and even become part of the supporting infrastructure that holds up and sanctifies not only individual players, but also the numinous identity of the team, which includes its leadership.
Coaches can be pivotal in the formative years, but they’re not always positive influences. Rutgers University Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Rice was recently fired, not because he had verbally and physically abused players (calling them “fucking faggots” and shoving them — that earned him a three-game suspension and a fine) but because ESPN broadcast the footage.
T.F. Charlton discusses the phenomena in her Salon piece, “Why Do Athletes Tolerate Abusive Coaches?”:
It would be a mistake, however, to see Mike Rice and Rutgers, or Joe Paterno and Rene Portland at Penn State, as isolated cases, spectacularly rotten apples in an otherwise decent barrel. In reality, much of the sports world accepts as normal and mundane abuses that differ in degree, but not in kind, from the actions of these coaches and their employers.
In what other context could the defenders and protectors of a convicted child-rapist the likes of Jerry Sandusky be treated with anything other than utter contempt? But at Penn State, countless students and Nittany Lions fans rallied in support of former head football coach Joe Paterno, even as an FBI probe was discovering his complicity in Sandusky’s decades-long victimization of young boys. An online petition in support of Reno Saccoccia, the coach of Steubenville’s Big Red football team, had as of this writing garnered 708 signatures. The two Notre Dame players suspected of raping Lizzy Seeberg, the freshman from nearby St. Mary’s College, in August 2010, were set to play Jan. 7 when their team faced Alabama for the BCS Championship.
Notre Dame lost, but Seeberg couldn’t have watched if she wanted to; she had taken her own life on Sept. 9 due to the harassment that resulted from bringing her accusations forward.
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I would never argue that sports – even football, which I enjoy watching and have written about professionally as a sports reporter – are inherently bad. However, it should be a cause for serious alarm when over and over we see athletes and coaches who are involved in horrific violence actively protected by fellow players, staff, and fans. When I hear the term rape culture, what I think it means is how insidiously endemic rape is to our culture, and how we have established a level of tolerance for it. And while many athletes and coaches are undoubtedly paragons of personal courage, valor, and discipline, it seems clear that sports are granted special dispensations.
Summarizing some of the critical feminist literature (Burstyn 1999; Coakley 2001; Connell 1995; Crosset 1999; Messner 1992; Sabo 1994; Young, White, and McTeer 1994) on sports and violence, Kreager writes:
By rewarding physical aggression with on-the-field success and increased prestige, contact sports are portrayed as both elevating athletes above their peers and increasing off-the-field violence toward perceived outsiders and “weaker” students. Masculinized sports then become socially sanctioned stepping-stones toward privilege and power — sites where coaches, peers, parents, and the media encourage masculine identities founded on physical aggression and domination.
It’s too much to hope that this can be changed by something as trite as mandated “sensitivity training,” which is as universally resented as it is ineffectual. But maybe it’s time to take a hard look at our relationship with sports, and how that relationship is fueling the kinds of atavistic behaviors we need to change.
I’ve tried to think of ways this might be accomplished. Can we provide different incentives for coaches and players? I can’t imagine how, since sports are tests of strength and will where winning is always the goal. Players are subject to the same pressure. The best I can come up with is harsher punishments for offenders and their accomplices, and stricter sanctions on complicit coaching staffs and ADs.
But sports do cause violence, and that violence includes rape. It’s time to take a hard look at sports — the whole of it — and to hold athletic culture to the standards we say we respect it for.