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.
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. …