Sports build character — or so we have been told by coaches, fans and a fair number of academics. A young athlete — say, a member of a high school football team — learns what it takes to achieve a goal, absorbing on a visceral level such crucial concepts as teamwork, self-discipline and fair play.
Time out, cry some social scientists. Youth sports, they counter, instill a machismo mindset, promote a winning-is-everything mentality and reinforce the notion that physical violence is an acceptable way to resolve problems.
So which is it? A series of studies in recent years have come to different conclusions, with academics unable to agree on even the seemingly simple question of whether high school athletes are more likely to engage in violent behavior.
Derek Kreager, an assistant professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, concludes in a nuanced new study that there is indeed a connection between youth sports and violence. But he adds that understanding the link involves making some subtle distinctions.
First, he argues, the issue is one of peer-group culture rather than playing time on the field. His research found that wannabes who hang out with the linebackers are, in some cases, more likely to get into violent altercations than the athletes themselves.
Second, he emphasizes, not all sports are created equal. The ones that involve aggressive physical contact have a high correlation with off-the-field violence; the ones that do not have no correlation at all.
And the No. 1 offender is football.
“There is a culture that is associated with certain sports,” Kreager said. “The culture of a tennis player is different than the culture of a football player. The tennis player is less likely to get into a fight. I suggest the reason is they don’t have an identity that revolves around physical violence.”
Kreager, whose study was published in the October 2007 issue of the American Sociological Review, used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. This database of more than 6,000 male students at 120 schools proved detailed enough to enable him to break down the numbers for specific sports. He looked at five: football, baseball, basketball, tennis and wrestling.
He limited his study to young males, in part because girls are far less likely to engage in violence, and in part because the dynamics between sports and gender identity are so different for the two sexes. For boys, participating in sports is strongly equated with masculinity, he notes, while the link between sports and femininity is more tenuous and complicated.
Kreager found that high school football players and wrestlers — that is, participants in the sports with the most intense physical contact — are more than 40 percent more likely than non-athletes to get into a serious fight during a given year. In contrast, athletes who play baseball, basketball or tennis were no more likely to get into a violent altercation than their sedentary schoolmates.
But is the sport at fault, or do violent kids gravitate toward violent sports? After crunching the numbers, Kreager concluded the answer is … both.
“For wrestling, the majority of the effect is explained by prior levels of violence (before they took up the sport),” he said. “Kids who are likely to get into a fight are also likely to wrestle.
“For football, it explains some of the effect, but not that much,” he added. Even after factoring out prior behavior, the link between the sport and violent behavior is strong, and Kreager believes the reasons are inherent in the game itself.
“In tennis, basketball and baseball, you can be successful by being a skillful player,” he noted, “whereas in football, you have to physically dominate somebody else to win the game.
“Also, the rules are much more clear in baseball and basketball. If you take someone down or get into a fight, that’s completely against the norms of the game. That is not true of football.”
With its emphasis on physical force, “The aggression on the (football) field is not cathartic,” Kreager said. “I would argue it becomes part of your identity.”
And on the identity of your peer group.
Kreager found the friends of football players — boys who hang out with members of the team and perhaps see them as role models — are considerably more likely to engage in serious fighting than their classmates. Kreager calculates these students have a 45 percent probability of getting into a serious fight in a given year — almost 20 percentage points higher than non-athletes whose friends play the gentler sport of tennis.
This seems to support the conclusions of a 2006 study by Kathleen Miller of the University at Buffalo, which found a strong correlation between violence and “jock identity” — that is, a young person, whether on a team or not, who identifies himself as a jock.
Those findings make sense to Kreager. “If you are not playing football but you’re hanging out with a lot of football players, you have more incentive to try to outdo them,” he reasoned. “Because you don’t have the activity to identify yourself as a jock, you may use getting in fights as a way to self-identify as a jock.”
Can this culture be changed? A big part of the answer, Kreager believes, lies with coaches and school administrators. Condoning violent behavior by athletes, he notes, sends a strong, unhelpful signal to both teammates and fans.
“If a football player gets into a fight off the field, you don’t just say, ‘Boys will be boys.’ You sanction the player, maybe even exclude them from the team. You send a message that it’s not acceptable.
“Also, you want the coach to be a gatekeeper. If there are youngsters who show signs of being unnecessarily aggressive, you want to keep them off the team or make sure they are monitored and sanctioned appropriately.”
Of course, if we expect coaches to adopt that attitude, we’ll need to lower the pressure they currently feel to produce winning teams.
“I think we have to change our attitude toward youth sports,” said Kreager, who was a wrestler in high school and remains a sports fan as an adult. “It is about winning, but it’s also about these children developing into successful adults. Our first investment should be in the youth, not the sport.”