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Do Aggressive Sports Produce Violent Men?

Programs aim at halting the abuse of women by some athletes

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 16, 1995


On Oct. 24, Minnesota Vikings star quarterback Warren Moon will step into strange territory for a man who was named the National Football League Man of the Year in 1989. Inside a Texas courtroom, Mr. Moon will face arraignment on charges of hitting and choking his wife.

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"I was afraid for my life," his wife said of the recent incident. Moon's seven-year-old son called 911 to get help.

Admitting that he made a "tremendous mistake," Moon joins a troubled lineup of dozens of well-known and gifted professional athletes arrested for domestic violence, including O.J. Simpson in 1989, baseball stars Barry Bonds and Darryl Strawberry, and basketball players Michael Cooper and Moses Malone.

After touchdowns, slam-dunks, and home runs in front of cheering crowds, they were charged with going home and abusing their wives or girlfriends.

Despite the "not guilty" verdict in the Simpson murder trial, many questions about domestic violence and high-profile athletes remain. Do athletes batter women more often than men in general do? Do violent sports produce too many violent men? What efforts are under way at the professional and collegiate level to help athletes understand and stop domestic violence?

"The vast majority of male athletes are law-abiding guys who are trying to live their relationships with women as effectively as possible," says Donald Sabo, co-author of the book "Sex, Violence and Power in Sports: Rethinking Masculinity" (Crossing Press).

"But the current evidence we have for male athletes in professional and collegiate sports," he says, "suggests that as a group they are more apt to sexually assault women."

Todd Crossett, a sports management professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is co-author of a recent study indicating that more college athletes than nonathletes assaulted women.

The study found that at 10 major colleges where student athletes were 3.3 percent of the total male student body, athletes were involved in 19 percent of assaults on women. More research is needed before saying this trend is universal, Mr. Crossett says, "but we can begin to ask why athletes do this."

A few sociologists say that big-time athletes are simply observed more because of the prominence that often comes with their privileged status. But no evidence exists to support this, Crossett says. Rather, sports experts agree on some specific factors contributing to domestic violence among both professional and college athletes.

* Abuse of alcohol and drugs is often common in assault incidents for athletes as well as for the general population.

* "Steroids can still be a factor too," Mr. Sabo says, citing the evidence that use of steroids alters athletes' behavior on and off the field.

* Many college athletes are privileged with scholarships, make-work jobs, tutoring, and plenty of attention from alumni and the media, and this status often distorts or prevents realistic daily relationships with women.

* Sports have become increasingly aggressive, so much so that violence may be seen as an occupational hazard.

"Police departments recognize that if police [officers] deal with domestic violence all the time, they can respond that way," Crossett says. "The same goes for the military, where men are trained in the art and skill of violence."

Colleges have found that when male athletes are segregated into special dorms away from women and nonathletes, violence, damage to buildings, and disciplinary action can follow. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has outlawed team dormitories beginning in 1996.

"Boys are encouraged to live this model," says Sabo: "Be a man by being violence-prone. Be a man by keeping your feelings inside all the time. And be a man by using women as sexual trophies. This is not a feminist issue, but a public-health issue now."

More deeply, experts say, many athletes are shaped by an American culture where the model for athletic masculinity is physical toughness and male aggression.

Add this model to a family with a history of abuse by a father of a mother and children, and many athletes simply repeat the violent behavior against women or conclude that it is not unusual.

Common occurrence for some