Do Aggressive Sports Produce Violent Men?

Programs aim at halting the abuse of women by some athletes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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

"To see my mother get beat was just part of my life," Troy Vincent, a Miami Dolphins football player, told a conference on domestic violence last year in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It was part of the community to beat your wife or your girlfriend," he said.

Irving Fryar, another Miami Dolphins player, told the conference that he was from a "dysfunctional family, and we are all products of our environment." Mr. Fryar says his days of abuse are behind him, but that it took practice to get his emotions under control with the help of counseling.

Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the National Football League (NFL), says the league is no different from the general population when it comes to domestic abuse. "For reasons of confidentiality I can't discuss any cases," he says. "But we have a full-time psychologist who counsels and helps educate the teams through a player's program on the nature of abuse and other problems."

For two years, the Dolphins have had a full-time team counselor. "If a player and his family need help, the counselor can refer them to more specialized help in the community," says Harvey Greene, a Dolphins spokesman. "There is a lot more awareness now in the NFL of domestic violence by players because of the Simpson trial." Former football star O.J. Simpson was recently acquitted of charges of killing his former wife and a friend.

Last month another Dolphin, Irving Spikes, was placed on probation by the team as a result of his arrest for hitting and choking his wife. Criminal charges are pending. On two other occasions his wife had been treated for abuse, but no charges were brought. Spikes is now in a counseling program.

Counseling in colleges

At the collegiate level, several colleges and universities are beginning to offer help for athletes through workshops and courses on date rape, domestic violence, and substance abuse. The University of Oklahoma, long a football powerhouse, now requires athletes to attend a course on date rape and substance abuse.

Jackson Katz, who heads a Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program started in 1993 by Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, says the race aspect of the Simpson trial eventually overwhelmed the domestic-violence issue.

"Very few men have had the guts to speak up" about domestic violence, he says. "Part of our program is to emphasize leadership, the need for men to talk with other men about the issues that our sisters, girlfriends, and mothers have had to live with, both real and potential."

The MVP program uses role-playing workshops that encourage men not to be bystanders, but to play an active role in stopping violence and harassment against women. Mr. Katz and others train athletic departments and professional staffs to implement the program.

"In the workshops I use Simpson as an example," Katz says. "I ask: 'Do you think that over the years that he was abusing his wife, and his friends didn't speak up, that they were good friends? Was silence an act of friendship?' If you don't speak up, you are part of the problem."

For Crossett, the Simpson trial was a "cultural reference point, an event for us to hold a broader discussion beyond innocence or guilt."

Most psychologists and marriage counselors have concluded that men, athletes or not, usually batter women to gain control of them.

Crossett cites the recent incident involving Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson, a 315-pound defensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals. Mr. Wilkinson struck his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach, sending her to the hospital. He pleaded innocent to a misdemeanor charge, but was instructed to obey a restraining order to stay away from her.

"This is so typical," Crossett says. "Here's a guy who is not in control. There is something growing inside his girlfriend, a lady whom he is dominating, but now he can't control her. He hits her in the stomach. It is a strategic blow. He was out of control of her."

Following his arrest, Wilkinson said, "What happened last night between the person I love and me is a private matter whose fate is now in the hands of the court. I hope and I pray, with all my heart, we will be able, over time and through much hard work, to find solutions to our problems."

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