INCUBATORS OF MACHISMO LOCKER ROOM STUDIES: ATHLETES MORE LIKELY TO ABUSE WOMEN? Series: FIRST OF THREE ARTICLES MALE ATHLETES ABUSING WOMEN

Article excerpt

A debate has persisted for years whether violent sports and the locker room atmosphere creates 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.

Don Sabo's football odyssey began in the form of a pudgy, bespectacled 8-year-old. The game eventually won him a scholarship and kept him out of the Pennsylvania steel mills. Football made him a team captain, a leader. And, he said, "an animal."

After his last college game, he walked to the sideline, dropped his helmet and cried when he realized he never would play again.

Tears of relief, he called them, not grief.

In the months and years that followed, Sabo came to understand his feelings. He became a feminist. He studied and wrote about athletics, their effect on men and, consequently, on women.

"Male supremacists are not born," he concluded in his essay "Pigskin, Patriarchy and Pain." "They are made, and traditional athletic socialization is a fundamental contribution to this complex social-psychological and political process."

Sabo concluded that locker rooms are incubators of machismo. Studies by former athletes and sociologists support his conclusions. Former Texas Rangers pitching coach Tom House, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on sexual attitudes in baseball, said sports "probably are the last bastion of macho. It's the only way you can be as nasty to people as you could be 100 years ago."

But macho posturing is one thing. Does Sabo's locker room make men violent? Is a male athlete more likely to abuse his wife or girlfriend than a non-athlete?

Are male athletes dangerous to women?

Sociologists and sports psychologists who have studied the subject say no. No reliable studies show athletes are more likely to be abusive than non-athletes. Family history is a greater predictor of spousal abuse, experts say. A fraternity member - or someone who uses alcohol or drugs, even just nicotine - is a more likely abuser of women.

Other observers, including at least one ex-Dallas Cowboys player, disagree. They say violence condoned in one form can only lead to violence in another.

What both sides agree on is that, at best, organized athletics do little to check sexist, abusive tendencies incorporated over an individual's lifetime. At worst, some traditional male sports may even support those tendencies. Public Perception

The National Football League is concerned that anyone might think it sexist. When stories about the O.J. Simpson murder case linked football with domestic violence, the league issued an eight-point memo to its clubs, providing fodder for rebuttal. Among the data was the comment, "Sports experts (including the media) know that the NFL does an exemplary job of making certain that the game is played within the rules."

Rules in sports aren't as important to sociologists as attitudes. Athletes may not understand these concerns, or care about them. For example, in a practice round before the British Open, golfer John Daly - arrested two years ago after being accused of throwing his wife against a wall - was reported to have told spectators, "I see my ex-wife's face every time I whack the ball." He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment charges stemming from the arrest. …