Applied Psychology OPUS

Effects of Participation in Sports on Men’s Aggressive and Violent Behaviors

Nina Passero

Violent and aggressive behaviors, 85% - 95% of which are committed by men, are frequently reported in the news (Wykes & Welsh, 2008). Much of the violence that has received media attention is violence committed by male professional athletes against their children, peers, partners, and animals. For example, National Basketball Association (NBA) player Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault in 2003 (Tuchman & Cabell, 2003). In 2007, Michael Vick, a quarterback in the National Football League (NFL), was found guilty of engaging in illegal and gruesome dog fighting (Serrano, 2007). In 2014, fellow NFL player Adrian Peterson was arrested for brutally beating his son, and, in the same year, another NFL player, Ray Rice, was caught on video knocking his fiancé́ unconscious in an elevator (DiMatteo, 2014; Martin & Almasy, 2014), and a third NFL player, Greg Hardy, was arrested for violently assaulting his girlfriend (Bradley & Deery, 2014). These cases comprise only a small portion of the violent and aggressive acts committed by men in the professional athletic community.

In general, men are exposed to masculine gender norms that emphasize aggression, success, competition, emotional strength, inexpressiveness, independence, and dominance over women (Chu, 2005; Cournoyer & Mahalik, 1995; Oliffe & Phillips, 2008). The socialization that men and boys experience necessitates adherence to these norms and expectations, while implicitly communicating ramifications for non-adherence, as well as engagement in behaviors deemed feminine. These norms are present in sports teams, which often promote a competitive, tough, and emotionally inexpressive mentality, in accordance with the expectations of manhood placed upon all boys and men (MacArthur & Shields, 2015; Steinfeldt, Vaughan, LaFollette, & Steinfeldt, 2012). Organized sports also serve as a setting to demonstrate proper masculine behaviors and prepare boys and men for life off the field (Fine, 1987; MacArthur & Shields, 2015).

Furthermore, research has shown that men who participate in organized sports exhibit more aggressive behaviors, in both athletic and non-athletic contexts, than those who do not. These behaviors include bullying, sexual violence, and physical aggression (Forbes, Adams-Curtis, Pakalka, & White, 2006). Athletes also tend to hold more positive attitudes toward violence than do non-athletes (Forbes, Adams-Curtis, Pakalka, & White, 2006). Their increased aggression and propensity toward violence is likely due, in part, to the aforementioned masculine social norms that are established on sports teams (Boeringer, 1999; Coulomb-Cabagno & Rascle, 2006; Koss, 1993; Sonderlund et al., 2014; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). This literature review sought to explore the ways in which men’s participation in organized sports influences their engagement in violent and aggressive behaviors, as well as factors related to the variations in types of violence committed.    

Masculine Social Norms

The masculine social norms imposed upon men and boys in organized sports contribute to a culture of violence, both within the sport and in other contexts (Boeringer, 1999; Brewer & Howarth, 2012; Fine, 1987; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). Research shows that men who participate in sports are more likely to conform to traditional norms of masculinity (Gage, 2008). An aggressive, win-at-all-costs mentality is enforced in sports teams, thus establishing standards of manhood to which the athletes must adhere (Steinfeldt et al., 2012). In other words, the positive regard toward aggression in organized sports, as well as the strong adherence to masculine social norms, breeds a culture of violence. Boys are also taught to take risks and compete aggressively, which assists in establishing violence and aggression as requirements of masculinity (Coulomb-Cabagno & Rascle, 2006).

This aggression is often learned through observation of fellow teammates’ behavior (Coulomb-Cabagno & Rascle, 2006). In team settings, boys form peer networks that establish social hierarchies and, in turn, increase interpersonal aggression and violence (Steinfeldt et al., 2012). These hierarchies are established based on the extent to which one exhibits competitive behavior, aggression, and domination on the field, or the extent to which one adheres to masculine social norms (Chu, 2005; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). In addition to peer relationships being key in instituting norms, coaches’ attitudes and expectations are influential to players, as well (Lyndon, Duff, Smith, & White, 2011). Fellow teammates, their adult coaches, and their fans reward athletes for domination, intimidation, and aggression on the field, thus encouraging it in other settings (Bandura, 1978; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). Therefore, as athletes are socialized by their peers, coaches, and the nature of their sport, their tendency toward aggression increases.

Violence and aggression are also reinforced by jock culture, which is defined by heavy alcohol consumption and aggressive behaviors (Sonderlund et al., 2014). Jock culture’s endorsement of excessive drinking, which has been shown to predict increased aggression, contributes to violent behavior off the field (Koss, 1993). Additionally, alcohol consumption mediates the relation between athleticism and violence (Sonderlund et al., 2014). Ultimately, sports teams are social sites that promote masculine norms, which contribute to a culture of violence, risk-taking, competition, and aggression. However, the encouraged aggression is exhibited by varying forms of violence.

Types of Violent and Aggressive Behaviors Committed by Athletes

Athletes engage in different violent acts, including social and sexual aggression (Koss, 1993; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). Social aggression often takes the form of bullying or positive attitudes toward bullying (Steinfeldt et al., 2012). In general, bullying is motivated and maintained by the norms in one’s peer group and endorsed by peers’ positive reactions to the act (Espelage & Holt, 2012). For athletes in particular, research shows that players who perceive their team to have low moral standards are more likely to endorse bullying, because they view it as acceptable behavior (Steinfeldt et al., 2012). Additionally, the perceived high social status of athletes contributes to the increased frequency of their bullying behaviors (Dane-Staples, Lieberman, Ratcliff, & Rounds, 2013; Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2003).

Sexual assault, or the act of forcing someone to engage in sexual acts, is also commonly associated with participation in organized sports (Gage, 2008; Koss, 1993). Sexual assault is more prevalent in communities where one perceives that his peers have positive attitudes toward sexual assault, which is often the case on athletic teams. This acceptance of sexual assault could be partially due to the fact that participation in organized sports is associated with more negative attitudes toward women, as well as more positive attitudes toward using violence in intimate relationships (Gage, 2008; McCauley et al., 2014). These attitudes typically arise from the masculine norms, including an emphasis on dominance over women, which are established and consistently perpetrated in athletic settings (Boeringer, 1999; Dardis, Murphy, Bill, & Gidycz, 2015; Steinfeldt et al. 2012). The social environment on sports teams also has implications for behavior, as well as attitudes. Research suggests that the belief that one’s peers are accepting of sexual assault is associated with a history of committing sexual assault (Dardis et al., 2015). It is important to note, however, that coaches also influence an athlete’s ideas regarding women, sex, and aggression. Unfortunately, coaches often lack the training necessary to prevent intentionally or unintentionally imparting beliefs that condone sexual aggression upon their players (Lyndon et al., 2011).

Additionally, the prevalence of sexual aggression in the athletic community is likely to be related to the sense of entitlement seen in athletes, particularly in terms of their relationships with and expectations of women. Entitled attitudes are correlated with positive attitudes toward sexual assault (Bouffard, 2010; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). Athletes’ sense of entitlement is reinforced by the fact that women often rate men as being more attractive when they know that they participate in sports, particularly if they are aggressive (Brewer & Howarth, 2012). This external endorsement of aggression and domination can contribute to increased off-field violence (Bouffard, 2010; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). Ultimately, the competitive environment fostered on sports teams contributes to players’ attitudes toward women, sense of entitlement, and propensity to commit acts of aggression, sexual and otherwise. While this seems to be the case in many athletic settings, the severity, amount, and type of aggression exhibited by athletes often differs depending on what sport they play (Gage, 2008; Guilbert, 2006).

Sport Type and Engagement in Violence and Aggression

Sport type is closely linked to an athlete’s participation in aggressive behavior (Gage, 2008; McCauley et al., 2014; Messner, 2002). In other words, aggression exhibited off the field often reflects the forms of violence in the sport itself (Guilbert, 2006; Pappas, McKenry, & Catlett, 2004). For example, football players are typically more aggressive because of the violent nature of the sport, which routinely includes tackling, hitting, running, and blocking other players (Steinfeldt et al., 2012). Similarly, athletes who participate in sports like basketball, karate, and shooting typically exhibit more physical violence and aggression because of the nature of their sport (Guilbert, 2006). Research shows that expressing aggression or violence does not act as catharsis, but rather encourages feelings of aggression and aggressive acts in the future (Bushman, 2002). Thus, the more aggressive an athlete is on the field, the more likely it is that further aggression will be exhibited in athletic and non-athletic contexts. Additionally, men who behave aggressively in their lives are often attracted to sports that condone, encourage, and even require similar acts of aggression and violence. For example, mixed martial arts, or MMA, is historically appealing to working class American men who adhere to violent norms of masculinity and also to men who find this archetype appealing (Channon & Matthews, 2015). In contrast, athletes who play sports like table tennis and swimming, which require fewer acts of physical dominance, exhibit less physical aggression and more psychological or verbal aggression (Guilbert, 2006).

In addition to the difference between physical and psychological aggression, there is also a distinction to be made between center sports and marginal sports (Gage, 2008; Messner, 2002). Center sports, like football, are those that have a long-standing historical position in an institution, thereby generating a large amount of revenue (Messner, 2002). Conversely, marginal sports, like tennis, are less historically relevant and often make less money, thus rendering the athletes who participate in them less popular and socially powerful (Messner, 2002). Due to their historical longevity, the masculine social norms that are established in center sports also are long-standing, thus leading to more aggression and violence. Therefore, athletes who play center sports, like football, are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior than those who play marginal sports (Gage, 2008; Messner, 2002; Steinfeldt et al., 2012).

Research supports this assertion, in that athletes who play sports like football and basketball display higher levels of hyper-masculinity and sexual aggression and hold stronger beliefs in gender inequality than did athletes who play marginal sports, like swimming and tennis (Gage, 2008; McCauley et al., 2014). Hockey, another center sport, yields similar results. Hockey players, who admit to engaging in violent behavior in their personal lives, report that doing so seems to be a logical continuation of the aggression that is encouraged during the game (Pappas et al., 2004). Ultimately, it is a challenge to restrict the violence that is endorsed on the field from taking place in other settings.


The body of literature focusing on the associations between participation in organized sports and aggressive and violent behavior has revealed several trends. The masculine social norms that exist in society are endorsed by teammates and coaches in sports teams and promote attitudes and behaviors consistent with the norms of aggression, competition, and dominance (Boeringer, 1999; Brewer & Howarth, 2012; Fine, 1987; Lyndon et al., 2011; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). This reward system leads to increased violence outside of the athletic context (Steinfeldt et al., 2012). Additionally, these masculine norms endorse excessive drinking, which is also associated with both increased aggression and increased victimization (Koss, 1993; O’Brien et al., 2012; Sonderlund et al., 2014). While this culture exists in most athletic communities, the amount and variety of aggressive behaviors committed by athletes varies by type of sport (Gage, 2008; Messner, 2002). Sports that are more aggressive in nature are more likely to produce aggressive athletes (Guilbert, 2006; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). Also, sports that are more historically founded, as well as higher paid, produce athletes who are more popular and powerful in their social settings, and thus are more likely to behave aggressively (Messner, 2002). Finally, research has shown that athletes engage in various types of violence, including bullying and sexual aggression (Gage, 2008; Koss, 1993; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). These types of violence are more commonly seen in athletic communities where they are perceived to be more socially acceptable (Boeringer, 1999; Lyndon et al., 2011).

However, the existing research on this topic is limited, namely because the majority of the studies have been conducted on young populations. Most of the research has examined the aggressive behaviors of high school and college athletes, which, while valuable, leaves out a population that is very frequently publicized as committing violent acts: adult male professional athletes. Future research should focus on the power dynamics and values that exist among professional athletes and their coaches in the National Football League, National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball. This would provide a greater understanding of the causes of the seemingly high levels of violence and aggression in these communities.

Additionally, the current research indicates that organized sports are sites in which players establish a set of values and beliefs that exist outside the athletic context. When they are used to propagate negative male gender norms, the outcomes are very serious. Therefore, organized sports provide an opportunity for young and adult men to learn healthy coping strategies and a strong set of moral values. Joe Ehrmann, a former professional football player in the NFL, has adopted this philosophy. Ehrmann views sports as an opportunity to redefine what it means to be a man and establish that masculinity is about trust, dignity, and integrity, rather than competition and aggression (Tedx Talks, 2013). He explains that as a culture, we must reframe sports and redefine coaching so that sports teams can teach positive values and help boys become emotionally secure and developed men, which would then reduce the level of violence in the athletic community (Tedx Talks, 2013). The literature on this topic supports Ehrmann’s assertions by showing that violent behavior is encouraged when athletes perceive it to be a viable and acceptable option in the eyes of their peers and coaches (Lyndon et al., 2011; Steinfeldt et al., 2012). Therefore, restructuring sports teams as sites for the transmission of positive values could have lasting effects on the culture of violence in which we live.


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