Football, Boys, and Bullying: What’s the Connection?

With football season nearing end, emotionally charged teen boys, who are taught how to use aggression on the field, will no longer be able to use that physical outlet for their youthful frustrations. Because of the high level of violence in the sport, experts have wondered if these teens, who are encouraged to use coercion, intimidation, and other aggressive tactics during play, are more likely to engage in bullying behaviors off the field than their nonathlete peers. Nearly half of teens today report that they have been either the victim or perpetrator of bullying. And although football does not endorse bullying, players are encouraged to aspire to masculine norms and conformity. Therefore, researchers have asked, do these factors make the players more vulnerable to bullying behaviors?

To answer this question, Jesse A. Steinfeldt of the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Indiana University-Bloomington led a study involving 206 high school football players and looked at peer relationships, masculine conformity, bullying beliefs, and male role models. The results revealed that the football players would only accept or encourage bullying behavior if their peers did. Additionally, the players who conformed the most to masculine norms were among the most likely to bully, regardless of peer influence. Adhering and aspiring to masculine norms has been shown to negatively influence psychological well-being and can increase one’s risk for depression, sexual aggression, substance abuse, and low self-worth.

However, Steinfeldt discovered the highest risk factor for accepting bullying behaviors was having a male role model who also endorsed bullying. Specifically, the most influential male in the boys’ lives, whether it was a coach, uncle, father, or big brother, was the strongest indicator of bullying behavior. This discovery has significant implications for interventions and youth programs that target bullying. Steinfeldt said, “Thus, psychologists working with adolescent football players may want to consider bullying within the broader context, particularly the ways that traditional masculine norms are conveyed by peers and influential males within the unique context of football.” Steinfeldt also suggested that psychologists who work with teen football players might consider asking coaches and fathers to participate in the design and delivery of interventions in order to more powerfully influence the teens.

Steinfeldt, J. A., Vaughan, E. L., LaFollette, J. R., & Steinfeldt, M. C. (2012, January 23). Bullying Among Adolescent Football Players: Role of Masculinity and Moral Atmosphere. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026645

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  • Walt

    January 31st, 2012 at 5:16 AM

    It is an aggressive sport.
    Coaches and parents both urge the boys to be even more aggressive out there on the field.
    What part of that do you think does NOT encourage violence and bullying?
    It is never about “team work” anymore. no matter what they try to tell us.

  • Jim Svenson

    January 31st, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    I do not think football or any other sport encourages or gives rise to bullying even indirectly.In fact it is an outlet for young energy in a positive manner and this prevents a negative outlet of the same energy.You could invest your energy into a sport or in bullying,it’s one of the two,not that sport gives rise to the other.

  • sadie cole

    January 31st, 2012 at 5:21 PM

    Kids when pushed are going to go out and do their best, or really what they perceive that the important adults in their lives want them to do.

    How many football games have you been to and people are yelling all sorts of stuff to the players to go out there and be mean and win? I know that I have been in that situation a lot.

    It is not just football that pushes this aggression, most sports do. It is ok to be aggressive but not when it is going to hurt other people.

  • p evans

    January 31st, 2012 at 10:57 PM

    Whether the bully is an athlete or not doesn’t matter,it’s the act that needs to be punished.and assuming that athletes are more probe to bullying might just lead to a prejudice.After all,a bully usually has issues on the psychological front and we all know how much sports help in reducing the same.

  • Maddie

    February 1st, 2012 at 2:32 PM

    I have all girls so I am glad that I have never had to deal with this whole football thing. I do agree that if there is someone important in their lives who is condoning bullying then yes that will mean that someone is more likely to act on that. But I think that we have to be willing to see the good sides of team sports too. They can actually encourage our kids to be great team players, to take direction, become leaders and maybe even be more accepting of kids of all different playing and ability levels. It does not always have to be portrayed in such a negative light.

  • Bill

    February 3rd, 2012 at 12:25 AM

    This is a sensitive issue that I dare say has been ignored for generations until recently. Participating in a team sport does not, in and of itself, teach players to be accepting of nonathletic kids. (If you don’t believe me, witness the bullying of nonathletic kids in mandatory sports-centered P.E. classes and the cliquishnes that seems to prevail at most high schools even today.) Throwing a ball is a morally neutral activity. To the contrary, if masculinity is (falsely) defined in terms of athletic prowess, nonathletic boys will be regarded as inferior. (In other words, the problem is the culture, not the game. But how many people are willing to change the culture?) Nonathletic boys frequently are bullied simply because they have no interest in sports. For generations they have been denigrated as “sissies,” “wimps,” and “fags.” There are decent coaches who believe in values-based coaching, and I honor them. They may seek to counteract this sort of prejudice among their players, but really how often do you think this is done? Are the majority of high-school football coaches morally opposed to any of their players bullying physically weaker, nonathletic students at their schools? I hate to say this, but I suspect this is not a major concern. Regarding the issue of bullying in the schools, many adults condone bullying — saying that bullying “is just part of life” and that the victims bring it upon themselves. For many years sports have been put on a pedestal in our country. So, any honest, respectful exchange about the negative, coercive aspects of the sports culture is next to impossible.

  • Bill

    November 17th, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    Actually, Steinfeldt seems more concerned about the image of high-school football players than he is about bullying. I suspect he looks down on nonathletic guys as being inferior, which is a common attitude among the athletic crowd.

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