Article Text

Download PDFPDF

Violence in youth sports: hazing, brawling and foul play
  1. S K Fields1,
  2. C L Collins2,
  3. R D Comstock2,3
  1. 1
    The Ohio State University, College of Education, School of Physical Activity and Educational Services, Columbus, Ohio, USA
  2. 2
    Center for Injury Research and Policy, The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, Ohio, USA
  3. 3
    The Ohio State University, College of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics and College of Public Health, Division of Epidemiology, Ohio, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr R D Comstock, Center for Injury Research and Policy, The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, College of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, The Ohio State University, 700 Children’s Drive, Columbus, OH 43205, USA; dawn.comstock{at}nationwidechildrens.org

Abstract

By separating hazing, brawling, and foul play and failing to recognise that their connection to sport binds them together into a cohesive subset of sport injury and youth violence, past research has failed to show how sports-related violence is a broad example of interpersonal violence. The acceptance of violence within the sporting culture may, in part, explain why sports-related violence has not yet been widely recognised as a public health concern. This review shows that sports-related violence, including hazing, brawling and foul play, occurs among youth athletes of all ages and in a variety of different sports. The few studies to address this issue have all acknowledged the dangers of sports-related violence; however, no incident tracking method has been developed. Future research must provide accurate national estimates of the incidence of sports-related violence among youth, identify associated risk factors, evaluate preventive interventions and identify effective methods of distributing and implementing evidence-based interventions. Monitoring the magnitude and distribution of the burden of sports-related violence and building the scientific infrastructure necessary to support the development and widespread application of effective sports-related prevention interventions are essential first steps toward a reduction in the incidence of sports-related violence.

Statistics from Altmetric.com

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

Participation in sports is one of the most popular ways for adolescents to incorporate physical activity into a healthy lifestyle. Over 7.4 million adolescents participated in high school sports in the USA during the 2007–2008 academic year alone.1 Alongside the health benefits of school sports runs the potential for injury.2 3 Sports-related violence is a subset of sports injury that has, to date, gone largely unrecognised.

Sports-related violence, which includes incidents of hazing, foul play and brawling, can result in both physical and emotional injury. This unique subset of youth violence has been largely unacknowledged as a public health problem. For example, behaviour that is readily identified as violence outside the sports arena is largely dismissed as “part of the game” or “just boys being boys” when it occurs in the context of sporting competition. In addition to the direct morbidity and mortality resulting from incidents of sports-related violence, fear of sports-related violence (on the part of adolescents or their parents) may dissuade some individuals from participating in sports activities. Thus, the negative effects of sports-related violence could extend far beyond the initial injuries by decreasing adolescents’ physical activity level which, in turn, could have a long-lasting impact on their general health and quality of life.

Because sports-related violence as defined here has not been extensively studied in the public health arena and because the problem and potential solutions are linked to both medical and sociological concerns, we describe the current state of the epidemiological and the sociocultural literature on the topic.

Definitions

Youth violence is defined as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, exerted by or against children, adolescents or young adults which results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”4 Therefore, sports-related violence among youth can be defined as youth violence occurring in the sporting context, which includes violence between individuals or groups at both organised and informal sporting activities.

Sports-related violence encompasses three distinct categories: hazing, foul play and brawling. Hazing among youth is sports-related violence perpetrated by member(s) of a sports-related group against individual(s) seeking inclusion within, admittance to, and/or acceptance by that group. Hazing may be perpetrated by and/or endorsed by parents, coaches or other non-athlete members of the sports-related group as well as by adolescent athletes. Foul play among youth is sports-related violence during the game that is perpetrated by member(s) of one sports-related group against member(s) of an opposing sports-related group that is identified as an illegal activity by the rules of the sport. Foul play may or may not be penalised by a referee/official during the sporting competition or during subsequent disciplinary committee reviews by the sport’s governing body. Brawling among youth is sports-related violence that occurs before, during, or after a sporting event among individuals with interest in the sporting event. Brawling may occur among or between athletes and/or non-athlete participants (parents, coaches, referees, spectators, security personnel, etc) and may or may not disrupt the sporting event itself.

Although scholars in a wide range of disciplines have addressed the three subsets of sports-related violence, they have done so by looking at hazing, brawling and foul play as independent problems.5 By separating hazing, brawling and foul play, and failing to recognise that their connection to sport binds them together into a cohesive subset of sport injury and youth violence, past research has failed to show how sports-related violence is a broad example of interpersonal violence.

Hazing

Although there is a large body of literature examining bullying among youth and hazing in collegiate fraternities,6 7 8 9 10 very few studies have examined the hazing that occurs among youth, adolescents and young adults who participate in sporting activities. The most detailed examination of hazing and sport in the US especially can be found in descriptive, case-series examples of individual incidents, stories which are often first reported in the news media. Stories in the past several years have been published on and in espn.com, Sports Illustrated for Kids, People and Sports Illustrated.11 12 13 14 Hank Nuwer, a journalism instructor, is the most prolific of all hazing scholars, with four books.15 16 17 18 Nuwer’s descriptive stories of hazing incidents include non-sporting as well as athletic team related hazing on high school and collegiate levels. Nuwer advocates for strong antihazing policies and laws, and to support his position he tells poignant tales of young lives tragically lost or altered through hazing incidents. Athletes themselves have documented hazing by posting photographs online.19 Some examples of egregious behaviours in sport in the USA in the last 10 years are presented in table 1

Table 1

Examples of egregious behaviours in sport in the USA in the last 10 years

Despite the lack of scholarly literature on sports and hazing, the problem appears to be widespread. One national study of hazing among NCAA sports teams found that 80% of collegiate athletes experienced some form of hazing.20 Of the athletes who experienced hazing, 42% reported also being hazed in high school, and 5% reported being hazed in middle school.20 More recently, researchers from the National Study of Student Hazing found that 47% of college freshmen reported being hazed in high school.21 Hazing among adolescent athletes compared with collegiate athletes may be particularly dangerous for several reasons including youths’ increased need to belong to a group, vulnerability to peer pressure and lack of awareness of what constitutes hazing.17

One of the few US studies of youth hazing among athletes found that 17.4% of the 1105 sixth- to 12th-grade athletes surveyed at three middle schools and five high schools in the New York City area had been hazed.22 A study conducted by researchers at Alfred University found that in a nationally representative sample of students, almost half (48%) were subjected to hazing.23 Furthermore, hazing was particularly common for high school athletes. Of the 67% of high school students who reported being involved in athletics, over half reported they were hazed. Based on these findings, researchers estimate that over 800 000 high school athletes in the USA experience some form of hazing each year.23 While this study gives us some idea of the incidence of hazing among high school athletes, there are limitations. Although this study used a national random sample of high school students, there was a very low response rate (8.28%) with only 1541 of 18 600 surveys returned. Additionally, the students who completed the survey were not representative of all high school students across the nation, as 90% of the respondent students attended public school, and 84% reported above average grades.

To our knowledge, the previous studies that have examined injuries associated with hazing have not focused specifically on adolescents or athletes.7 10 24 25

While many colleges and high schools have adopted antihazing policies and educational awareness policies related to hazing, middle and grade schools have just begun to adopt similar policies. Standards have not been set for the appropriate level of punishment for the perpetrators of hazing. Past punishments have ranged from lesser punishments such as having to apologise or a one- or two-game suspension, to more severe punishments like forfeiting an entire season and being suspended from school.17

Because of the prevalence of hazing and the serious risk of injury and death (at least 30 college students died from hazing related incidents between 2000 and 2009), 43 states have enacted antihazing laws.26 27 Some of the legal scholarship argues that holding institutions liable for hazing is the most effective deterrent. The idea is that if the schools are held financially responsible, they will take a proactive stance and prevent hazing.28 Theoretically, the states with specific antihazing statutes are effectively establishing that hazing is not a teambuilding experience.29 30 Antihazing statutes vary dramatically between states, and federal legislation might be necessary to establish a consistent antihazing policy.31

Hazing scholars generally argue that clear articulation and enforcement of antihazing policies along with increased adult supervision may reduce hazing. Victims are urged to report hazing incidents, and sports leaders are urged to take immediate action.32 Teams could replace hazing with positive teambuilding experiences like community service, mentoring, travel and outdoor recreation.33 Without changing the culture of sport, however, and ending the subtle tolerance of hazing, nothing will change, and the myth that hazing helps build team cohesion will prevail.34

Brawling

While the USA has not seen the kind of organised football hooliganism observed in Europe and other parts of the world, physical fist-fights surrounding sporting events are not uncommon. This includes fights between participants before, during and after competitions as well as fights in the stands or just outside the venue. This article will describe some of the literature that explores violence directly connected to the sporting venue and not violence perpetrated by athletes away from the game (eg, athletes fighting in bars and athletes arrested for sexual assault).

Of the existing sociocultural literature, much explores the violence in and around the game of ice hockey. Perhaps more than any other sport, ice hockey, especially in the National Hockey League (NHL), seems to pride itself on the fights (unlike most other sports, fighting does not lead to automatic ejection from the game), and the attendance at NHL games between teams with a history of fighting increases.35 Organisers of pro sport may view punishment of fighting more as a public relations tool than a deterrent of future misconduct.36 Fighting can also be a demonstration of the players’ masculinity and toughness.37 38 39

Fights can be linked to perceived foul play. Players in ice hockey (a game predicated on speed and physical contact) may fight in part to protect themselves against fouls that the referee could not or did not see (table 1).40 Additionally, a study of undergraduate intramural participants found that the participants were more likely to fight or to retaliate with foul play if they perceived the officiating to be poor.41 Fan violence during or immediately after a game can also be based on a sense that poor or unfair officiating wronged their team.42 Tragically, in 2000, a father of a youth ice hockey player killed the father of another player after a practice session where the perpetrator believed the victim’s son had played too rough.

To combat the conventional wisdom that sports-related brawls are on the rise, several communities have taken action. Some leagues have silent game days where parents are either excluded from the playing area or required to remain silent so as not to provoke the players into fights.43 Silence, however, may not be the solution because positive spectator behaviour has predicted positive player behaviour, at least among young children, and negative coach and spectator behaviour has predicted negative player behaviour.44 Thus, silent venues would not help promote positive play among the children. Other communities have required parents to attend sportsmanship clinics or to pledge good behaviour on pain of banishment, although one study suggests that communities with no-tolerance policies for violence will still see spectators yell at and humiliate players.45

Foul play

Several studies have found that many youth and adolescent athletes have come to believe that some forms of violence are acceptable in sports.46 47 48 One study found that at least 59% of the surveyed high school athletic programmes had athletes who accepted physical intimidation, defined as pushing, shoving, bumping or other physical contact short of striking, including unnecessarily rough play, in an attempt to gain a psychological advantage over an opponent, as part of the game.47 Additionally, an estimated 29% of high school athletes accepted physical violence, defined as striking, punching, wrestling and other forms of physical assault with the intent to injury an opponent, as just part of the game. Another study found that of the 162 intercollegiate athletes surveyed, men found sports-related aggression more acceptable than women, and athletes in non-contact sports found sports-related aggression less acceptable than those in contact sports.49 The acceptance of intimidation and violence appears to be influenced by several factors including the contextual setting, athletes’ attitudes, pressure to win and coaching.47 50

Although foul play is widespread across all cultures and levels of sport,5 to date, there have been a limited number of studies that have investigated the impact of foul play on sports injury rates. The majority of these studies have focused on foul play in individual sports such as rugby,51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 soccer,62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 gaelic football,73 74 hurling75 and ice hockey,76 77 finding that the proportion of injuries associated with foul play ranges from 41% for hurling,75 33% for ice hockey,76 5%54 to 33%60 for rugby, 10%72 to 50%70 for soccer and 6%73 to 35%74 for Gaelic football. The most comprehensive study of foul play, which used an internet-based surveillance system to capture exposure and injury data in a nationally representative sample of US high school athletes participating in nine sports, found that over 10% of injuries in four of the nine sports studied were directly related to illegal activity/foul play.78 Other research examining foul play in athletes across multiple sports has been limited to reviews of athletes presenting for treatment at emergency departments (foul play was blamed for 7%79 to 14%80 of injuries) as well as a 1-year prospective study of school children in which foul play was identified as a major risk factor for injury.81

Although very little peer-reviewed scientific research has examined the prevalence of foul play among US adolescent athletes, several non-profit organisations have funded research investigating sportsmanship and illegal conduct/foul play. For example, the Josephson Institute of Ethics conducted the 2006 Sportsmanship Survey to measure high school athletes’ attitudes and behaviours related to sportsmanship, cheating, and other illegal conduct in sports.82 Of the 5275 high school athletes who responded to the survey, 60% of males and 27% of females reported they thought it was acceptable to “deliberately inflict pain in football to intimidate an opponent.” Moreover, one in four males and one in 10 females reported they felt it was acceptable for a pitcher to follow a coach’s orders to throw at an opposing hitter intentionally.

Additionally, the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) asks visitors of their website each week to answer a question related to youth sports. Several of these questions have dealt with sports-related violence issues including brawling and foul play.83 For example, 70% (n = 268) of respondents felt that children would be negatively impacted by the Pistons–Pacers brawl, a large, widely televised brawl involving both US National Basketball Association (NBA) players and fans that occurred in November 2004. Additionally, 85% of respondents believed that pro-athletes’ behaviour impacts how children act while playing sports (n = 301). When asked what the biggest problem in youth sports was today, the number one answer was out-of-control parents/spectators (108 of 241 respondents). Though these studies have provided valuable information on the prevalence of sports-related violence among youth, the usefulness of this information is generally limited by the inability to generalise findings from small non-representative samples and relatively low response rates.

In 2000, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Princeton Survey Research Associates conducted telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1500 children aged 10–17 and 1950 parents.84 The study, entitled “A National Survey of Kids (and their Parents) About Famous Athletes as Role Models,” found that nearly 60% of kids described incidents of poor-sportsmanship such as taunting and yelling at the referee or umpire as commonplace among their peers. Furthermore, almost half of all kids surveyed reported that taking cheap shots or hitting an opponent is common in youth sports. Unfortunately, while this study used a nationally representative sample, the survey included a limited number of questions related to the prevalence of foul play and no questions about other forms of sports-related violence including hazing and brawling.

Scholars and advocates have offered suggestions to minimise sports-related violence in the form of foul play. Some call for limiting or eliminating fans’ alcohol consumption at sporting events, certifying youth coaches and banning the use of painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications that allow youth to play injured.50 Several organisations are devoted to promoting sportsmanship, which they believe will lead to a decrease in poor behaviour. The Institute for International Sport sells a card game to promote good sportsmanship as well as promoting an annual National Sportsmanship Day in the USA. The Josephson Institute of Ethics publishes the “Character Counts” newsletter and has programme materials to promote sportsmanship.

Conclusion

Sports-related violence among youth has been largely overlooked or ignored rather than being recognised as a subset of youth violence worthy of concern and attention. Because relatively few studies have examined the prevalence of sports-related violence among youth or measures of the resultant morbidity and mortality, there are no reliable estimates of the magnitude of the problem. In addition, because hazing, brawling and foul play have been previously studied separately rather than collectively, seeing how sports-related violence may serve as a broad example of interpersonal violence can be difficult.

The acceptance of violence within the sporting culture may, in part, explain why sports-related violence has not yet been widely recognised as a public health concern. Other forms of popular culture like television and movies as well as video games and music recordings feature ratings or descriptions to warn parents and consumers that the medium contains violence. Parental controls like the v-chip on televisions even allow users to block televisions shows with ratings of excessive violence. No such ratings or warnings, however, exist for sporting events. When a brawl breaks out in the stands or a soccer player head butts another player, the cameras capture the moment live for the viewer and then the clip can be replayed extensively. While we do not necessarily advocate a violence rating for sport, we do argue that the lack of such a system represents how accepted violence in sport is. This social tolerance may in part be why sports-related violence continues and why it is not studied more extensively.

Little is known about potential preventative factors for sports-related violence among youth. Perpetrators of sports-related violence likely do not share the more common attributes/profiles of perpetrators of other youth interpersonal violence (poor academic performance, poor social skills, poor anger management skills, substance abuse problems, etc) because adolescents often must meet minimum academic and citizenship standards to be allowed to participate in athletics. Because of these differences, it is unknown whether or not interventions proven to be effective in preventing traditionally defined interpersonal youth violence will be similarly effective in preventing sports-related violence among youth. Figure 1, based on a social-ecological model of behaviour,85 shows how violence is influenced by both individual and social environmental factors.5 Effective interventions will likely require multifactoral approaches addressing diverse issues including peer-pressure, coaches’ influence, parental examples and expectations, media’s influence, sports figures’ influence, community and school legislation, referee enforcement of sporting rules, environmental design of sporting venues, etc.

Figure 1

Social-ecological model of sports-related violence.

The few studies that have addressed hazing, brawling and foul play all acknowledged the dangers of sports-related violence; however, no incident-tracking method has been developed. Thus, the urgent need for future research to provide accurate national estimates of the incidence of sports-related violence among youth, identify associated risk factors, evaluate preventive interventions, and identify effective methods of distributing and implementing evidence-based interventions. Prior studies that called for education about hazing, brawling and foul play have not provided proven methods for effectively distributing and implementing educational interventions.22 43 86 87 Monitoring the magnitude and distribution of the burden of sports-related violence and building the scientific infrastructure necessary to support the development and widespread application of effective sports-related prevention interventions are essential first steps toward a reduction in the incidence of sports-related violence.

What is already known on the topic

  • Sports-related violence, including hazing, brawling and foul play, occurs among youth athletes of all ages and in a variety of different sports and can result in both physical and emotional injury.

  • Despite this knowledge, sports-related violence among youth has been largely overlooked or ignored rather than being recognised as a subset of youth violence worthy of concern and attention.

What this paper adds

  • This paper demonstrates the urgent need for future research to provide accurate national estimates of the incidence of sports-related violence among youth, identify associated risk factors, evaluate preventive interventions and identify effective methods of distributing and implementing evidence-based interventions.

  • Effective interventions for sports-related violence will likely require multifactoral approaches addressing diverse issues.

REFERENCES

View Abstract

Footnotes

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and Peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

Linked Articles