“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’.” Hung in locker rooms all over the country, repeated to AYSO, peewee, and little league players, it’s a sports mantra meant to speak to what sports should be all about: humility and collaboration. “Subsume your ego into a larger, greater cause—the good of the team” is the message. An athlete’s goals are at once elevated by and inferior to the team’s goals. She or he learns the value of hard work, perseverance, failure, and sacrifice.
Or so the theory goes.
What happens when sports become a breeding ground for something darker, uglier—the antithesis of heroics and such noble sentiments as humility? What happens when aggression and competitiveness combine with a heightened sense of importance and a need to conform to a group mentality?
Violence. Across the board, from high school to university athletics and right up the ladder to professional sports an alarming pattern is emerging. Violence, especially against women, is becoming a more and more common practice amongst athletes.
The language used to discuss violence, when it is connected to sports, it is often wildly defensive, excusatory. Too often attempts are made to keep accusations against athletes out of the papers and, worse, out of the courts. Victims are publicly shamed and their characters are assassinated. They are blamed, intimidated, and silenced.
This study (which uses defensive and excusatory language) compared arrest rates within the NFL with those of men of similar ages in the general population. As the NFL does not keep a database of players arrested while under contract and there isn’t a national database containing that information, the study used news databases that rely on reporting and public records. Though thorough, these databases are not exhaustive. They, and therefore the study, cannot account for instances that don’t have accessible public records, weren’t covered by the media, or weren’t reported by the police. Still, the rate for NFL player-committed violent crimes is higher than that of the general public—overall and for each individual year studied except 2002 and 2004. But what did the study conclude?
“In one sense, this may provide some support to those who are concerned about violence among NFL players, but more importantly it does not support an overall claim that NFL players are more criminal than the general population.” More important than the fact that this study shows evidence that NFL players commit violent crimes at a higher rate than the general population, the study shows that NFL players aren’t more criminal than the general population.
More important to whom? This is the first example we’ll present that begs the question: what are we, as a society, choosing to value more?
The second involves university athletics and rape. Though male student athletes only comprise 3% of the student population, they perpetrate 19% of sexual assaults and 35% of domestic assaults according to a study conducted in the 90s by Todd W. Crosset, James Ptacek, Mark A. McDonald, and Northeastern’s own Jeffrey R. Benedict. More chilling, one in three college rapes is committed by an athlete.
Rapists, more often than not, are repeat offenders and on average have raped 6 times before they are caught, if they are caught. Though the Crosset, et al study was conducted in the ’90s, a more recent study has corroborated its findings. In fact, “Sexual Coercion Practices Among Undergraduate Male Recreational Athletes, Intercollegiate Athletes, and Non-Athletes” published in Violence Against Women in 2016 concludes that 54% of college athletes “reported perpetrating some form of sexual coercion.”
However, as the Chronicle of Higher Education shows, many schools have come under fire for the way they have handled sexual assault allegations. Particularly when those allegations involve student athletes. Universities have provided help to athletes accused of rap while neglecting to help the victims and have postponed university trials to allow athletes to finish out seasons and then transfer to other universities and athletic programs—essentially sidestepping any repercussions.
To imagine this has no effect on younger athletes and their views on what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t is deeply flawed. The bravado and cruelty displayed in such instances as Steubenville and Glen Ridge show us that young male athletes are aware of what many do no want to believe in the U.S.: that if you are a popular athlete, you are more likely to get away with violent acts. Unfortunately for these young men—though more unfortunately for their victims—their awareness of this fact didn’t prevent them from being prosecuted. But it is a fact. The conviction rate of athletes is less than half that of the general population (Crosset, et al).
Violence connected to sports isn’t confined to just athletes, either. Fans have shown aggression towards players and each other. George Orwell, in “The Sporting Spirit,” says “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”
While it’s easy to appreciate the aspects of sports that showcase the grace, agility, and accomplishments of the human race it’s harder to confront those that egg on our less savory tendencies. Until we discuss this as a problem in our culture and in sports culture, rather than a problem with women, we will never be able to resolve it. Until we look directly at what our actions and our language reveal about which we value more, sports or victims of violence, the connections between sports and violence will persist.
Society seems to ask for a preponderance of evidence that such connections exist, but when presented with that evidence, finds a way to discount it. The timeline of college athletes at the top of this piece is not exhaustive. Nor is this list, though it is more complete. These databases are not exhaustive, though they are more extensive. The studies cited in this article and Jon Krakauer’s book Missoula are not enough to pull our heads out of the sand. But they are are start.