Does Football Promote Abuse?
Opinions Vary on whether Mix of Beer and Super Bowl Promotes Domestic Violence
For years experts have debated the merits of research linking the most watched television event “the Super Bowl” with an increase in domestic violence.
Each year, between one and three million women will be battered by a spouse or domestic partner. Domestic violence, both physical and verbal, is the number one reason for divorce, according to a poll conducted by GFK Roper for Wevorce.com. The results showed that about 36 percent of Americans polled said their divorce stemmed from verbal or physical abuse. That figure was higher for women — 48 percent.
“There is no one profile of a batterer,” according to Lisa James, a program manager for the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a national organization dedicated to ending violence against women and children. However, studies have shown links between domestic abuse and alcohol abuse. Given that drinking is usually part of the Super Bowl festivities, (as it was Sunday when the New York Giants ended the Patriots’ dreams of a perfect season) some sports fans were not surprised that there could be a link.
“Football is a violent, contact sport, much more so than baseball,” says Mike Paul, an avid sports fan from Massachusetts who thinks a link is possible. “Here are these men – and sometimes women – who spend 18-20 Sundays focusing on the games. That could create some problems at home,” he says. “Also once alcohol gets involved, I could definitely see some yelling and arguments escalating.”
Jeffrey Zeeman, a Washington D.C.-based attorney and avid New York Giants fan, said a link was possible but didn’t think it was because of the game. “Few people are emotionally invested in the game because fans of only two teams are involved,” Zeeman says.”Generally a lot of men, myself included, are emotionally invested in the performance of their team. I don’t think watching football causes aggressive behavior per se but I wouldn’t be shocked if men react to a negative performance from their team via a violent outburst particularly when most men watching football have been drinking steadily for three hours or more.”
Despite what seems like a logical connection, there are no conclusive, national studies that show a link between the biggest American sporting event of the year and increased domestic violence. “It seems some studies have seen a slight rise, but it does not seem true across the board,” says Amy Gross, a public affairs officer for the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.
The link has been hotly debated for years. In 1993, the debate increased when NBC aired a public service announcement condemning domestic violence during the Super Bowl. Some viewers were angry about the spot. Later that year, a Washington Post reporter, Ken Ringle, condemned the link as a fabrication. “Despite their dramatic claims, none of the activists appears to have any evidence that a link actually exists between football and wife-beating,” Ringle says in his 1993 article. Yet the concept has gained such credence that their campaign has rolled on anyway, unabated.”
But Florida psychologist and domestic abuse expert Lenore Walker, author of more than a dozen books including “The Battered Woman and The Male Batterer,” says the link is real and that her research proves it. She contends that Ringle was given false information. “He (Ringle) called my office, and I was out-of-town. Someone who answered the telephone referred him to a batterer’s treatment advocate who knew nothing about the study and the reporter printed that it was all a fabrication,” Walker says. “It was not.”
In her investigation, Walker looked at calls to domestic violence hotlines during and after two different Super Bowls during the 1980s –when the Denver Broncos played theNew York Giants, and then the next year when the team played the Washington Redskins. While she admits, the connection between Super Bowl Sunday and increased domestic violence is quite controversial,” she also stands by her results. “During the game, the number of calls to the domestic violence hotline were lower than on a usual Sunday,” she says. “However, the number of calls to the hotline after the game was over was higher than usual.”
“In looking at the cities,” Walker says, “it didn’t matter who won — or lost — the game. We looked at data from emergency rooms in Denver and found the same thing. Visits were down during the game but up afterward. Same for battered women shelters — we concluded that the alcohol and other drugs together with the football environment increased the use of physical force after the game was over,” says Walker.
“I think that most people, men and women, like to watch a good competitive game,” she says. “What they don’t realize, is that football itself is a pretty violent game and it gets those people who cannot control the escalation of emotions all hyped up. Unfortunately, it is mostly men, who can’t re-regulate their emotions and with the help of alcohol and other drugs, this is a perfect scenario for an abuse incident to occur.”
Many other domestic violence experts, however, are not convinced. “We firmly believe that one cannot draw the conclusion that there is a rise in domestic violence based around Super Bowl Sunday,” says James. “What we do know is that violence is a learned behavior and is reinforced by the community.”
Gross and her office see a possible link but believe that previous studies on the topic were too small to draw any significant conclusions. Still, she isn’t surprised that people get angry over the debate. “I think tying domestic violence to such an All-American pastime like football made it a personal issue for many,” says Gross. “Domestic violence is a hard issue for people to talk about because, unlike breast cancer or other diseases, there is someone to blame.”
And the bottom line for Gross is simple: “This link is a very sensationalized idea,” she says. “But the truth is, whether there is a connection or not, domestic violence happens every single day, not just on Super Bowl Sunday.”
Sasha Brown-Worsham is a freelance writer in Boston, Mass. who has written for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Technology Review, Babble.com and many other publications.