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Historically, contact sports or sports depicting acts of violence and competitive contact sport events have been an crucial part of various cultures globally dating back all the way to ancient Greece (Tamborini, 2010). Whether it’s the prevalence of American football in the United States or rugby among the commonwealth nations, there is a great deal of passion, pride and competition associated with each of those sports. Often this tenacious loyalty of fans to their sports results in violence among fans and injury to amateur athletes who engage in the aforementioned sports, among others. It has also been noted that sports with higher levels of violence have more popularity. A recent Gallup poll surveyed the popularity of various sports among fans in the United States and American Football has consistently been at the top of the list. Furthermore, it’s important to consider the cultural impact of the prevalence of violence among our sports and sporting events. The normalization of this violence can be attributed to either generations of exposure to these sports or to a recent cultural shift in which we are more open and accepting of violence due to the frequent consumption of it via sports and TV.  This coupled with the fact that approximately 57% of televised shows depict at least one act of violence leads to the question if the repeated consumption of violence in sports increases peoples’ acceptance of violence among athletes and fans both during sporting events and outside event situations (Tamborini, 2010).

What are contact sports?

Contact sports also known as collision sports are any sports in which athletes deliberately come into violent contact with other athletes with the aim of disrupting the maneuvers of the other team or to advance their own teams position.

Some common contact sports are American Football, Rugby, Ice Hockey, Boxing, MMA and Lacrosse.

The surge in popularity of contact sports

Contrary to popular belief, contact sports have not been continually popular and widely accepted at the same level that they are today. In the United States, baseball dominated the sporting arena for centuries before American Football rose to the number one spot as the favorite American spectator sport in 1972 (Norman, 2018). Since 1972, American Football has been consistently the dominant sport in the United States. With the rise of American Football, there were also increases in popularity in Ice Hockey, Rugby and Boxing although they both pale in comparison to American Football in terms of viewership, revenue generation and spectacle creation. Today, contact sports are immensely popular and are gaining more traction among fans. An example of this would be the recent rise in popularity of Mixed-Martial Arts and UFC and the creation of TV channels that provide 24-hour coverage of sporting events including highlights from previous events.

Violence & Contact Sports

A short video examining violence in Sports

Violence is a complicated issue when it comes to sports and contact sports are no different. Violence in contact sports is often encouraged and considered as an expression of an athletes’ prowess and ability however at the same time violence in frequently punished, criticized and even legally pursued (Depalma, 2006). It would be highly unlikely that contact sports are eliminated completely due to the cultural and historical sentiments that are often associated with these sports. However, there has to be a discussion on the impact of the violence depicted in these sports. Athletes often knowingly expose themselves to life-altering or life-threatening injuries in the pursuit of accolades and one can argue that these athletes are professionals with the best medical care available to them at short notice and that they are doing this voluntarily but what about the athletes that engage in these levels of violence at amateur leagues where the resources available to them are not even close to the aforementioned professionals?  This entire phenomenon becomes more alarming when experimental studies have indicated that exposure to short clips of violence can result in an increased state of aggressive mood (Greene, 2000). The combination of this recent increase in popularity of consumption of violence among sports fans, 24 hours sports coverage and studies pointing to increased aggressive mood highlights the need to examine the benefits vs the drawbacks of a having a culture that is heavily reliant on consumption of violence via sports.

Impact on athletes and audiences

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The negative impact of contact sports on athletes of all ages and leagues is undeniable. There have been links with several types of brain disease and American Football players. In a study spanning 202 former American Football players from the NFL, CFL and high school level revealed that approximately 90% of the players studied had some form of brain disease present at various stages in their life (Tanner, 2017). These studies apply to other contact sports as well such as Rugby and UFC. Furthermore, there have been another set of studies that claim that even if the athletes report being healthy and fit to play their respective sports, there is still a biological impact on the development of the brain. That is, even though there may be no physical damage to the scar tissue in the brain, there is a reduced level of brain activity (Katawazi, 2017). What makes this entire situation even more concerning is the fact that there isn’t enough research present to determine if these athletes will have any permanent negative outcomes in terms of their health throughout their lives. What the medical community does know now is that contact sports have a proven link to increased likelihood of concussions which may or may not develop into serious brain diseases at some point in the athletes lives. Although these issues are extremely concerning, they are usually a result of long-term sustained physical violence and therefore only impact a small fraction of amateur players however there have been cases of athletes being killed due to violent impacts during tackles and other forms athlete on athlete contact.

Putting aside the cognitive diminishment that might be experienced by athletes as a result of this sustained behavior of physical violence in sports, there is also a psychological impact on the audiences viewing these sports and the athletes who play these sports. Firstly, the athletes are allowed to exist in a very binary state. That is, their lives and their sports are extremely intertwined and often these athletes have to sacrifice one or the other. An example of this would be the recent controversy involving FOX news anchor Laura Ingraham and NBA athlete LeBron James. LeBron James was criticized for having an opinion about race relations in the United States, to which Laura Ingraham responded with the phrase “shut up and dribble”. This is part of a wider phenomenon that restricts athletes into the binary state mentioned above. Whether its Colin Kaepernick in the NFL or LeBron James in the NBA, athletes are increasingly denied the right to engage in political discourse because it is not considered to be their traditional arena to operate within. This is cause for concern because the NFL is known for hiring athletes who have been convicted or accused of domestic violence and substance abuse but its athletes like Colin Kaepernick who engage in intellectual and controversial debate that are facing issues in regard to being signed to a team.

The impact of the consumption of violence via viewership has a marked impact on TV audiences and fans attending the events in person.  There has been a proven link between that male viewers of contact sports tend to have a higher level of enjoyment with increasing degrees of violence (Depalma, 2006). This was especially the case with televised American Football in which researchers found a statistically significant trend that lead them to the aforementioned conclusion. Furthermore, when participants were presented with an option of 25 sports to choose from and to rate their enjoyment. The result was again gender specific and lead to the conclusion that enjoyment for men increased the more violent, active and dangerous the sport was perceived (Depalma, 2006). This means that men tend to enjoy violence more than women and that their enjoyment of a particular sport is directly associated with the amount of violence being embodied by the athletes within that sport. In addition, there has been research done that links frequent consumption of violence with increased imitation of that same type of violence and increased aggression among the viewers (Greene, 2000). Lastly, researcher’s conduction a cross-sectional correlation study and a time-series analysis found links between viewing contact sports and sexual violence towards women and an increase in national homicide rates respectively (Tamborini, 2010).  These various studies are part of a growing list that are pointing to various physical and psychological issues that are indirectly or directly related with contact sports and their consumption by TV audiences and fans.

Conclusion

Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant

With an ever-growing amount of studies and researchers pointing to negative links between audiences/athletes/fans and their respective contact sport of choice, it would be arrogant and careless to not address these issues. Although there has been a recent movement by athletes and medical experts to bring into the mainstream the issues faced by the athletes once they are out of the spotlight, issues ranging from psychological to physical, we can still do more. We need to analyze the positive impacts of contact sports such as providing an outlet for success and economic prosperity to minorities versus the growing list of drawbacks such as an increased attitude of violence towards women, an increased level of enjoyment from the depiction of violence, the dumbing down and disenfranchisement of athletes. The importance of contact sports historically and culturally is understandable and respectable but is it a necessary source of entertainment for us with the increasing amount of evidence pointing otherwise?

Questions

  • What do you think about the connections drawn between contact sports and increases in violence and violent behavior among audiences and fans?
  • Are cultural and historical reasons enough to justify continued consumption of violence via sports?
  • Where do we draw the line in terms of political engagement by athletes and celebrities? Do they face the same standard as fellow citizens or are more open to criticism due to their position?
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