Two weeks ago, just hours after he scored four touchdowns for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, Heisman trophy candidate Lawrence Phillips, 20, was arrested for allegedly assaulting a former girlfriend—only a day after his teammate Damon Benning was charged following an altercation with his girlfriend, and three days before star Cincinnati Bengals lineman Dan Wilkinson was arrested for allegedly punching his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach. Add theirs to the names of athletes charged in recent years with battering wives or girlfriends—O.J. Simpson, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Warren Moon, former Los Angeles Laker Michael Cooper, baseball star Jose Canseco, golfer John Daly—and you've got the makings of a guest list for an all-star awards dinner.
You also have the making of a question: Are athletes more prone to domestic violence than other men? Todd Crosset, 36, a sociologist and assistant professor of sport management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, thinks they are. Trying to get beyond anecdotal evidence, Crosset and colleagues at UMass and Northeastern University in Boston analyzed reports of sexual assaults at 10 major universities between 1991 and 1993. They discovered that student athletes, only 3.3 percent of the student body, were responsible for 19 percent of the reported assaults on women. "We shouldn't demonize all athletes for the violent acts of a few," cautions Crosset, "but the findings of this research suggest the existence of a problem."
Himself an athlete, Crosset was an all-American swimmer at the University of Texas before receiving his Ph.D. in sociology at Brandeis University in 1992. The author of a book on women's pro golf, Outsiders in the Clubhouse, Crosset is married to Anne Richmond, a community organizer, and lives in Springfield, Mass., where he spoke with correspondent Anne Longley.
Why is the incidence of domestic abuse so high among male athletes?
One important reason may be that the world of men's athletics is hyper-masculine—and hostile toward women, who are constantly degraded and demeaned through comparisons with men. On one team I swam for, if you couldn't finish practice, you did another workout in the diving pool. We called it the woman pit. It sends kids a terrible message.
Are certain sports more likely to produce violence-prone athletes?
In our study, we saw contact sports such as football and basketball over-represented in cases of assault. That raises the possibility that athletes trained to use physical domination on the field may be more likely to carry these lessons over into their personal relationships. Training for football, basketball, hockey and boxing is inherently violent. Studies of military personnel who have been trained to be violent and who have been rewarded for violence suggest there is a tendency for the behavior to spill over into their private lives, whether it's beating wives or beating children.
Is domestic violence among athletes increasing, or are we just reading more about it?
I think it's getting more public attention. Before the Watergate era, the press rarely wrote about politicians' private lives or troubles. The same was true for athletes; generally reporters were very complimentary. It was "for the good of the game." Today, athletes are among the most investigated human beings on earth.
Do dorms that isolate athletes from the rules and norms that apply to other students contribute to the problem?
It's a concern the NCAA has recently addressed. Beginning next year, no schools will be allowed to house athletes in separate dorms. Instead of isolating athletes, the NCAA wants them to have a full college experience.
What other factors might play a role?
Here are two possible variables we think worth investigating. Binge drinking: Athletes go through periods of enforced abstinence, which can be followed by serious partying. As we know, alcohol impairs judgment. We're also looking at institutional protection. How does the athlete's behavior change if he believes that the school, the coach, the fans will protect him? In many cases we've sent mixed signals to athletes about acceptable behavior. In suspending Lawrence Phillips from the Nebraska football team, coach Tom Osborne has delivered a clear message that violence against women will not be tolerated. If he reinstates Phillips, he'll be sending a mixed message.
What can parents and coaches learn from your study?
That sport is more than just a game. It's one of the places we teach young people to be adults. It's not okay for a coach to put up with athletes destroying a drinking fountain or throwing a chair in frustration—doing anything as long as they win. Parents and school administrators need to take an interest in how a coach is teaching a sport.
Was pro basketball star Charles Barkley right when he said people shouldn't consider him a role model?
Yes. Athletes are celebrities, not role models. Fans create a myth of athletes as role models to justify watching them. But role models are parents, brothers, sisters, neighbors—people we learn everyday behavior from. Take Jeffrey Moon, Warren's 7-year-old son. He knew his mother was in trouble in July when he witnessed his father beating her, so he telephoned 911 and reported the incident. Now there's a role model.