Exercise is important to a person’s mental and physical health. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of physical activity, especially for children and adolescents. Being active in youth can lead to a healthier adulthood, with reduced risk of developing common preventable diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. Playing team sports also helps adolescents develop valuable character traits, such as teamwork, accountability, and integrity.
However, there is a dark side to being an athlete. Recently, studies have demonstrated the downsides of playing competitive sports in youth, including increased risk of injury, especially concussions, and aggressive behavior. A recent study shows another reason playing some sports might be bad for teenage boys: it increases the chance that they will abuse their romantic partner.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine found a correlation between high school male basketball and football players and girlfriend abuse. Previous studies observed that college athletes are more prone to abusing their girlfriends physically, sexually, or psychologically. The research team wanted to see if some of this behavior pattern began at an earlier age.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from a previous study, on the efficacy of Coaching Boys into Men, which was a school-based clustered randomized trial. The Coaching Boys into Men program, associated with the organization Futures without Violence, has been developed to foster ways to educate student athletes about respect and to reduce violence. Coaches present lessons throughout the season that demonstrate how to interfere when students notice their peers doing something wrong. The program also promotes nonviolence and teaches healthy masculinity.
Students in grades 9 to 12 from 16 Northern California high schools answered surveys. For this study, the researchers focused on a total of 1,648 male high school athletes who had been in at least one relationship with a girl lasting more than one week. Some questions focused on attitudes about gender roles, including what is expected from males and females in relationships. There were also questions about whether the participants had physically, verbally or sexually abused their partners in the previous three months. The students also stated whether they played any high school sports, including basketball, football, soccer, volleyball, wrestling, baseball, tennis, golf, swimming, cross-country or track and field.
According to the study, the prevalence in young people of physical, psychological or sexual violence occurring at some point in a romantic relationship is one in three. There were 276 participants who reported being involved in some type of abuse in their relationships.
The boys with hypermasculine attitudes about gender roles and relationships were three times more likely to have recently abused their partners. Football and basketball players had the highest level of hypermasculine attitudes, while wrestlers, swimmers and tennis players had more equitable attitudes about male and female gender roles.
Playing basketball and football provided the highest risk factors for abusing dating partners. Participants who played both sports were twice as likely to have abused their girlfriends, while those who only played football were 50 percent more likely to abuse their partners.
Although football and basketball had higher hypermasculine views of gender roles, there was still a higher chance of the boys playing football or both football and basketball to have engaged in abuse even when accounting for these attitudes.
The researchers believe their findings suggest the environment in these sports might be sending a message that is it acceptable to use aggression and violence off the field and in relationships. Lead study author Heather McCauley, ScD, MS, a social epidemiologist in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, told Healthline: “This indicates there is something in the context of these youths beyond their hyper-masculine attitudes that makes these boys more likely to use violence in their dating relationships. We hypothesize this may be related to the status and resulting power of these sports in society, the misperception that violence is a normal part of dating relationships, and the belief that their peers are doing the same thing.”
These actions might also be due to spillover theory, which says that a person’s daily actions will influence how he or she acts in a relationship. If the boys in these sports are continually encouraged to be aggressive on the court or field, and are surrounded by stereotyped beliefs about gender roles and proper behavior patterns, then they will bring that aggression into their relationships outside of the sport. A previous study has also found that violent behavior in football players is 40 percent higher than those who do not play.
Other research conducted by the same researchers verified the program is effective in decreasing violent and other troublesome behavior. As McCauley states, “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.”
Playing sports can be an invaluable experience for a child or adolescent. However, it is important to ensure that the negative consequences are reduced as much as possible to keep the athlete safe, both physically and mentally. Additionally, it is important to ensure that the competitive and aggressive behavior idealized on the field remains there. With the right mentoring and leadership, many of these problems can be avoided. Knowing the most at-risk athletes, namely football and basketball players, can help focus these preventative measures, although all players benefit from the lessons.