BELIEFS A FACTOR IN VIOLENCE ATHLETIC EXPERIENCE ALSO MAY CONTRIBUTE Series: Male Athletes Abusing Women SECOND OF THREE ARTICLES

Article excerpt

A debate has persisted for years whether violent sports and the locker-room atmosphere create violent citizens. In light of the O.J. Simpson trial and other reports of male athletes abusing women, here is an examination of the arguments on both sides.

Violence against women - everything from murder and rape to oral abuse - evolves from a pattern of beliefs and experiences deeper than mere athletic experience, some say. For people such as former Dallas Cowboys player John Niland, it amay have evolved from the violence he witnessed in his home as he grew up.

Niland said he probably still would have abused his first wife had he never played football. But he believes that football exacerbated his violent emotions.

"There's no way you can play a violent game and leave it on the field," he said. "It affects the rest of your life."

The Rev. George Mason, pastor of Dallas' Wilshire Baptist Church and a former quarterback at the University of Miami, said football in itself is not necessarily harmful.

"But the external pressure of your peers is often a tremendous challenge to who you are," he said. "If you don't have a strong sense of self, you're more likely to be influenced by the environment you're in. If you come from a family with good moral values and a fairly clear sense of what is right and wrong, a locker room is not likely to alter your values."

Sketchy Evidence Cited

The presentation of evidence about spousal abuse is part of the problem. In cases of violence against women, victims often have been the focus. As a result, experts say, domestic violence often is regarded as a woman's issue.

In some reports and on talk shows, authors and sociologists have purported that traditional male sports such as football are harmful, at times citing sketchy evidence. One widely reported statistic - that athletes commit one-third of campus assaults - has not been validated, even by its author.

"That's not to say there's not a serious problem," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "But we're talking about something that's a problem across the board. It's just taken something this monstrous (the Simpson case) to make people realize it."

In "The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football," author Mariah Burton Nelson passed along questionable reporting. She failed to acknowledge the conclusions of some sociologists whose work she cited. But her premise - a male sports culture that treats women as sex objects "is bound to lead to that type of culture that breeds rape and violence against women" - is accepted by some sociologists as probable, said Michael Messner, a sociology professor and author.

Stress in competitive sports can be a factor in domestic violence as well. Cal Botterill, a sports psychologist who has worked with the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks, and whose son, Jason, was the Dallas Stars' top choice in the last National Hockey League draft, said hockey players are not violent by nature.

But they could become violent under the "tremendous stress emotions involved," he said.

"Everything's great when you're winning," he said. "But when you're losing, there's no place for it to go. The problems tend to gravitate to the home environment."

Non-athletes experience pressures, too. Their responses are just as violent as those described in news reports about athletes, and worse. Athletes who have exhibited violent tendencies outside their sport are part of a greater social problem, sociologists say. But what concerns experts is athletes' lack of concern for the issue, given their public standing.

As several experts noted, shoe companies would not pay millions of dollars to athletes to be spokesmen if they did not believe that they had influence. Because of athletes' standing, sociologists say, they could be a force for change in a country where one of every four women will be assaulted by a domestic partner in adulthood and where abusers believe that they are entitled to the violence they perpetrate. …