In previous articles, we discussed the link between sports and aggression. We presented studies indicating that athletes in high-contact sports (like football or wrestling, for example) are more likely to be aggressive even off the playing field.
However, we concluded by reminding parents that there could be several factors at play (no pun intended!) in this relationship. Correlation doesn’t always prove causation. For example, teens with naturally aggressive temperaments might be drawn to high-contact sports. Or parents with high-energy kids could be encouraging their children to get involved with athletics.
At the same time, there could be other variables that are being overlooked in this athletics-aggression connection. For one: jock identity.
It’s Not Sports: It’s Jock Identity
Some studies have argued that it’s not sports participation per se that’s making athletes aggressive; it’s their “jock identity.” In a study of more than 600 adolescents, researchers found that self-reported jocks, as opposed to non-jocks, acted more aggressively towards their peers. The study differentiated between being an athlete and being a jock, arguing that just because you’re the former doesn’t mean you buy into the whole “jock” culture.
What is a jock, anyway?
Well, it depends on who you ask. Your teen son or daughter would probably have the most accurate, albeit subjective, response. We’d define “jock” as a stereotypical label that represents inclusion in a specific youth clique made up mostly of athletes. According to Oxford Dictionary, a jock is “an enthusiastic male athlete or sports fan, especially one with few other interests.” One researcher found, when parsing out the difference between “jock” and “athlete”, that the term “jock” is associated with an “ego-oriented approach to sports”—for males (Miller, 2009). Meanwhile, being an ‘athlete’ correlates with a task-oriented approach, for both genders.
To determine whether a teen identified as a jock or not, the researchers asked every participant the following question:
“Teenagers sometimes characterize one another on the basis of their attitudes toward school, clothes, music, partying, and so forth. Some people give names to these types, such as jocks, preps, air heads, burnouts and so forth. How well does each type fit you?”
If a teen responded that the jock label fit them “very well” or “somewhat,” the researcher coded them as “jocks”. Those who said “a little,” “not at all,” or “never heard of this group” were not.
In a separate question, the researchers also asked the teens whether they played a school sport. In fact, many athletes they interviewed did not classify themselves as jocks.
The results? Being a jock was associated with more frequent violence. Jocks were more likely to have “beaten up someone on purpose” or “been involved in a physical fight with a gang or group of friends” than those who didn’t identify as jocks. At the same time, athletic participation by itself was not associated with physical aggression. The teens who were involved in high school sports reported no more violence than their peers who weren’t.
Which is to say, if your teen is an athlete but doesn’t necessarily believe himself to be a part of the jock culture, statistics show he’s not likely to be aggressive.
While the researchers surveyed both adolescent girls and boys, they found that jocks were disproportionately likely to be boys (a finding which might seem obvious to any high school teen). “The link between jock identity and violence was largely a male (and in particular, white male) phenomenon,” they found.
Male Social Norms
Though they don’t use the term “jock identity,” other researchers echo the same idea that there’s a psychosocial element to athletes’ propensity towards aggression. They just use more formal language: masculine social norms.
“Sports teams…often promote a competitive, tough, and emotionally inexpressive mentality, in accordance with the expectations of manhood placed upon all boys and men,” writes Nina Passero of NYU, citing masculinity theorists. “Organized sports also serve as a setting to demonstrate proper masculine behaviors and prepare boys and men for life off the field.”
Experts differ about whether sport actually develops these social norms, or simply highlights them.
“Sports…may exaggerate the sexism and narrow masculine roles of the society that nourishes them, but aggressive sports do not create misogyny, and they certainly do not have a monopoly on its perpetuation,” writes Dr. Gordon Forbes.
Meanwhile, other researchers beg to differ, and take an even stronger stance. They say at traditionally male-dominated sports actually create a propensity towards violence.
Male-Dominated Sports Can Lead to Violent Attitudes
“Aggressiveness and feelings of superiority may be endemic to sport culture and increase violence among all athletes,” writes Derek Kreager in “Unnecessary Roughness? School Sports, Peer Networks, and Male Adolescent Violence.”
“Hypermasculine contact sports create conditions where violence becomes an acceptable means of ‘doing’ masculinity and maintaining valued masculine identities.”
USC professor Michael Mesner believes that male-dominated sports actually lead to pro-violence attitudes. In his book Sex, Violence & Power in Sports: Rethinking Masculinity, he and co-author Donald Sabo bring college rape data as evidence of their theory. They highlight research indicating that male athletes in college are over-represented in rape cases. (Male athletes represent less than a third of students on campuses, but they commit a third of all reported rapes.) They theorize that this is due primarily to male sports culture, which openly glorifies aggression.