Since the early 1990s, increased media attention on sexual assaults involving widely known athletes has led many people to assume that male participation in college and professional sports is a key risk factor associated with rape and other forms of woman abuse. However, social scientific research has not yet found strong evidence indicating that being a professional athlete increases the likelihood of a man sexually assaulting female intimates, acquaintances, or strangers. Still, a growing body of empirical work reveals a relationship between participation in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I sports and sexual assault. Even so, not all male members of college athletic teams are at equal risk of being sexually abusive. For example, golfers, tennis players, and figure skaters are less likely to victimize women than are basketball and football players.
Many of the same factors that affect fraternities are important with men involved in highly aggressive sports, such as football: the male bonding that leads to the objectification of women, homophobia, the tight vows of secrecy that prevent exposure, and the victim blaming that allows even public cases to be ignored. Another factor that warrants careful attention is the coach. For example, there are coaches who emphasize that the worst thing that a male athlete can do is to develop what they regard to be feminine traits.
As Martin Schwartz and Walter DeKeseredy point out in their 1997 book Sexual Assault on the College Campus: The Role of Male Peer Support, the training of a sports team to sacrifice everything to a group goal, and to immediately accept the complete authority of the leaders, may make some athletes unable to disagree with a group’s goal, even if that goal is illegal, dangerous, or immoral. The male bonding in these groups of athletes, who work, live, and play together every day for years, can be very powerful. It starts with the peer group values on athletic teams, values that encourage athletes to treat women as objects of conquest. This group bonding can be so strong that such men are willing to take part in rape, or to observe rape, or at least to take part in a cover-up, because the alternative is to go against the group. It becomes more important to be part of the group than it is to do the right thing. This is why, many argue, so many “good” young men can take part in a gang rape, or stand and watch a woman being held down and raped in a dormitory room while she screams, or just brush off hearing about such an event the next day without even considering taking any action against it.
What makes college athletic teams special is that so many people have a strong vested interest in seeing the charges dropped or criminal behavior covered up. For example, in some cases that go to trial, jurors will acquit athletes rather than ruin the upcoming sports season. Under the best of circumstances, sports researchers argue, athletes feel that they are above the law and that the rules do not apply to them. Too often they are right. To fans, many students, professors, administrators, and some of North America’s most influential sports writers, they are above the law.
Like most of the empirical and theoretical work on sexual assault on the college campus, the bulk of the research on athletes and sexual violence takes the view that male athletes only become abusive when they enter college. However, a few studies show that high school boys can be as violent as or more violent than college men and be in fact headed off to college looking for mechanisms that will support their violent behaviors and sexist attitudes. Still, at the time of writing this essay, only one study was published in a scientific journal that focused on the relationship between high school sports participation and sexual assaults committed by college men. A survey conducted by Forbes, Adams-Curtis, Pakalka, and White found that college men who participated in aggressive high school sports were more sexually abusive, had more sexist attitudes, were more accepting of rape myths, and were more homophobic than other men. Indeed, this study strongly suggests that many men arrive at college fully prepared to abuse women with no learning required.
Obviously, members of various male athletic teams are at high risk of committing sexual assault. However, given survey research showing that sexual abuse and other forms of woman abuse are widespread on North American college campuses, it is logical to conclude that these behaviors are not unique to athletes who participate in aggressive sports. In fact, a growing body of proabuse male peer support research shows that athletes are just one part of a larger culture that views woman abuse as a normal and legitimate way of interacting with women. Nevertheless, further research on the relationship between sports participation and sexual violence is necessary, including gathering data from larger and more representative samples of college students. Moreover, there is a need for theory construction and testing. Regardless of what new empirical and theoretical directions researchers take, there are many other groups of sexually violent men on campus and elsewhere who warrant significant scholarly, media, and political attention.
- Benedict, J. (1997). Public heroes, private felons: Athletes and crimes against women. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Benedict, J. R. (1998). Athletes and acquaintance rape. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Forbes, G. B., Adams-Curtis, L. E., Pakalka, A. H., & White, K. B. (2006). Dating aggression, sexual coercion, and aggression-supporting attitudes among college men as a function of participation in high school sports. Violence Against Women, 12, 441–455.
- Schwartz, M. D., & DeKeseredy, W. S. (1997). Sexual assault on the college campus: The role of male peer support. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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