08/16/2012 01:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Do Sports Really Prevent Youth Violence?

By Elias De Leon

One afternoon this spring, the Brooklyn Technical High School football team stayed after school to lift weights. As practice ended, the players took a knee around Head Coach Kyle McKenna. His talk was low on pep, but high on practicality – a review of how to get medical forms and parental permissions, a reminder to keep grades up and schedules open for pre-season practice. He concluded by asking if anyone had questions.

“No, Coach!” shouted the team in unison.

I was in their place four years ago, a freshman on the JV team. I lifted weights for the first time, ran up and down the school’s stairwell, shouted “No, Coach” with the rest of the team when McKenna asked for questions. I learned some valuable lessons playing football that I didn’t get in the classroom, lessons about teamwork and discipline. But now, having graduated last year, I do have a question to ask the coach: had playing football also kept me and my teammates out of violence?

“I think that when you're a member of a team and it means something to you, you'll do anything to continue to play,” said McKenna. “I think that it would eliminate crime, it would lower violence between individuals, it makes people more well-mannered,” he said.

There are certain benefits of playing sports that have become almost indisputable from a scientific standpoint. For instance, countless studies have shown that the physical exercise associated with sports makes athletes generally healthier than less active people. But other claims about the benefits of sports aren’t so well established, although they are just as commonly believed. And according to sports sociologist Jay Coakley, the link between sport programs and the positive changes they are supposed to create for individuals and communities is unproven.

“That belief is much more mythical than factual,” said Coakley, who is a professor emeritus at University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. “There is no empirical support for that particular belief.” 

Coakley and McKenna stand on two sides of a divide when it comes to scientific and common-sense understandings of youth violence and how sports can be used to control it. Across the country, midnight basketball leagues and after-school teams claim to reduce juvenile violent crimes by keeping kids off the streets and playing games. But of all the model violence prevention programs in a national database out of University of Colorado in Boulder, none are sports-based. The divide is there even among people whose jobs are to bridge the science and the policies of curbing juvenile crime.

“We're measuring the opinion of informed youth violence prevention leaders in each city,” Jeffrey Butts told me about his surveys of the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention. The forum was created by the federal government to develop new, data-driven ways to keep young people from violence. Butts is a criminologist at John Jay College and keeps track of the top challenges the leaders in the Forum’s six model cities face in preventing violence.

“We said, ‘Are there enough youth sports opportunities available in your community?’” said Butts. His team was surprised by the survey results: not enough sports was the second biggest challenge after general cuts to social services. “Seventy percent of the respondents across all six cities said that was a serious obstacle,” he said.

Coakley says the idea of the overall positive influence of sports is deeply grounded in American culture, which is why we spend so much money on sports -- from subsidizing professional teams to creating Police Athletic Leagues. Since the 1970s, Coakley has edited a textbook on what social science tells us about sports, including a chapter on violence that analyzes all the latest research. He says the best studies are longitudinal, following athletes and non-athletic peers through their adolescent years and then comparing incidents of violence.

Some of the most recent research to do that is from Xin Jiang, a PhD candidate at Ohio State, who studied data provided by more than 13,000 teens from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Her study, published this year in the Journal of Youth Adolescence, did not find "across-the-board advantages"--in other words, lower odds of being involved in violence--for young people who participated in sports-centered extracurriculars. Jiang wrote that the “findings challenge the viewpoint that participation in mainstream extracurricular activities… is equally beneficial for all youth.”

Meanwhile, there are certain sports that studies have found to be associated with increasing violent behavior. In a 2007 study of NLSAH data, Penn State criminologist Derek Kraeger found that football players and wrestlers are significantly more likely than teens who don’t play sports to get in serious fights. And even when they aren’t athletes themselves, boys are more likely to fight if their friends play football.

“I don't want to generalize and say all football is a problem,” said Coakley, who is familiar with Kraeger’s study, “but if you're involved in a sports team that has a culture of domination, manhood, physical strength, and a willingness to sacrifice your body for the team, then your involvement in sports is likely to increase your participation in violence on and off the field.”

That got me thinking about my own experience playing defense on my high school football team. In my first game, I hit a player so hard it sent him flying in the air. I was surprised, but also excited -- I felt the rush of being on a battlefield, the aim to take down the other team and stop its run. I remembered that feeling as I talked to Coakley. And also when I listen to the words of Gregg Williams, former defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints.

“In this locker room… never apologize for the way we compete,” says Williams in a secret recording of one of his pre-game speeches last season. Later in the recording, he encourages his defense to injure particular players on the other team. “We want his head sideways,” Williams says about one player. “We want to knock the f--- out of him… go get that motherf---er on the sidelines.”

Williams admitted to taking part in the Saint’s bounty system that paid cash bonuses to defensive players for injuring quarterbacks and other targeted players. In March, the NFL suspended him indefinitely. Jay Coakley told me he's never heard of a cash bounty in high school football. But many teams reward violence with other things, like pride stickers for a player's helmet when he makes a big play.

“If you want to create sports that actually have a chance to reduce violence,” said Coakley, “there has to be this explicit emphasis on anti-violence kinds of norms and approaches to life.” In other words, coaches would need to coach about life skills and not just sports skills in order to make any measurable difference in their players’ risk of violence. But is giving a helmet decal for taking down the quarterback the same as rewarding violence?

That was another question for Coach Kyle McKenna. “A sticker for a sack is something we generally give,” said McKenna when I asked him. “But we're not going to give a sticker for a sack that is more violent than another sack. A sack is a sack,” he said.

McKenna said there's a big difference between promoting violence and re-directing natural teenage aggression. Seeing things so clearly is probably what makes him a good coach. But from the NFL to the PAL, there are a lot of bad coaches out there too. And anyone who wants sports programs to stop violence should follow the stats to see when they work, and when they don’t.

Charlie Foster contributed reporting and editing to this story. 

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