Is there a link between sports and aggression in males?

I will begin with a forewarning: I am not privy to much knowledge about sports, outside of the few I played in grade school, and this blog is in no way stating that all sports negatively influence all people. However, after living at Penn State for nearly two months, I could not help but notice two quite prominent aspects of our college society: football and reports of sexual assault. When the first “Your Right to Know” report came into my mailbox, I was somewhat shaken, as it was reported within the first week of school. We have now had 17 reports of sexual assault and other violent acts such as robbery and physical assault. Many of the reports were filed as occurring either on a game weekend or in the early morning of weekends in general. Although I would like to compare some sort of frequency between game week and the reports, or whether or not the males that committed the attacks played or watched sports, it is simply too difficult to attempt gathering that kind of data at the moment. The amount of games is too small to show convincing data for just Penn State, and none of the assailants are actually identified in the ‘Right to Know reports. Instead, I will do my best to state the findings of some other researchers’ studies done on the topic and also state my own opinion based on my personal experience and any influences the studies had on me.


First, I want to clearly state what I am looking for: Does watching or playing sports directly correlate to an increase in aggression in males? There could, of course, be a factor of reverse causation, in which an increase in aggression leads males to take up watching or playing sports in order to relieve some of that pent up anger. There may also be third variables at play, such as alcohol consumption, gender, and age, among others. Finally, there is always the possibility that any correlation that may occur is only due to chance.

My first avenue of research was through a study done by a student of NYU Steinhardt on the effects of men participating in sports increasing violent behavior. The student, Nina Passero, first provides some examples of famous sports players from two different leagues (four from football, one from basketball) who have all been charged with crimes ranging from sexual assault to domestic abuse. She goes on to consider the effect of social norms and ingrained masculinity to be at play regarding the presence of the aggressive mentality in sports. To expand on her research, I looked up how many National Football League (NFL) arrests there have been since 2000; I came up with a database from USA Today arrestsconsisting of 833 arrests at the time I accessed it, with about 112 accounts of varying assault and battery chargers, 99 accounts of domestic violence, 8 and 3 charges of animal and child abuse, respectively, 5 homicides, and a large number of charges for DUIs and drugs. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find substantial evidence for the other sports leagues in order to contrast with football, and thus was unable to rule out a possible third variable of type of sport influencing aggression. However, the amount of arrests (which I interpret as a representation of aggression and deviant behavior) seems like a convincing argument for a correlation between sports and aggressiveness.

Another study I found, based in Romania, focused their preface on the understanding of aggression and its history in sports, and how sports themselves are designed to be confrontational between athletes, whether they are playing directly with each other or competing against another athlete’s performance. They also quoted other studies to support coachtheirs, which stated that the correlation between sports and aggression, the effect on a coaches wishes increasing aggression on the field, and comparing how women have a lower aggression threshold while playing sports than men. On the conclusion of their study, which surveyed 106 football players of varying ages, they found that the correlation was partially proven. Aggression seems to increase throughout adolescence, when boys are malleable to peer pressure and social norms on masculinity that suggest violence is a key factor in achieving victory.

In an environment where confrontation is an expectation, it is be natural to assume that aggression will be cultivated and even encouraged. While aggression can be beneficial in the world of sports, that cultured behavior can also bleed into daily lift through acts such as the ones committed by the NFL athletes that were arrested in the past sixteen years. Although there may not be hard evidence proving the correlation between sports and aggression, I am convinced there is a strong relationship between the two, based on what I have learned and my experiences here at Penn State. I personally believe that there should not be such a strong influence on young children, boys especially, to fit into the mold of social norms and feel the need to prove that they are men through sports. This century’s society has the capability to accept all types of people, regardless of belief, appearance, or behavior. The standard of dual-gender types is antiquated and oppressive.

Picture Sources:


Graph on NFL Arrests from Bloomberg



8 thoughts on “Is there a link between sports and aggression in males?

  1. Marissa Dorros

    Your blog post is really interesting, but when considering the timing of the reports, it’s also important to acknowledge that many victims do not report the incidents immediately or soon after they occur, and according to these statistics, over 90% of sexual assault cases on college campuses are not reported. While this may conflict with your conclusions about the timing of the attacks in relation to aggression, you still provided strong studies that support the hypothesis. Could this mean there is a link between sports and the timing of when the victim chooses to report the case?

  2. Zachary Morris

    I thought this was very interesting and well done. You had plenty of statistical data to back you up. Despite being an athlete all my life I would have to agree with your conclusion. I have noticed the relationship between aggression and sports, particularly contact sports, both personally and in other people. I think when you look at the stats on NFL players (the most brutal sport) and domestic abuse for example, it shows the relationship to be clear. While I’m not by any means justifying it, it does make sense to me. I mean, you are paying some of the strongest men in our country millions of dollars to literally beat the crap out of each other. It seems somewhat natural to me that someone that is paid to hit other people might be more likely to hit their wife or child. Here’s a link you might find interesting- leading to an article discussing domestic abuse in the NFL:

  3. Reetu Shah

    I just wanted to say, this article covered a lot more than I intended. It was amazing. You covered many aspects to this situation. I completely agree with you. I personally don’t like how there is so much negativity due to the competitiveness within the sports at Penn State, especially Football of course.
    In the first paragraph I personally think that students are more aggressive due to the atmosphere surrounding the games. This would include drinking and just the people around who are drinking.
    3rd variables: drinking, people in the situation.

    I really do believe that alcohol is a huge contributor to students getting aggressive, especially during football season. I was reading an article on how alcohol causes people to get so aggressive. Professor McMurran, from an online article on Alcohol and Aggression talks about how alcohol limits our attention and people also don’t take the concept of risk into account. He even points out that anxiety may actually help us. It helps us to avoid certain and difficult situations. When we are intoxicated, our brain does not warn us and we put ourselves in dangerous situations. Our brains as 20 year olds are still developing. One part of the brain, the prefrontal lobe, is still developing. This alerts the executive function; this consists of tasks like making decisions and solving problems. When people start drinking, the alcohol impairs this executive function, and it slowly gets poorer.

    There was a study done on rats. They didn’t explain too much about it, but came to the conclusion that rats were more aggressive when they were given alcohol.
    If I were to do this study, I would take 20 rats. It would be a doubled bling placebo trial. 10 would consume it, the other 10 would just have water. I would then observe how the rats would react, and if they did get aggressive. A good way to show this is to put them in a cage with other rats, and see how they act. I would also wait about 30 minutes.

     Hypothesis: Alcohol consumption cause aggression in rats.
     Null Hypothesis: Alcohol consumption does not cause aggression in rats.
     Alternative Hypothesis: Alcohol consumption does cause aggression in rats.
    x-variable: Alcohol
    y-variable: Aggression in rats
    confounding variable: rat’s diet, amount of sleep the rat got
    chance: Always a possibility.
    While I am observing I would just see how they are all behaving separately. Then I would probably place 2 rats together in a cage. Then I could really see what affects alcohol really has on the mice.

    I really do believe that alcohol has a huge effect on why students get so riled up about sports. Students do and say stupid things because of the alcohol they consumed. Yes they could say this without alcohol, but a lot more chaos does happen because they have consumed alcohol.

    There was no author to this article.
    (2016) How alcohol can make us aggressive. Drinkware.

    Lewis, D. (2014) Why does alcohol make people violent? ABC Health & Wellbeing.

    1. Emma G Schadler Post author

      This was a great response, thanks Reetu!

      I agree that a lot of what I think of when I correlate aggression to sports is the atmosphere that surrounds sporting events. Everything that you mentioned about alcohol and how it affects decision making and aggression seems like a very strong explanation for the relationship between sports and aggression – for the spectators, at least. I think with my article (barring the first paragraph about Penn State) I was curious about the correlation between people who play sports and aggression, but even then alcohol or drugs could be a factor. But with students, I think another factor, caused by alcohol consumption, is the lack of experience with the effects of alcohol, which of course only leads to even more lack of control and ability to think critically, especially when surrounded by other people who are in the same situation.

      Thanks a lot for such a thorough response!

  4. Jeremy Perdomo

    Dear Emma,

    What an interesting way to introduce your blog; correlating the importance of football here on campus with the hundreds of sexual assaults that happen on a yearly basis. This really gets me thinking if there might actually be a correlation with aggression and sports in males. However, having played varsity tennis for the last four years of my life, I can confidently say that, in general, I disagree with your conclusion that if you play a sport, you are more aggressive. I see tennis as an avenue to let out some steam and add balance to my life, and I make sure whatever aggression I do exhibit while playing is left on the court; in other words, I do not act aggressive in my other daily activities as a result of playing tennis. If there is a correlation, however, I can assure you that it must definitely be dependent on what sport you play (especially football).

    But, being that you are a woman, I was curious as to why you thought about the aggression from sports in males and not in females, because I can definitely use anecdotes to support that women are just as aggressive when they play sports, too! Here is an article that writes about the aggression in females that I am talking about:

    1. Emma G Schadler Post author

      Hi Jeremy, thanks for reading. I just want to clarify that my conclusion was more of an open ending: I believe that there is a strong relationship between sports and aggression, but I am not sure what the mechanism may be, or if the relationship based on the evidence I found could be explained by a third variable. Even if I were to state that I believe sports causes aggression, I would not say that it does in every person that plays a sport, or that the aggression shows itself negatively. In your case, you say that you are able to use your aggression through playing; my suggestion is that while you and many, many other people are able to transfer their aggression solely into a sport, others, such as the football players that have been arrested that I mentioned, have excess aggression that spills into their daily lives. Maybe there’s a link between being a criminal and being adept at sports. Maybe sports don’t cause the aggression at all, but are simply the outlet. I also believe that any sport can have the potential to cause aggression behavior, dependent on the person and circumstances.
      As to why I chose to focus on men’s sports, and football specifically I explained in my introduction; I was shocked by how many assaults were happening on our campus, and I noticed that several of them occurred over game weekends. I don’t deny that women’s sports can also be aggressive, but I wanted my article to be more specific so my sources wouldn’t have too much information to cover. I think comparing men’s sports and women’s sports could take up an entire post of its own. After browsing the article you shared, I definitely think soccer is one of women’s more aggressive sports. In your response, though, you said you believed aggression is dependent on the sport, so I’m curious as to whether you think soccer is an aggressive sport for men as well, or if soccer is perhaps to women as football is to men?
      Thanks for your reply, I hope I clarified some things for you!

  5. Michael David Kresovich

    Emma, That was a very informative blog post and I found it very interesting because of my interest in sports. The conclusion is something that I have to disagree with though, I have played sports for my entire life and I do not think it has led to violence, I think violence comes from other aspects of life. There will always be outliers of course, but sports are an escape to the violence for many, and are an escape. This was a very important topic though, thanks for the post.

  6. Isaac Chandler Orndorff

    Hi Emma!

    I’d like to first say this is a very interesting and important topic. However, I have to disagree with your conclusions. Playing sports since I was five, including football for 2 and a half years in college (before I transferred here), I don’t see how either watching sports or playing sports increase violent tendencies. On the opposite, I always felt playing football gave me an outlet to release my agression in a more positive way. Obviously, there are football players that are very agressive people and do illegal activities like assault, rape, etc. However, I associate that more with them being bad/agressive people in general, not being football players. Obviously, these players (especially at a big school like PSU) get a lot more attention and scrutiny. Because of that, you will see more about them doing illegal activites over a normal PSU student. Obviously, fans may be more likely to do illegal activities at games because there is more alcohol in their system than usual, and people get worked up over games. Therefore, from a personal experience of 15 years of football, 10 of baseball, 6 for basketball, etc (you get the picture), I have to disagree. However, I can see how this is important and hope we research this more in the future.

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