Sports: Is the NFL Bad For Women’s Health?

Just prior to the Super Bowl in 1993, a news conference was held by a coalition of women’s groups informing reporters of substantial evidence that domestic violence rose significantly (as much as 40 percent) on Super Bowl Sunday. The subsequent flurry of media attention resulted in this news becoming a “fact” (you’ll see why I have added the quotes shortly) in the psyches of professional football fans and detractors alike. It also led many people to affirm their belief, however inaccurate, that football fans were a bunch of knuckle-dragging misogynists who, out of frustration at seeing their team lose, beat their wives and girlfriends. However, several investigations reported by the urban-legend-debunking web site snopes.com demonstrated that “the claim that Super Bowl Sunday is ‘the biggest day of the year for violence against women'” was simply not true.

Now move ahead 18 years and a new scientifically rigorous study conducted by two economists offers compelling evidence that there is a significant link between the outcomes of professional football games and family violence (not the Super Bowl specifically), though only with certain game outcomes. Let me explain.

The researchers compared data compiled from the National Incident Based Reporting System of crime statistics from 750 law enforcement agencies with more than 900 NFL regular season game scores involving six teams (Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, and Tennessee Titans) over an 11-year period . But they went behind just wins and losses. They also looked at which team was favored, whether the opposing team was a traditional rival or in playoff contention, and whether the game was at home or away.

The results are disturbing, though not that surprising. The study reported that, in games that ended in an “upset loss” (the home team was favored to win by four or more points by the Las Vegas point spread), domestic violence spiked by ten percent. When the upset winner was a rival, domestic assault calls rose by 20 percent. These researchers are obviously real data hounds because they also reported that the rise in violence occurred when the fans’ teams were in playoff contention, were penalized significantly, and when the quarterback was sacked more than three times. Moreover, increases in reported violence occurred within a window of a few hours following the conclusion of the game.

Close games, away-game upset losses, and “upset wins” (when the home team wasn’t expected to win) didn’t have any impact on the rate of domestic violence. And there were no increases in violence by women against men.

I should note that this ten percent spike domestic violence is not nearly as high as that occurs on major holidays (New Year’s Day shows the greatest increase at 31 percent) and is about the same as occurs on hot days, another high point (or should I say low point) of family violence.

The researchers assert that emotional cues caused by the outcomes of NFL games have a significant effect on domestic violence, specifically the emotional shock and frustration that male fans experience when their team loses a game that it was expected to win. Additionally, they posit that the loss of control that occurs following their team’s unexpected loss can further trigger violent behavior. Though not addressed in the study, it’s also likely that the consumption of alcohol, a well-documented behavioral disinhibitor (sorry for the psych-speak), and the testosterone and adrenaline that often saturates the viewing environments of football games (sorry for the stereotype) may very well contribute to the increase in domestic violence.

What is particularly interesting, and perhaps controversial, is that they assert that “any difference between the rate of family violence following a win or loss as a causal effect (italics added by me) of the outcome of the game.” The researchers aren’t simply arguing that this relationship is just coincidental or correlational, rather they’re saying that the results of professional football games are the direct cause of the increase in domestic violence. They do, however, suggest that any activity that triggers strong emotional reactions, such as getting a speeding ticket, would have a similar effect. In conjunction with the theories they form the foundation of their analysis, they postulate that these scenarios increase the chances of such assaults occurring in families in which conflict is already present.

So what conclusions can we draw from this unsettling study? First, and I say this in dead seriousness, football fans need to get a grip and get a life. What causes the aforementioned emotional cues to have such a significant impact on fans is that they are so heavily invested in their teams. I studied fan violence a number of years ago and found that the line between fan and fanatic is crossed when fans “over-identify” with their teams, meaning their self-esteem becomes inextricably linked to the successes and failures of their team. Indications of this overinvestment may be in evidence when, for example, fans talk about “my” team or how “we” are doing, when their emotional reactions are out of proportion to the impact the team has on their lives, and when, I suppose, fans paint their houses the team colors.

I’m all for rooting for the home team. Following a favorite team is an exciting and bonding experience. And reveling vicariously in the team’s victories and mourning their defeats can be equally engaging. But when the line between being a fan and being a fanatic is crossed, that level of fandom strikes me as being pretty darned unhealthy. It should, at a minimum, be a sign to such fans that they may need step back, take a hard look in the mirror, and reflect on the role that watching football plays in their lives. At a maximum, these fans might consider finding fulfilling activities in which they can actually participate rather than just spectate.

Before I move on, I want to make it clear that I am not an authority on domestic violence, so the following suggestions are simply offered as common-sense steps for a very sad situation. Women whose husbands and boyfriends (or, for that matter, fathers, brothers, and uncles) are prone to violence should take this research to heart and ensure that they aren’t home for that short window of time following upset losses. It sure seems unfair that the onus has to be on the potential victims (e.g., find out who the team is playing, check the point spread, etc.) to avoid such egregious behavior; they shouldn’t have to live in fear of their significant others’ inexcusable behavior. But better control and proaction than falling victim to domestic violence.



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