Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Aggression in the Sports World$

Gordon W. Russell

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195189599

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195189599.001.0001

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 14 February 2016

Witnessing Aggression: Media and Firsthand

Witnessing Aggression: Media and Firsthand
(p.103) 4 Witnessing Aggression: Media and Firsthand
Aggression in the Sports World

Gordon W. Russell

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the role of media in influencing aggression. As examples, do the all consuming interests of the couch potato lead to conflict in marital and romantic relationships? The question of whether violence on television increases the aggression of viewers is explored along with the equally important question of whether there are effects that extend into the community well beyond the viewing situation, for example, suicides and homicides. A following section considers the content and effects of professional wrestling on young children and teens in dating relationships. The cognitive phenomenon of “priming” whereby violent rhetoric sets the stage for later aggression is examined. The results of studies designed to assess the effects of people personally viewing aggression from the stands are summarized. Also considered are the effects on viewers of displays of interpersonal aggression containing erotic themes.

Keywords:   children, erotica, language, media, priming, television, wrestling


Our focus in the previous chapter was on sports spectators and athletes under a number of environmental conditions, each of which was shown to potentially effect changes in aggression. The same can be said for a number of drugs, some of which have almost certainly been ingested by a majority of those in attendance at major sporting events. Rarely are these events simply demonstrations of athletic skill. Rather they are made competitive. There will be a winner and a loser. In this climate of rivalry, ill will and hostility often come to the fore.

In the present chapter, we shift our focus from environmental, pharmacological, and competitive influences to effects arising from witnessing aggression firsthand from the stands or as part of a vast television audience. First, we consider the more immediate effects of witnessing aggression at close quarters and second, far reaching effects that extend well into the community following the event. Answers to several social questions surrounding the viewing of aggressive sports are provided from the perspective of existing research findings. For example, are the violent elements in some sports a sufficient attraction to prompt fans to purchase tickets? Does a marital or romantic partner's all-consuming passion for sports undermine the strength of their relationshi? The role of sports broadcasters and commentators’ esoteric language in shaping the viewers’ perceptions and interpretation of events is explored. A final section takes the reader inside the world of several quasi-sport, theatrical presentations.

(p.104) Media

Media and relationships

If a man watches three football games in a row

he should be declared legally dead

Erma Bombeck, 1927–1986

Conflicts can arise in marital and romantic relationships from a variety of sources, for example, a dalliance, a financial setback, or meddling in-laws. Any of these can damage or even destroy a couple's relationship. Interpersonal violence is often a part of the break up (Russell, 1988). Avid sports fans are open to an additional potentially destructive source of conflict. That is, their intense passion for sports can easily consume the time and energies normally reserved for more serious life pursuits, for example, job or education, that are important to a healthy and developing relationship.

The media has coined and popularized the term “sport widow” to describe a woman whose boyfriend or spouse is totally immersed in his favorite sport(s). We are all familiar with the stereotype. She is that long-suffering woman who keeps her significant other supplied with beer and chips while he sprawls on the couch watching endless hours of sports programming. In turn, he is seen as an unshaven, potbellied, couch potato with little time for his wife and his household responsibilities.

A less gender-specific term “sportsaholic” has been proposed by Quirk (1997). These fans are predominantly males who are so strongly addicted to their sport that their relationships with wives or girlfriends are best described as tenuous. Not surprisingly, the disproportionate attention given to sports by the sportsaholic can give rise to tensions, even open hostility from his/her partner. For example, among men who describe themselves as avid sports fans, fully 26% acknowledge their television viewing is a source of friction in their relationships (Smith, Patterson, Williams, & Hogg, 1981).

The foregoing begs the question is there good evidence to support the stereotype? Are relationships imperiled by a partner's all-consuming passion for sports? With the exception of Quirk's (1997) analysis, there is little to suggest that the quality of marital and romantic relationships is adversely affected by one's enthusiasm for sports (see Wann, Melnick, Russell, & Pease, 2001 for a methodological critique, pp. 162–163).

In a study of relational harmony among university couples, support was not forthcoming “for the notion that conflict over sports adversely affects relational quality” (Roloff & Solomon, 1989, p. 307). Similarly, telephone interviews revealed that watching televised sports “appears to be a minor and non disruptive activity in most ongoing relationships” (Gantz, Wenner, Carrico, & Knorr, 1995, p. 352).

Canadian university females involved in a romantic relationship were recruited in a more recent study (Russell & Arms, 2002). They rated the influence of their partner's interest in sports on the strength of their relationships using a 7-point scale anchored by “weaken” and “strengthen.” In addition, they completed the relationship Closeness Inventory (RCI) and Affect for Partner Index (Berscheid, Snyder, & Omoto, 1989). The results failed to show any association between the (p.105) extent of men's involvement in sports and either the closeness of their relationships (RCI) or the women's love/liking for their partners. However, the coeds did perceive a strengthening of their relationships as their partners were increasingly involved in sports. Seemingly, the quality of their relationships stand to be somewhat enriched by a partner's enthusiasm for sports.

The same set of measures were also administered to older couples drawn from communities across Western and Northern Canada. Unlike the university coeds, the women were under no illusions that their partner's interest in sports was drawing them closer together, strengthening their relationship, or otherwise increasing their liking or love for their partner (Russell & Arms, 2002). However, quite a different view was expressed by the older sample of male particiants. Their increasing involvement in sports was seen instead to strengthen relationships and bring the couple closer together. The weight of evidence on this question appears to ti the scales in favor of involvement in sports generally fostering relational harmony at the expense of conflict.

Sports Broadcasters

An important factor influencing the public's response to media presentations of aggressive sports is the commentary accompanying programs. Typically, commentary is provided by former players/coaches whose expertise derives from their experience and some measure of fame in the sport. Accompanied by a seasoned sports announcer, they offer listeners historical anecdotes and opinions on the wisdom of decisions taken by coaches and athletes. Moreover, they frequently take sides in the case of disputed penalty calls by officials, often making inferences as to the intent of those involved. As we recognize, the intent to injure is often the critical element in an official's decision to award a major aggressive penalty rather than let it slide or see it as a minor “accidental” infraction. One likely effect of taking sides on contentious calls is to further inflame an indeterminate number of listeners who themselves have doubts, and others openly questioning the call.

Announcers are fully conversant with the specialized language of the sport they cover. Listeners are thereby kept abreast of the ever-changing vocabulary of sport as well as yearly rule changes. The jargon of many major spectator sports has undergone a shift in recent decades. In particular, many benign descritive terms have been supplanted by more strident, menacing, or warlike terms. A half century ago, Tannenbaum and Noah (1959) observed the beginnings of this trend: “No one wins a game today. Teams rock, sock, roll, romp, stagger, swamp, rout, decision, down, drop, eke out, topple, top, scalp, and trounce opponents, but no one wins a game” (p. 164). The writer notes with dismay that curling, that most peaceable, sociable but nonetheless exciting sport, has embraced more threatening terminology. The team losing on an end of play gains the advantage of throwing last rock on the next end. That term no longer describes simply having the last rock on the next end; instead, they now hold the hammer!

The commentary accompanying competitive play extends well beyond sport language, sport knowledge, and anecdotes in its effects on listeners. Much of the content of commentary serves to heighten listeners’ appreciation of the drama unfolding (p.106) on the field of play. Violent incidents are central to that appreciation, particularly in the case of men (e.g., Bryant, Comisky, & Zillmann, 1981; Sullivan, 1991). Many are drawn to sport contests featuring violent clashes between opponents and seem unperturbed by the sight of serious injuries to the combatants. Guided by commentary, viewers see conflicts interpreted as an expression of the athletes’ intense determination to dominate or win over their opponents. The risk of injuries only adds to the experience. A central proposition arising from entertainment theory allows “that competition and conflict are the heart and soul of drama” (Bryant, 1989, p. 281).

Certainly, the liking for sports violence is far from universal (see e.g., Bryant et al., 1981; Russell, 1986). Starting in 1977, a series of studies examined the relationship between sports violence in the media and the viewers’ enjoyment of such fare. In the first investigation (Comisky, Bryant, & Zillmann, 1977), segments of a professional hockey game were chosen to represent examples of either rough or violent play or normal, nonviolent playmaking. In a fortuitous turn of events, the sportscasters let the rough/violent segment speak for itself. By contrast, the announcers commenting on the nonviolent segments chose, for whatever reasons, to enliven their commentary, stressing the roughness of play and even raising the threat of an impending, on-ice brawl. The design of the study was such that two important questions stood to be answered. The first was the effect of commentary on viewers’ perceptions of the roughness of play. Second, did the levels of roughness affect the enjoyment of play?

In answer to the first question, the analysis revealed that commentary stressing the roughness of nonviolent segments led to considerably higher ratings of perceived roughness than even the rough segments that were actually violent and unaccompanied by commentary. Was the enjoyment of hockey action related to the game's roughness? Yes, although not in the way one might have predicted. Enjoyment was directly related to viewers’ perceptions of how rough the play appeared to be. That is, enjoyment was not the result of actual violence. Rather, it was the sports commentary that enhanced perceptions of roughness and violence that subsequently added to their enjoyment.

Further evidence attesting to the role of sports commentators in influencing viewers of athletic competition has been provided by Bryant, Brown, Comisky, and Zillmann (1982). Rather than commentary designed to enhance perceptions of roughness in hockey play, the researchers shifted their focus to commentary intended to establish the nature of pregame relationships between contending athletes. The commentary accompanying a televised tennis match was carefully altered to provide three versions of the personal relationship existing between the two athletes. In one version, the players viewed each other in relatively neutral terms. In a second version, the pair was described as the best of friends. However, a third version characterized their relationship as that of bitter enemies.

Although all viewers watched the identical tennis match, those listening to the bitter enemies’ commentary perceived the match in remarkably different terms. In contrast to the neutral and best friends versions, they saw a highly intense, hostile, and fiercely competitive match. Similarly, the bitter enemies’ scrit also led to much higher ratings of interest, excitement, and involvement than the same program accompanied by the neutral or best friend's versions. (p.107) Thus, within limits, sports spectators derive enjoyment from watching interpersonal aggression, perhaps doubly so when the combatants are believed to have a mutual hatred of each other.

The Televising of Sport

Vast worldwide audiences numbering in the millions watch major sporting events on television. Whether seated before television sets in airport/hotel lounges, in their favorite watering holes, or from the comfort of their homes, people are for the most part griped by the drama unfolding on the screen. While a World Cup soccer final, a heavyweight title fight, a football Superbowl, or a Stanley Cup hockey final is an intense and involving viewing experience for fans, other less important events on the sports calendar can be equally involving. A state high school basketball championshi in Indiana generates almost as much emotion in its fans as the world-class events just mentioned. If there are major consequences for the viewing public, I would suggest that regionally publicized events can exert similarly intense effects, albeit on vastly smaller local audiences. Moreover, unlike major national and international events, regional championshis are covered by media outlets numbering only in the tens. Yet, their effects on viewers may be nearly as strong as those on international audiences.

Does Violence Sell?

Few would dispute the statement that sexually titillating themes have long been a popular mainstay of commercial advertisements and television programming. Assuming this assertion to be correct, does violent content similarly enhance the appeal of media productions? Is violence, like sex, an important ingredient in a successful entertainment package? Several studies have examined the question in the context of both television programs (Diener & DeFour, 1978; Diener & Woody, 1981) and spectators’ attendance at hockey games (Jones, Ferguson, & Stewart, 1993; Russell, 1986). Television audiences have thus far not shown a preference for violent programs. Using Nielsen television ratings as a measure of program popularity, there was no relationship with the levels of violence depicted in shows over a 3-month period (Diener & DeFour, 1978). Furthermore, with violent and nonviolent shows equated on other dimensions, that is, humor, romance, or conflict, violent shows were found to be less liked than peaceable shows (Diener & Woody, 1981).

The popularity of television programs with violent content was further examined by Diener and DeFour (1978). They had American college students watch one of two episodes from the long-running adventure series “Police Woman.” However, the researchers first had all violent content skillfully edited out to create a nonviolent version. A second version of the episode remained intact, uncut! Not unexpectedly, the uncut episode was judged to be more violent. It was not, however, liked more by the students.

The same question was examined in ice hockey using official records of the Western Hockey League (WHL; Russell, 1986). The game statistics provided attendance figures and a record of on-ice penalties for interpersonal player (p.108) aggression. Attendance at the next home game following each team's two most violent games were compared to attendance following their two most peaceable games over a full season of play. Analyses failed to yield differences in the levels of game violence and the number of spectators pushing through the turnstiles. However, a subsequent investigation produced somewhat different results. A measure of total aggressive penalty minutes was found to be positively related to spectator attendance in the National Hockey League (NHL) franchise cities in Canada and the United States (Jones et al., 1993). However, when penalties for only the most extreme acts of on-ice aggression were examined, that is, misconduct and major penalties, the positive relationship held only for the American cities. The leading explanation suggests that the expansion of the NHL to numerous U.S. cities was achieved through a vigorous marketing of the sport based on its violent content. Little effort was made to attract fans through showcasing the skills and traditions of the game. American spectators then were attracted to their arenas by the promise of fights and mayhem.

What relevance do these findings have for media coverage of combatant sports? They probably have no relevance for professional wrestling and boxing. The horses are already out of the barn. For combatant sports with a tradition of competitive play and interpersonal aggression held in check by effective rules, little is likely to be lost by a return to earlier times. Rather than training the cameras on fights and brutal body checks, later to be featured during intermissions and in promotional footage, the cameras might instead highlight skillful plays, the unfolding competition, and good sportsmanshi. The evidence, thin as it is but based on objective behavioral measures, that is, Nielsen ratings and actual attendance figures, suggests that media interests would not as a result suffer grievous financial losses. The sports themselves can stand alone without the questionable benefits of added violence.

A question remains. What is the attraction, if not on-ice aggression? The WHL records also allowed an examination of the possible effects of team success in the win/loss column (Russell, 1986). Attendance rose significantly following each team's two longest winning streaks during the season. As most would predict, success on the ice brings success at the box office. Let me hasten to add that obviously some sports attract spectators precisely because they are violent, for example, professional wrestling, boxing, and roller derby. Seats at a fight card would be empty if the boxers were not allowed to hit each other. Even with the fanciest of footwork and the fighters skillfully feigning punches, arenas would quickly empty and television ratings plummet. Audiences for such sports are largely comprised of individuals who are themselves aggressive (Black & Bevan, 1992; Fenigstein, 1979; Russell, Arms, Loof, & Dwyer, 1996).

Does Television Violence Increase Viewer Aggression?

The question asked in this heading has been extensively researched by social scientists over the last five or so decades. Their efforts have yielded a wealth of data. (p.109) While research on the central question is ongoing, other variables likely influencing the relationship between the observation of violence and viewer aggression are being examined. For example, the role of viewer arousal in mediating the effects of viewing violent media fare has been a topic of continuing interest to investigators. Otherwise, the question asked in the heading has generally been answered in the affirmative by nearly all research scientists with expertise on the topic (e.g., Bushman & Anderson, 2001b; Geen 2001; Paik & Comstock, 1994). Simply put, the observation of aggression serves to increase aggression in the viewer. But why does this question continue to be argued so vigorously? Allow me to direct you to the Bushman and Anderson (2001b) article cited as a suggested reading at the end of this chapter. The authors have laid out the reasons in a clear-cut fashion in assigning blame for the confusion to both parties to the debate.

The pages to follow highlight several important studies of media effects that address the question raised above. I draw your attention to the fact that the studies chosen as examples represent quite different methodologies, that is, a field experiment, a longitudinal study, and a laboratory experiment. Even so, they converge on a common conclusion.

Several examples of studies examining the lead question are presented below. The first is concerned with the effects on children of watching television violence (Josephson, 1987). Canadian second and third grade school boys (N = 396) were shown either a nonviolent or violent, 14-min film cli. Before the start of the experiment, the boys’ classroom teachers made ratings of each boy's typical level of aggression during the school day. Items on the rating scale included “starts fights over nothing” and “says mean things.” With the boys separated into high and low aggressive groups, they were shown either a violent or a nonviolent film. Boys assigned to the nonviolent condition watched an exciting competition or stunts featuring a “boy's motocross bike racing team.” Those in the violent film condition watched a film highlighting excessive police violence. The partner of an officer slain by sniers joined an elite Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) squad with a view to avenging the death of his fellow officer. The team killed or knocked out all of the sniers in a manner portrayed as justified revenge and were subsequently socially rewarded. Just before the SWAT team made their final assault, the sniers were seen talking to each other over walkie-talkies (we will return to this point momentarily).

With the experiment ostensibly over, the boys were taken to the school gymnasium for what was described as a second, different study. New people, a male referee and two judges, ran the experiment and, following rigorous procedures, were “blind” to which film the boys had watched earlier. The boys were told they would be playing a game of floor hockey. Before the start of play, the referee conducted a short interview with each boy inasmuch as the observers needed a few bits of personal information as they did a play-by-play, for example, name, class or favorite position. Recall if you will that the sniers communicated with each other by means of walkie-talkies. Walkie-talkies, through their earlier association with the sniers were thought to represent a violence-related cue to the boys (e.g., Berkowitz, 1984).

During the games, the two observers recorded all acts of interpersonal aggression, for example, elbowing, triping, name-calling, poking, pinching, hair pulling, (p.110) and sitting on another boy. Boys rated as nonaggressive by their teachers did not show changes in aggression as a result of watching the violent police cli. By contrast, boys identified as high aggressives displayed increased aggression during their floor hockey game, having earlier seen the same violent cli.

The walkie-talkie (rather than a microphone) used by the referee in interviewing the boys served effectively as a violence-related cue. High aggressives assigned to a walkie-talkie condition in addition to having seen the violent film were also more aggressive as a result during their floor hockey game. Thus, boys seen by their teachers as aggressive on a day-to-day basis “behaved more aggressively if they had been exposed to violent television plus violence-related cues than if exposed to the violent content only” (Josephson, 1987, p. 888).

A second major study involving children as particiants investigated effects on young television consumers arising from watching violent programming. This investigation has important implications for both parenting and the study of sex differences in media influence. Long-term exposure to television portrayals of violence by children leads to increased aggressive behavior in their day-to-day activities. One subset of violent television fare is that involving contact sports, for example, ice hockey, football, boxing, and wrestling. The question to be asked is does a regular diet of watching these sports foster aggression in girls and boys? A large-scale, longitudinal study spanning the third and thirteenth grades examined relationships between children's level of viewing sports and aggression (Lefkowitz, Walder, Eron, & Huesmann, 1973). Aggression was measured first at the third and later at the thirteenth grades by a peer-nomination technique and self-reports. The analysis yielded several striking sex differences.

Not surprisingly, the boys spent considerably more time than girls watching televised sports. However, none of the five aggression measures used was found to be related to the amount of viewing time spent watching contact sports. Rather, it was the girls whose television viewing time was related to their aggression as seen by peers in grades three and later in grade thirteen. Self-report measures of their aggression and antisocial behavior were similarly related to the level of TV viewing. Furthermore, the girls who watched the greatest amount of contact sports were also those who had witnessed the most violence by others in their own lives. Finally, Lefkowitz et al. (1973) used Scales 4 plus 9 of the Minnesota Multihasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a measure of the children's potential for delinquency. Once again, lengthy exposure to contact sports was associated with possible delinquency for girls but not so for boys. One might draw a tentative conclusion that girls are more vulnerable to the ill effects of exposure to the violence contained in sports. Lefkowitz et al. speculate that the results found for both girls and boys could be the result of different child-rearing and socialization practices.

From the field experiment above, we turn to a controlled lab experiment where the intention to inflict harm is maniulated to assess the effects arising from watching violent sports action. An influential article by Berkowitz and Alioto (1973) illustrates the importance of the viewer's interpretation of what they are watching. Angered men were shown either a 6-min film cli of boxing or an American football game. Half in each condition were told the boxers and (p.111) football quarterback wanted to hurt their opponent for insulting remarks made earlier in the week. The remaining half of the particiants heard a statement emphasizing that the boxers and football players were playing to win and not to injure their opponent. Thus, two interpretations of each film cli were created, that is, realistic aggression and fictional aggression. Following the viewing of the film, particiants were individually paired with an experimental accomplice who had angered them earlier. Provided with an opportunity to aggress, particiants who watched clis with aggressive meaning delivered electric shocks of longer duration to the accomplice than those watching clis of athletes motivated to win but not to inflict injuries.

A second study was conducted using a documentary film depicting the capture of a Japanese island by the U.S. Marines. Particiants were given either of two introductions to the film. They were informed that it was actual footage from the battlefield (real condition) or a Hollywood reenactment of a World War II engagement (fictional). We see in the results evidence of stronger effects arising from depictions of violence that is perceived to be real. Particiants informed the warfare was authentic delivered shocks of greater duration to a confederate. The leading explanation for the above results centered on the fictional version causing its viewers to dissociate themselves from the portrayal. The actors thereby become less effective as a stimulus and “less able to elicit aggression-enhancing reactions in the observers” (Berkowitz & Alioto, 1973, p. 206).

The concluding example of television influence presented in this short series is a 2-year, longitudinal field experiment (Williams, 1986). The lead investigator, sociologist Tannis Macbeth Williams, became aware of a government plan to introduce television in a small town, later given the code name Notel, in southeastern British Columbia. The rugged mountain terrain had until then blocked reception of a television signal to the remote valley. Williams and her research team seized the moment and planned their groundbreaking study. Two neighboring communities, Unitel and Multitel, were found to be equal in all major socioeconomic aspects with Notel and were therefore chosen as comparison communities. Unitel was receiving the signal of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) while Multitel additionally received the major U.S. networks. A substantial portion of CBC programming featured a variety of sport shows including televised games of the Canadian Football League and NHL. Boys at that time, as now, experience strong peer-mandated pressure to watch and be knowledgeable about both football and hockey.

A battery of aggression measures was administered in the three communities in Phase 1 just prior to Notel receiving a television signal and 2 years later in Phase 2. Included among the measures were peer and teacher ratings as well as ratings by teams of trained observers who recorded acts of verbal and physical aggression on school playgrounds. While the investigators examined other aspects of community life and child development, for example, leisure activities, child cognition and reading fluency, the strongest effects were found in the area of interpersonal aggression. In comparisons with the control communities, children in Notel exhibited increases in physical aggression with the greatest increases being found on verbal aggression following their exposure to 2 years (p.112) of television. An equally telling result was a 50% drop in the number of sports events in the community of Notel. To my mind, this landmark, one of a kind field experiment provided perhaps the best and most convincing case for the enhancement view, that is, the observation of aggression increases aggression in the viewer.

I must hasten to add that the studies presented in this section were hand picked to illustrate the diversity of investigative approaches used in examining questions of media influence. Missing from the series were some studies that showed no effects on aggression, and a handful that showed viewer aggression was even reduced. The research literature on a topic such as the effects of watching violent programming is massive. Simply by chance alone, some studies will yield nonsignificant results. Be assured that across all studies there is persuasive evidence for a causal association between the observation of aggression and increases in viewer aggression (e.g., Bushman & Anderson, 2001b; Geen, 2001; Paik & Comstock, 1994).

In the section to follow, social scientists have turned their attention to a slightly different question. Is there something akin to a riple effect whereby major sports events with violent content have aggressive consequences for people in the region living well beyond the stadium?

The Long Reach of Sports Violence

From time to time, public health authorities and those in the helping professions raise concerns regarding the ill effects they see in their community being “caused” by violent images of sports competition. Is it more than idle speculation? Can we attribute incidents of wife battering, child abuse, assault, and even homicide to television coverage of major combatant sports? Thus far, the research provides us with no clear answer.

The final whistle at Washington, DC, football games signals the end of gridiron violence. However, for others, the violence may only be starting. Emergency ward records at DC area hospitals were examined for admissions prior to and following home and away games of the Washington Redskins of the National Football League (NFL). The examination showed an increase in the number of women admitted after the games. However, the increase only followed Redskin victories. The categories in which the women were admitted for treatment included stabbings, gunshot wounds, assaults, and “accidental falls,” all indicative of domestic violence (White, Katz, & Scarborough, 1992).

The rise in interpersonal aggression following Redskins wins is attributed to an increase in viewers’ power motivation. That is, football fans watching their team triumph over the visiting team derive a strong sense of personal power (Tesler & Alker, 1983). The surge in personal power seemingly finds violent expression in personal relationships. Domestic disputes that might on other occasions be resolved by compromise are instead settled by force.

Other investigations of an association between domestic violence and combatant sports events have yielded weak or nonsignificant results. For example, Drake and Pandey (1996) examined records of the State of Missouri Division of Family (p.113) Services Child Abuse and Neglect for the year 1992. The researchers found no evidence of an association between regular league play of the St. Louis Blues of the NHL and male-perpetrated child abuse in the region in relation to win/loss and home/away game records. Moreover, on the day of national end-of-season playoff games and the following day, there was no evidence of a change in levels of child abuse.

Sachs and Chu (2000) tallied the number of times police cars were dispatched in response to domestic violence calls. Records of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department provided the data for a 3-year period during which they received 26,051 reports of domestic violence. The period covered two seasons of professional football during which several intriguing increases in the frequency of dispatching were observed. For example, during the 1993–1994 season, dispatches on football Sundays increased 100% from the previous Wednesday. Playoff games saw a 147% increase in the number of dispatches. During the following 1994–1995 season, there was instead a decrease in domestic violence calls on these same occasions.

The investigators singled out Superbowl week for a separate analysis. They report that police units were dispatched in record numbers in 1994, a 264% increase! However, the 1995 Superbowl was associated with a small decrease in domestic violence calls (Sachs & Chu, 2000). It should be noted that the differences described above, many of which admittedly are impressive, are not statistically significant. They cannot therefore be regarded as due to anything other than chance. Taken in total, the foregoing studies do not allow a firm conclusion regarding the role of combatant sports in domestic violence. However, if we expand the focus of the question to include homicides, we can answer in the affirmative that “yes” there is a positive relationship between the staging of violent events and lethal violence in the broader viewing/listening community.

A test of the prediction that regional homicide rates would increase following important major league football games was conducted by White (1989). His analysis involved NFL playoff games including Superbowl games, from 1973 to 1979. Homicide rates in the metropolitan areas where the franchise teams were based were tallied for the same time period. As predicted, homicides increased significantly following the playoff games. However, the increase occurred 6 days after the games and only in cities whose team had just been eliminated from further competition.

White offered an intriguing explanation for the spike in homicide rates. Six days after a playoff game takes us to the eve of the next round of competition. Fans of last weekend's winners will see their team play tomorrow; they are still in the competition. By contrast, fans of last week's losing teams cannot escape the realization that their season is finished. There will be no game tomorrow, only an emptiness. It seems plausible to suggest that for some fans having their expectations so cruelly dashed, the loss represents but one more frustration in a long line of frustrations. One result of their being severely thwarted so close to their goal, that is, a Superbowl berth or title for their team, is interpersonal aggression (Berkowitz, 1989). Alternatively, disputes arising from gambling losses may also have led to lethal outcomes.

(p.114) A major media study was carried out by Phillis (1986) using data associated with heavily televised heavyweight boxing title fights. He too predicted a rise in homicide rates in the days immediately following the contests. Official death certificates provided his measure of lethal aggression as well as several other key pieces of information, that is, age, race, sex, and cause of death. Phillis tracked homicide rates for 10 days following all title fights from 1973 to 1978. His analysis showed that homicides rose and peaked 12.5% 3 days after the fights and 6.6% after 4 days. Also, the most heavily televised title fights were followed by the steepest rises.

Most interesting was the finding that the homicide victims strongly resembled the loser of the championshi bout. Fights in which a Black fighter defeated a White opponent were followed by an increase in homicides of young, White males. There was a corresponding increase in homicides of young Black males following a title match in which a White boxer defeated his Black opponent. The question unlikely to be answered is whether the perpetrators resembled the winners thus creating a certain symmetry. However, there is a recent challenge to the work of Phillis (1986); see Addendum at the end of this chapter.

By Their Own Hand

We saw in the preceding sections that televised coverage of violent sports events is associated with harm to individuals in the immediate viewing audience. This effect appears particularly strong when a major sports event is of intense interest to a national audience, for example, a football game or a boxing match. It should be noted that Phillis’ (1983, 1986) investigations of fatal effects arising from media portrayals included suicides in addition to homicides and automobile fatalities. For example, suicides of young women were found to increase following the (fictional) suicide of a popular soap opera heroine. A question for Curtis, Loy, and Karnilowicz (1986) was whether U.S. national suicide rates would fluctuate around two major sporting events, namely the football Superbowl and the last game of the World Series of baseball. Specifically, the researchers tested the prediction that rates of suicide di lower prior to and during Super Bowl Sunday and on the last day of the World Series.

Basically, their analyses yielded modest support insofar as suicides were “comparatively low just before and during the ceremonial days and comparatively high just after them” (Curtis et al., 1986, p. 1). Interestingly, they discount a gambling hypothesis whereby the di in suicides is the result of those wagering who simply wait to see the outcome of the contest before committing suicide. Rather, public ceremonial occasions such as these are presumed to increase social integration within a national audience resulting in a reduction in the incidence of suicides.

A Matter of Influence

There is an almost universal fascination with sports. Whether witnessed firsthand as a spectator or indirectly by means of radio or television, there is a strong (p.115) need for access to information and commentary on competitions as they unfold. The media, for example, print, radio, movies, television, and the Internet, have stepped in to fill that need. With an ever-burgeoning technology available, the media has increasingly been able to reach even the most remote regions of the planet with detailed visual and audio accounts of major sporting events.

The influence of global media coverage of sports and other genre is considerable, some of it good, some not so good. For example, nations importing televised sport programming may find their cultural values challenged, attitudes shaped, and subtle pressures on their people to adopt new, foreign modes of behavior. Accompanying the spread of media coverage and influence are some of the concerns and issues already being debated in Western nations. In particular, the effects of violent programming on viewers have been, and continue to be, a topic of deep concern. Even in the scientific community, opinions range from violent programs exerting benign effects (Freedman, 1984) to violent content promoting new aggressive responses in the viewer (see Geen, 1990).

A Methodological Excursion

Sports differ widely with respect to their violent content. Golf, curling, and billiards anchor one end of a continuum of aggressive content with sports such as ice hockey and professional boxing representing the other end point. Of course a sport such as hockey can and has been played without aggression, that is, with players rarely drawing penalties for aggressive rule infractions. However, a sport such as boxing is pure aggression. Notwithstanding that the sport involves superb physical conditioning, tactics, even displays of good sportsmanshi; the unabashed purpose remains to batter one's opponent into a state of submission or unconsciousness. For this reason, a film cli of a boxing match can readily serve as a violent sport but scarcely as a nonviolent control condition. That is, a film cli of a boxing match devoid of aggression would be neither interesting nor a boxing match. By contrast, violent and nonviolent (control) versions of an ice hockey game can be produced in studying the effects of exposure to violent sports.

Sport footage containing aggressive cues have been used in examining their role in eliciting aggression in a lengthy series of investigations (e.g., Berkowitz & Geen, 1966). A film cli of a particularly gory scene from the movie Champion was shown to particiants in conditions where they had either been angered or not angered by an experimental accomplice. Actor Kirk Douglas plays the part of an aging fighter who is beaten to a bloody pulp by his youthful challenger in the final scene. The confederate was introduced to particiants as either Bob Anderson or Kirk Anderson, the later introduction providing a link with the Hollywood actor. A nonaggressive control film condition was created by means of an equally arousing cli of a track race of the same 5-min length. Following exposure to the boxing film, particiants administered increases in aggression (shock) to the confederate. The largest number of shocks was administered by particiants who initially had been angered by the confederate, saw the gory (p.116) fight scenes, and were introduced to Kirk Anderson. The simple fact of the confederate sharing the same first name with the lead actor in the film was sufficient to elicit a sharp increase in the aggression of particiants.

A study using a same sport control condition in examining the effects of viewing sport violence leads off a series of investigations on the question (Russell et al., 19881989). Two 14-min film versions of a game were created and shown to small groups of male and female particiants. One was carefully edited to eliminate all acts of interpersonal player aggression (skill cli), whereas the second version featured a series of player fights (fight cli) containing only brief flashes of hockey skill. A control condition required the particiants to work for 14 min on a partially completed 500-piece jigsaw puzzle depicting a peaceful harbor scene.

The design allowed for a test of object cues versus event cues in eliciting viewer aggression (cf. Berkowitz, 1974). The skill cli was rife with object cues, for example, sticks, uniforms, and the presence of certain players (recruited as enforcers by their team). The fight cli contained the same object cues but additionally included event cues, for example, several fights or brawls. Two measures were used to assess the aggression of particiants. The first was a self-report measure of aggressive mood state, whereas the second was a measure of retaliatory aggression against a confederate whose earlier behavior was rude and accusatory toward the particiant. The latter measure assessed the particiants’ willingness to later serve in a study by the confederate as part of his Spring graduation requirements. Failure to complete his project would necessitate his returning for the fall semester.

The analyses yielded several interesting findings. Both particiants who were angered by the obnoxious confederate and those treated in a neutral fashion were higher on aggressive mood after having watched the fight film. No changes were observed in the skill cli condition. With retaliatory aggression serving as the dependent measure, it was the angered particiants that exhibited a sharp rise in aggression after seeing the fight cli. By contrast, particiants who were unprovoked by the confederate showed no change in retaliatory aggression following exposure to the skill and fight clis. Thus, sport film content that includes event cues appears especially effective in eliciting audience aggression.

The Baddest of the Bad?

It may seem an odd question to raise. Of all the television programming produced as action entertainment, is there one that exceeds all others in violent content? Apparently, the dubious title is held by professional wrestling. The World Wrestling Federation's Raw and Smackdown have developed weekly viewer followings numbering in the millions. Their audience covers the full age range from seniors to toddlers (Tamborini et al., 2005).

Since the advent of television, viewers have been exposed to steadily increasing levels and diversity of violence. Research investigating the effects of such exposure has closely paralleled those increases over the past half century. Literally, (p.117) volumes of research reports have drawn stimulus material, for example, film clis from violent movies, videos, and sports, virtually none have used professional wrestling. Moreover, sports publicly singled out for criticism generally do not include professional wrestling. Instead, critics have targeted boxing, ice hockey, American football, and soccer, the latter mostly for the behavior of its fans. Perhaps, the farcical nature of professional wrestling serves to deflect criticism.

A summary of the evidence supporting wrestling's unofficial claim to the title of “the baddest of the bad” follows in somewhat condensed form. The evidence emerges from a comparison of results of the National Television Violence Study (NTVS; Smith, Nathanson, & Wilson, 2002) and an in-depth analysis of wrestling content (Tamborini et al., 2005). The sample of findings initially highlights the princial differences between professional wrestling and other media genre in terms of the amount of violence they contain. Thereafter, perpetrator characteristics are compared along with the reasons for both mandated (required by the rules) and nonmandated violence. Next, comparisons are made with respect to the means by which violence is carried out, for example, using a gun or using fists. Lastly, the overview provides a comparison of the presence of rewards for violent behavior between NTVS and wrestling programming. On the other side of the coin, similar comparisons were made between programming in which punishments for violence were not meted out.

A look at the frequency of violent interactions in wrestling revealed 13.75 such incidents per hour, compared to 6.6 such incidents across all other media genre, that is, drama, comedy, kids’ movies, videos, and reality. Moreover, 100% of wrestling programs contain or are saturated with violence; the NTVS genre scarcely approaches that seen in wrestling. Regarding extreme violence, professional wrestling exceeds by a wide margin that seen in each of the NTVS media categories.

Characteristics of the perpetrator reveal a strong sex difference. Fully, 90% of perpetrators in wrestling programming are male, whereas in the NTVS study perpetrators were male in 73% of the categories. Regarding ethnicity, wrestling perpetrators were unevenly distributed among White (72%), Black (3%), and Hispanic (8%), essentially the same as the NTVS distribution.

The reasons for violence in the NTVS categories were primarily personal gain (28%), protection of life (27%), and anger (27%). Among the wrestling fraternity, the princial reasons for their violence were judged to be accident (19%), mandated (58%), that is, required by the rules of wrestling, and justified (69%). Nonmandated violence was undertaken by NTVS perpetrators for reasons of personal gain (28%), protection of life (27%), and anger (27%). Wrestlers committed violent acts for reasons of accident (44%), justification (27%), retaliation (16%), and amusement/mental instability (10%).

The Tamborini et al. (2005) investigators further examined the use of weapons. The overwhelming means of inflicting harm for wrestlers was by “natural” means, for example, fists, body slams, and drop kicks (91%). Prime-time shows instead depicted violent interactions by natural means only 35% of the time. Scrit writers for prime-time television programs armed protagonists with firearms in 37% of violent interactions.

(p.118) Judges’ ratings of the harm done to targets of aggression and the pain they suffered in prime-time NTVS programming and wrestling yielded a surprising result. Extreme harm was fairly common (23%) in the NTVS study; less so with regard to the depiction of pain (13%). The ongoing mayhem in wrestling notwithstanding, extreme harm and pain are virtually unknown, that is, zero and 1%, respectively.

An especially important finding is that pertaining to whether violence was rewarded or punished. Scenes of violence in prime-time programs did not differ in being rewarded (23%) from violence occurring in professional wrestling (16%). However, a comparison of wrestling with all television genres revealed a highly significant difference in punishments for perpetrators. Fully 94% of wrestling scenes contained no evidence of punishments resulting from interpersonal violence.

The nature of aggression in professional wrestling is such that impressionable viewers are exposed to violence characterized by elements that maximize influence. As the investigators conclude, “violence in wrestling is not only unremitting but is more likely to be portrayed as justified, unpunished, and lacking extreme harm” (Tamborini et al., 2005, p. 216). Wrestling violence then is marked by characteristics that clearly set it apart from regular media fare. This study opens the way for studies pursuing questions related to those differences.

Children as Consumers of Professional Wrestling

Children in North America have ready access to aggressive sport erotica. Violent sport fare is popular and accessible on a daily basis to television and movie audiences that include children. The effects on children should not be overlooked when questions are raised regarding exposure to this eroticized material. Answers as to effects are far from simple being dependent on the age and developmental stage of the children. Gentile and Sesma (2003) describe a televised episode of professional wrestling (World Wrestling Federation, WWF) featuring women's mud wrestling (pp. 32–33). They carefully detail the potential effects on young viewers at a number of developmental stages.

Toddlers may learn any number of foul words much to their parents’ dismay during this important period of language acquisition. With the mud-wrestling episode as a model, they may see disagreements as best resolved by aggression rather than negotiation or compromise. Self-control and sex roles are learned in early childhood. Self-control on anyone's part is not in evidence in the segment. Moreover, the woman is required to compete by a male wrestler and dutifully complies with his demands. A stereotype that includes female submission to male authority may develop or be strengthened at this stage of development. Social norms assume considerable importance in the years of middle childhood. Gentile and Sesma (2003) suggest that behaviors such as those depicted in the wrestling cli teach that aggression is an acceptable and effective means of dealing with interpersonal disagreement. Finally, at a time when adolescents are struggling with issues surrounding personal relationships, they are (p.119) again watching a stereotypical model. Not only are men wielding power over submissive women but aggression is presented as an acceptable and a normal means of social interaction.

Teen Date Fighting and Professional Wrestling

Date fighting among teenagers has emerged in recent years as a visible, albeit small category of interpersonal aggression. Authors of a recent exploratory study sought to establish relationships between the amount of viewing of televised professional wrestling and the extent of physical aggression by both males and females in dating situations (DuRant, Champion, & Wolfson, 2006). The study was conducted in North Carolina and involved over 2,200 high school student particiants. The incidence of fighting during a date was considerably greater among the girls, 9.4% of whom reported having started a date fight, while 8.5% indicated their date hit them or started a fight in the past year. Among boys, 4.6% admitted to having started a fight with their date, while 6.3% were hit themselves by their date during the previous year.

Overall, the highest frequency of watching televised wrestling was reported by those students admitting to fighting on dates that involved alcohol or illegal drugs. Furthermore, DuRant et al. in summarizing their findings note that high levels of exposure to professional wrestling are further associated with fighting outside of their dating relationships and carrying a weapon, for example, gun, knife, or club. Overall, generally stronger relationships were found for females.

To recap, viewing of professional wrestling may adversely affect budding relationships in the short run, possibly even in the longer term. The seeds of conflict once sown in a high school romance may negatively impact later relationships down the line.

Effects on School Children

We turn now to the effects of professional wrestling on our children as seen through the eyes of their schoolteachers (Bernthal, 2003). They, along with parents and peers, represent somewhat different perspectives from which to view children's behavior; each has its strengths, each has its weaknesses.

The basis for the assessment was a survey that sought teacher ratings of children's behavior in four categories. An initial category asked teachers (n = 370) to estimate the percentage of their current students who were fans of professional wrestling. Elementary school teachers estimated 44% were regular viewers, whereas middle school teachers provided significantly higher estimates (50%). A surprising 81% of the teachers report having seen an increase in the number of children who are professional wrestling fans. How favorable or unfavorable are teachers’ attitudes toward professional wrestling? They regard it predominantly as well above average in terms of its harmful influence on children. Indeed, a full 9% of respondents indicated that no other form of entertainment or television programming was more detrimental to children's development than professional wrestling.

(p.120) In what I would regard as a critical category with important implications, Bernthal (2003) explored “preconceived notions” of teachers regarding children known to be fans of professional wrestling. Fully 25% of teachers admitted to prejudging these youngsters. Of those prejudging their students, 23% had expectations of rebellious and/or unruly behavior. Even more important, 14% held expectations of poor academic school performance.

We all hold expectations regarding the success, performance, and behavior of those with whom we interact. The powerful influence of expectancy effects on behavior are well documented in the social science literature (see Chapter 7 for a descrition and example). Regarding academic success, teachers having expectations of poor academic performances by children watching professional wrestling may unwittingly bring about that very result.

A number of effects on the physical well-being of children who watch many hours of wrestling were identified in a final set of questions. Asked whether they had observed children using wrestling moves, 28% reported that they had seen body slams, while 24% reported having witnessed kicking and hitting. In addition, 21% of the teacher-observers had seen children imitating dangerous moves involving the neck, for example, choke holds, clotheslines, or pile driver. Not surprisingly, injuries often follow these attempts at imitation. Of those reporting having seen injuries (42%), the most common were cuts, scrapes, and bruises (74% of the teachers). More serious injuries to the head and neck were witnessed by 24%, sprains and strains (10%), and broken bones (6%).

A final set of questions tapped the extent to which teachers had observed the use of obscene language and gestures prominent in professional wrestling. As an example, the infamous raised middle finger, the trademark of a wrestling headliner, was mentioned by 28% of the teachers. Bernthal (2003) has set and discussed his findings in the context of marketing ethics where clearly those promoting professional wrestling are targeting a young, primarily male audience. Equally clear, children are being dealt a total disservice by this practice.

Effects on children arising from witnessing violent (sports) episodes in media productions may occur in the short term or over an extended period of time. The impact and form of influence depends on the age and particular level of development reached by the children, that is, whether toddlers, middle childhood, or adolescent.


Can the media unknowingly play a role in creating conditions conducive to conflict? Are some individuals “made ready” for interpersonal aggression long before they pass through the turnstiles at a combatant sport? To begin with, fans led by pregame publicity to believe that an upcoming meeting between two rival teams will be a bloody affair anticiate just such a match as they enter the stadium. Their expectations may set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby spectators and athletes alike act to confirm the prediction.

(p.121) Aggressively toned, pregame publicity may set the stage for disorderly crowd behaviors. A cognitive process called priming effects has been shown to influence our judgments regarding the social situation we find ourselves in. Stored memories or schemas are activated by the language of publicity such that we see others in a positive or negative light. Consider a simple illustration of how mere words having neutral versus aggressive associations can determine how we later perceive a stranger.

Students are asked to make sentences from lists of scrambled words. List 1 included the names of several sports generally seen to be nonaggressive, for example, billiards, bowling, or golf. List 2 is identical except that aggressive sport names are substituted for the nonaggressive names, for example, boxing, football, or ice hockey. Somewhat later all students are introduced to an individual named Cam after which they are asked to describe him. Their descritions differ sharply.

Students who had previously made sentences from the list containing nonaggressive sports have a generally favorable impression of Cam. By contrast, Cam is described in hostile and menacing terms by those who were earlier “primed” in the aggressive sport condition. In the latter case, antisocial or negatively toned schemas are presumed to be activated and used in forming an overall impression of Cam. How long the effects last and how subsequent behavior is influenced remains unclear.

The case for priming takes on particular significance when we recognize that individuals typically act on the basis of their perceptions of other people and events. Actions are often taken solely on one's perception of another quite apart from any objective facts. By all accounts, Cam is seen as a warmhearted, friendly, and gentle person by all who know him. Yet, if a media has characterized him as hostile and threatening, those later meeting him for the first time will frame their impressions in similar terms. It is not unreasonable to suggest that some fans primed to see other spectators as threatening may as a result become confrontational or openly aggressive (Carver, Gandellen, Froming, & Chambers, 1983).

In 1951, when Quarterback John Bright took his unbeaten Drake University football team to play Oklahoma A & M (now Oklahoma State), the Stillwater newspaper greeted his arrival with the headline “Bright is a Marked Man.” Being Black, he was not a welcome presence in the Oklahoma stadium. His jaw was intentionally broken by a defensive player during the game. Elsewhere with Chinese–Japanese tensions running high, a Chinese headline greeted a visiting Japanese soccer team with “Its Going to be a War.” Riots followed (Curtin, 2004). When the Edmonton Eskimos meet the Calgary Stampeders in Canadian Football League play advance publicity describes the game as “The Battle for Alberta.” Such media characterizations abound in the experience of nearly all of us and can unknowingly create a hostile climate in which some spectators will tend to see others as threatening and possibly looking to start trouble. Pregame hyperbole featuring aggressive/violent language can create a volatile environment, one that occasionally can contribute to interpersonal aggression or outbursts of crowd violence.

(p.122) The Language of Sports

As studies of priming demonstrate, mere words have the capacity to influence our perceptions of people and events. Words that have aggressive meaning or associations can readily elicit behaviors that would not normally occur. More specifically, Segrave (1997) has astutely observed that the language of sport is largely “dominated by the language of violence, the language of sex, and the language of the machine” (p. 212). Being mainly a creation of men, the language of sport reflects in large measure a male view of the world.

Sport and war metaphors have similarly pervaded much of political discourse in the United States (Howe, 1988). Drawing from American football, we see a politician “blindsided” when attacked from an unexpected source. A somewhat inept politician might be characterized as a “weak hitter,” an obvious reference to baseball. Finally, a boxing metaphor is easily recognized when the media reports that one of the candidates in a debate “scored a knockout.” Sport metaphors abound and are deeply entrenched in the American (male) culture. Their use and meanings are well understood by the voters. Furthermore, one political observer has advanced the proposition that politicians can readily impose their “vision of politics onto the electorate” through their use (Howe, 1988, p. 103).

Sports as a source of metaphors aside, we turn now to examine the use of aggressive and/or threatening descritive terms within sports. In addressing the question, we have the benefit of earlier research on verbs used to describe a win in basketball. The label given the specialized jargon of sport and adopted by writers, sportscasters, and fans alike is “Sportuguese” (Tannenbaum & Noah, 1959). The words used a half century ago to describe the margin of victory included the likes of defeated, whiped, gouged, humiliated, and several from the Cold War, for example, H-bombed and atomized (see also p. 105). Estimates of the point spreads represented by 84 such verbs were more accurate in the case of sports writers and readers of the sport pages and less accurate in the case of those not reading the sports section of their local newspaper. The results of this early study have currency today.

A replication and extension of the Tannenbaum and Noah (1959) investigation was undertaken using an updated set of 50 verbs used in reporting the outcome of basketball games (Wann et al., 1997). Beyond confirming the results found a half century earlier, that is, those reading the sports section had a better understanding of Sportuguese, other relationships were also found to be important. Ratings of particiants’ identification with a basketball team, self-reports of how knowledgeable they are regarding sports, and how strongly they regard themselves as sports fans were all significantly related to a superior understanding of sports terminology (Wann et al., 1997).

Tannenbaum and Noah (1959) provide suggestions of several research topics worthy of future investigation. In addition to comparisons in verb choices between sports, they suggest analyses “of other language classes.” That is, “an investigation of the adjectives used in sports reporting might prove even more interesting than that for verbs” (p. 170). In addition, the researchers note several nuances in the descritions by writers covering the outcomes of baseball games, (p.123) that is, the special case of the home team having won or lost to their visiting rivals. Thus, following a loss, “edged out” becomes a “squeaker.” Alternatively, “losing” may be described as having “bowed” to the visitors, giving their readers the added appearance of graciousness.

Personal Observation

From the Stands

Most of us have attended sporting contests that are basically violent in nature. Whether two individuals are pitted against each other, for example, boxing or professional wrestling, or teams do battle, for example, football or ice hockey, interpersonal aggression is central to the sport. Certainly, violent sports have a dedicated following. People are more than willing to part with large sums of money to witness these events. Of course, people attend these sports for reasons other than their violent content. Some welcome the opportunities to make new friends and/or socialize with “regulars.” Others hope to learn new skills or simply cheer for their team. In the case of ice hockey, a small percentage attends because they like to watch player fights. Parenthetically, the latter attend for no other reason (Russell, 1995; Russell & Arms, 1998). For the most part then, a cross-section of a sports crowd reveals a diverse set of motives for their attendance.

We turn now to the central question of whether the hostility of those watching a violent sport from their seats in the audience increases or, perhaps, diminishes as a result. Then again, they may be unaffected by viewing aggression between the athletes. A cathartic view of aggression has historically enjoyed the support of a long list of intellectual luminaries, that is, philosophers or Freudians. Historically, few have dissented from the position that the observation of aggression results in a venting or draining of aggressive urges. It is a widely held view “shared by men and women alike with approximately two-thirds of North Americans subscribing to some form of cathartic belief” (Russell, Arms, & Bibby, 1995; Russell & Goldstein, in press). By contrast, the vast majority of contemporary theorists and researchers has instead adopted the view that while witnessing aggression may occasionally leave aggression levels unchanged by far the more likely result is an increase in viewer aggression. The evidence is just too strong to suggest otherwise.

These differing views were brought together in a classic field experiment by Jeffrey Goldstein and Robert Arms (1971). The study was conducted on the occasion of the annual Army–Navy football game in Philadelphia. Trained interviewers intercepted men on a random basis as they entered the stadium prior to the kickoff. The men were asked to complete a short questionnaire that included a measure of trait aggression. The interviewers followed the same procedure as male fans left the stadium at the end of the game.

In order to determine if witnessing player violence was the cause of any changes in spectators’ aggression, a comparison or control event lacking violence was necessary. An equally competitive, intercollegiate gymnastics meet (p.124) was chosen for this purpose. The procedure followed at the football game was repeated at the gymnastics meet, that is, men were randomly selected to complete the questionnaire either before or at the conclusion of the competition.

Note how the design of the study pits the two views against each other. If the football fans show a drop in their aggression and the gymnastics fans show no change from before to after the game, then a cathartic view gains support. Another possibility is the men will show an increase in aggression over the course of the game, thereby providing support for an enhancement position. Of course, no change would suggest that witnessing aggression has no effect on spectators’ aggressive state.

The results were straightforward. Irrespective of which team they were rooting for, the men at Soldier Field showed a significant increase in aggression from before to after the contest. No pre to postevent changes were observed at the gymnastics competition. The researchers chose to interpret the overall increase at Soldier Field to a general weakening of inhibitions against the expression of aggression (Bandura, 1973). An additional factor contributing to the increase in spectator hostility may have been heightened arousal arising from the excitement of the game.

Rarely is a theoretical question fully answered to everyone's satisfaction by a single study. Such is the case here. What we can say at this point is the football study yielded results that have stood up quite well since the game was played back in the 1970s. Shortly thereafter, a follow-up study was undertaken to rule out several rival explanations for the Philadelphia results and to test the generality of those results, for example, a different culture, females as well as males, the presence of alcohol, and a younger population (Arms, Russell, & Sandilands, 1979).

The study was modeled after the Philadelphia study and conducted in Lethbridge, Alberta, using Canadian male and female university students as particiants. Students were randomly chosen and assigned to attend one of three sporting events, a hockey game, a professional wrestling match, or a provincial swim meet. Half of those attending a sport were given the questionnaire before the event, the other half, at the conclusion of the competition. Once again, scores on the measures of aggression increased overall during the course of the two sports with violent content. No changes were observed at the (control) swim meet.

I alluded above to the role a replication can play in ruling out rival explanations for the original results. Two examples will suffice. Is it not entirely reasonable to suggest that many of the Philly fans consumed substantial amounts of alcohol, the more so as the game wore on? By contrast, alcohol is seldom seen at a gymnastics meet. Alcohol then could have been responsible for the increase in fan hostility. However, the explanation becomes less plausible when one considers that alcoholic beverages were unavailable at the Lethbridge venues. The students were essentially sober throughout the study.

Consider a second example. Is it not also reasonable to suggest that the increased hostility among the football fans arose from their watching a dull, lopsided contest where the outcome was scarcely in doubt (Navy 22, Army 0)? This (p.125) too quickly fades as an explanation insofar as the outcome of the final tag-team match on the Lethbridge card was in serious doubt until the dying seconds when the forces of good overcame the forces of evil.

Thus far we see the evidence in these field investigations and most of what follows is gradually building a case for the enhancement view. But for the writer a nagging question remained, that is, what path do audience levels of aggression follow as they rise from before to after witnessing a violent event? To answer these questions it was necessary to take more frequent measures of audience aggression. To this end, hockey fans completed measures before and after a violent game (a total of 184 min in aggressive penalties) and between periods. Levels of spectator hostility rose steadily from before the national anthem was played peaking at the end of the second period. A wild stick-swinging brawl had erupted just before the end of the period. What we see in these results is a close tracking of on-ice violence by levels of audience hostility (Russell, 1981b). I should add that a companion measure of arousal was included in the questionnaire. It too faithfully followed the course of player violence. And “yes,” the study included another same sport control or peaceable game for comparison. Here the measures of spectator hostility and arousal were virtually flat over the entire course of the game.

Bidirectional Influence

The foregoing sections have featured a number of prominent studies that illustrate a pattern of findings consistent with a voluminous literature on the effects of media violence. With rare exceptions, realistic or fictional depictions of violence lead to increases in viewer aggression. The same is true of violence witnessed firsthand from the stands. As a flood of findings pointed to a causal association between the observation of violence and viewer aggression some investigators shifted their attention to a slightly different question. Are the causal effects between observing aggression and aggressive behavior bidirectional? Is it also the case that aggressive individuals are drawn to watch media violence? A number of studies appear to support just such relationships.

Two early studies examined television and movie choices in separate communities at a time when one community was experiencing high rates of crime (Doob & Macdonald, 1979), the other, a brutal murder (Boyanowsky, Newtson, & Walster, 1974). People living in the community plagued by a high crime rate watched more violent television programming than those people living nearby in a low crime community. Boyanowsky et al. (1974) reported similar findings in the community experiencing a murder. People coming to terms with the local murder showed a marked increase in attendance at a violent movie whereas attendance at a nonviolent film remained constant throughout. One plausible explanation would suggest that the citizenry was preoccupied with aggressive thoughts and fantasies and thereby were led to seek out media violence (Fenigstein, 1979).

Other evidence suggests that men with a strong preference for viewing violence are themselves dispositionally more aggressive than others (e.g., Diener & DeFour, 1978). Ice hockey fans who report their reason for attending games is they “like (p.126) to watch the fights” score higher on measures of anger, physical aggression, and assaultiveness than others less interested in watching fights (Russell, 1995; Russell & Arms, 1995).

A more formal test of the “aggression-preference for violence” hypothesis was undertaken by Fenigstein (1979). Aggressive fantasies were first induced in half of his particiants by having them write a story that included a number of aggressive words, for example, hurt, insult, and knife. The remaining group was provided with nonaggressive words to use in writing their stories, for example, help, praise, and pen. All particiants were later asked to select ten film clis for their later viewing. The list from which they made their viewing choices included a mix of violent and nonviolent titles, for example, “a downhill ski race,” or “a fist fight.” The results showed that the induction of aggressive fantasies in males led to film choices with more violent content than males experiencing nonaggressive fantasies. For women, however, the fantasy induction procedure exerted negligible effects on their choice of films.

Fenigstein (1979) followed up on the first experiment in pursuit of an answer to the question of whether engaging in physical aggression would cause people (males) to choose to watch violent fare. The aggression took the form of loud static noise delivered to an experimental confederate through earphones using a version of the Buss (1961) aggression machine procedure. The fantasy and film choice procedures were again followed. The results were clear. The experiment demonstrated “that aggressive behavior leads to the viewing of violence” (p. 2314). In sum, audiences for combatant sports and violent entertainment in general include in their midst an excess of aggressive individuals.

Spinoffs: Extreme Violence

Recent decades have witnessed the emergence of a variety of entertainment productions in a new genre I would choose to call violent spinoffs. These productions give the appearance of having developed as an unauthorized extension of a recognized sport in which there is an exaggeration of the violent and/or sexual aspects of the sport. The result is an oddball collection of commercial spectacles staged for the entertainment of select audiences. Two strong themes dominate the genre: extreme violence and sexual titillation. Athletic skill and/or artistry play little or no role in the farce.

An early attempt to capitalize on the violent aspects in ice hockey took the form of video tapes featuring nonstop fights pirated from telecasts of NHL games. Public and government sources were quick to voice their opposition. Perhaps, the most outspoken critic was Mr. Iain Angus, a member of the Canadian House of Commons (Thunder Bay-Atikokan). In addressing the Minister responsible: “Does the Minister not agree that such video tapes are detrimental to efforts being made to clean up the violence in hockey, particularly at the junior level? Will he tell us what measures he has taken to get this pornography off the shelves?” (Commons Debates, March 13, 1986). As of this writing, they remain available on the shelves of my neighborhood video store.

(p.127) The genesis of a new spinoff targeting 18–50-year-old males appeared during the Spring of 2005. As with the videos mentioned above, the violent aspects of hockey were being exploited for financial gain in isolation from playing skills. What follows is a summary of the media event and its promotion compiled through several news sources.

The World Wrestling Federation on Skates

The date is June 17, 2005. The city fathers of northern British Columbia's Prince George (population 80,000) have welcomed promoter Darryl Wolski and his show “Hockey Enforcers” with open arms. The entertainment concept is simple. Two former enforcers suit up, put on skates, and meet at center ice where they drop the gloves and fight. The two-and-a-half-hour spectacle begins with 16 players in 30 fights as they advance through the playoffs to the final match where a winner is declared and cash prizes awarded. It is hockey without the distraction of a game!

A five-judge panel decides the winner based on the number of punches thrown and landed, showmanship, and crowd response. There are rules, that is, no spitting, no hair pulling, and no hitting below the belt. Two doctors were in attendance, although Mr. Wolski is quoted as saying he cannot perceive the guys getting seriously hurt (Armstrong, 2005).

Earlier, Wolski took his idea to a hockey trade show in New Orleans and discussed the concept with pay-per-view representatives. He says, “Their eyes lit up like I had just discovered a cure for cancer” (Armstrong, 2005, p. S2). Mayor Kinsley is also backing the show pointing to the popularity of the WWF and ultimate fighting contests. He comments further “I think it's good, especially if they fill a bunch of hotels and seats” (p. S2).

Initially, a number of U.S. cities were unreceptive to the proposal. It was subsequently scheduled for a date in Winnieg, Manitoba. However, pressure from the police citing a likely violation of the Canadian Criminal Code prompted the move to Prince George. However, strong opposition to the event was voiced by Prince George residents, all of which caused the city council to initially vote against giving their approval. Even stronger was the threat of a lawsuit brought against the city by the promoter. Now, with the blessing of the Prince George Athletic Commission and the City of Prince George, tickets went on sale at Ticketmaster. Yes, the show was also shown on pay-per-view.

The date is August 29, 2005. Update! The Battle of the Hockey Enforcers took place before 2,000 spectators each of whom paid between $35 and $200 to watch the spectacle while untold others bought pay-per-view. Spotlights followed the fighters as they skated through dry ice to center accompanied by loud rock music. Each fighter was introduced to the crowd by what was described as “an enthusiastic blonde woman in red leather” (Girard, 2005).

Spectators witnessed approximately two dozen fights over the 3 hr of the program: 19 among the registered fighters and at least four more among drunken fans in the stands. The latter were escorted from the facility by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers. Punches that landed were wildly cheered while the sight of heads snapping back in slow motion on big screen replays (p.128) brought forth a collective groan. On-ice injuries included a cut eye, several bruised or broken hands, and a possible concussion. The winner earned a cheque for $62,000 CDN; the second place finisher, $25,000.

Erotica and Aggression

Several major sports are staged with the accompaniment of a team of scantily attired girls/women who exhort spectators to cheer and shout encouragement to the athletes. Largely a 20th-century North American invention, cheerleaders have become institutionalized as part of the “entertainment package” at football and basketball games. In addition to leading chants and shaking their pom poms, cheerleaders also treat spectators to a variety of dance and gymnastics routines. Seemingly, their purpose is to entertain and keep spectator interest in the contest at a high level. However, their presence on the sidelines serves an even more important function. But first, allow me to acquaint you with several typical findings from the erotica–aggression literature.

The earliest studies were designed to assess the effects of explicit erotica on male aggression. However, these investigations produced contradictory results. For example, males who were previously annoyed by a confederate male delivered stronger shocks to the source of their annoyance after viewing an explicit erotic film cli than did males who saw a neutral film (Zillmann, 1984, pp. 161–162). By contrast, studies by Baron (1974) and Frodi (1977) show just the opposite, that is, a reduction in male aggression following exposure to erotic material. What accounts for the difference in outcomes? It appears that the erotic content of materials shown to particiants is all-important in determining their subsequent level of aggression, that is, either an increase or a decrease. Highly arousing explicit material, for example, a couple making love, increases aggression in the observer. Milder forms of erotica, for example, Playboy nudes or scantily attired attractive women, tend instead to inhibit aggression.

The relationship between erotica and aggression is thus best described as curvilinear and can be visualized as a U-shaped function. As we move from neutral material, that is, from furniture (control) to mild erotica to attractive nudes, there is a decrease in aggression. This decline bottoms out and begins to rise with increasingly explicit erotic materials.

The leading explanation for the finding that mild sexual material tends to inhibit aggressive inclinations involves the arousal of reactions incompatible with aggression. Consider an imaginative field study intended to arouse three emotional states in males, each of which was predicted to be incompatible with the expression of aggression (Baron, 1976). The (dependent) measure of aggression was horn honking.

Male motorists at a controlled intersection found themselves stalled behind a car for 15 s after the light turned green. Before the light changed to green, the motorist was exposed to one of three conditions, empathy, humor, or sexual arousal. A confederate pedestrian was not present in a control condition. An attractive female confederate (a) hobbled across in front of the motorist on crutches with a bandaged leg, (b) crossed wearing a funny clown mask, or (p.129) (c) crossed wearing a brief revealing outfit. The design of the study also took into account whether conditions for the motorists were comfortable (their car was equiped with air-conditioning) or uncomfortable (no air-conditioning). In contrast to motorists in the uncomfortable control condition, the latency of horn honking when the light turned green was longer in the empathy, humor, and sexual arousal conditions. In effect, all three emotional states aroused by the female pedestrian had the predicted effect of reducing the motorists’ aggression. With respect to sexual arousal, the men watching the scantily attired girl pass in front of their car were subsequently less aggressive, that is, took longer to honk their horn once the light turned green. A lab study (Baron & Bell, 1977) confirmed the aggression-reducing effects of mild erotica and further confirmed earlier findings that explicit highly arousing materials tended instead, to increase male aggression.

To sum up these findings, support was found for the incompatible response hypothesis. Mild, sexually titillating displays decrease aggression. Explicit highly arousing displays, for example, heterosexual acts, tend to increase the aggression of males (see review, Zillmann, 1984, pp. 127–134).

Getting back to our cheerleaders, it must be said that they are a positive influence in a stadium or arena performing in front of crowds that have all too often turned hostile. I would be remiss if I did not also mention that women react to mild sexual erotica, for example, beefcake pictures, in a similar fashion to men (e.g., Baron, 1979).

Aggressive Erotica for Profit

Several traditionally violent sports, for example, boxing and wrestling, have been eroticized to provide entertainment packages for predominantly male audiences. Typically these events are staged before a live audience and, in the 20th century, filmed for the lucrative television or video market. An early example saw the recreational pastime of roller skating transformed into the spectacle of roller derby. For a time mayhem ruled the track much to the delight of a huge television following. All-female teams and male teams battled in no-holds-barred competition as they circled the track. However, the eroticism was somewhat subdued.

North American promoters have periodically made concerted efforts to interest paying audiences in female boxing. From the 19th century to the present, New York in particular has been at the center of attempts to generate enthusiasm (Guttmann, 1991; “In this corner,” 1989). Boxing and wrestling have roots reaching far back to the earliest days of recorded history. Working-class women boxed and wrestled in circuses and music halls in 19th-century France. Female boxing was also popular in 18th-century London. One such fight was witnessed by sports journalist Max Viterbo during a 1903 visit to a Rue Montmartre venue. The spirit of the spectacle is captured in his firsthand account describing the scene and the reactions of those at ringside.

The room was wild with impatience. The stale smell of sweat and foul air assaulted our nostrils. In this overheated room, the spectators were flushed. (p.130) Smoke seized us by the throat and quarrels broke out … a lubricious gleam came to the eyes of old gentlemen when two furious women flung themselves at each other like modern bacchantes—hair flying, breasts bared, indecent, and foaming at the mouth. Everyone screamed, applauded, and stamped his feet (cited in Guttmann, 1991, p. 100).

What are the effects on those witnessing these erotically enriched quasi-sporting events? Do men and women differ emotionally and attitudinally in their reactions to these spectacles? Given the limited amount of research on these questions, the few answers available should be regarded as tentative.

An exploratory study of these and other questions exposed male particiants to film clis of women wrestlers in action (Russell, Horn, & Huddle, 1988). The first was a cli of professional lady wrestlers taken from the 1981 MGM movie All the Marbles. The second, equal-length cli featured ladies mud wrestling (topless) edited from a 1983 MEGA film Daddy's Little Girls. In contrast to men assigned to a no-film control condition, those viewing All the Marbles and the mud wrestling clis experienced negative changes in mood states. That is, they underwent an increase in aggressive mood and a decrease in social affection. However, exposure to the films failed to produce predicted increases on scales measuring sexual callousness toward women, rape myth acceptance, and a lessening of support for issues of special interest to women, for example, provision of nationwide day care facilities for children.

A further study investigated the effects on aggressive mood of observing female boxers (Russell, 1992a). Particiants were randomly assigned to view one of three, 14-min film segments. They watched either a fast-paced, exciting ski film White Winter Heat (control), Buxom Boxers (BB), or Battling Amazons (BA). Attractive bikini-clad women in BB wore oversized gloves and protective headgear. However, during the second round they inexplicably lost their tops. Throughout the film the ring announcer offered sexually suggestive comments intended to amuse the all-male audience. The second film (BA) was more serious. It featured equally attractive fighters using regulation gloves and no headgear. The rules, such as they were, allowed the women to kick their opponent. Their costumes remained intact. This contest was especially brutal with one fighter being knocked unconscious by a kick to the head.

Female particiants watching BB and BA did not differ in their levels of aggression. Both boxing films produced more aggressive mood than the control film. Levels of aggressive mood for male particiants remained constant across the three film conditions. Yet in the foregoing Russell et al. (1988) study, exposure to ladies’ mud wrestling resulted in an increase in men's aggressive mood as well as a decrease in social affection.


This chapter opened with an examination of several questions regarding the part played by the media in possibly creating serious conflicts in ongoing marital and romantic relationships. A discussion followed in which the violent elements (p.131) of sport media presentations that serve to attract audiences or otherwise establish their popularity were identified. Next, it was shown that violent television programming can have major social effects on viewers that extend far beyond the stadium or field of play. The concluding half of the chapter highlighted the influence of professional wrestling with a focus on its potentially harmful effects on children. The final section described and evaluated several sports, for example, boxing and ice hockey, redesigned by profit-minded entrepreneurs to provide male audiences with highly erotic or violent spectacles that are caricatures of the original.


Joanne Savage at American University (Washington, DC) has recently conducted a comprehensive methodological review of studies examining the effects of television violence on criminal aggression, for example, homicides. Not included in the review are experimental investigations using electric shock in the teacher–learner paradigm. While the paradigm may be physically harmful, its use does not break the law.

Studies judged on methodological grounds to have medium to high relevance to answering the question of media effects on criminal behavior were compared on the basis of their findings, that is, positive, negative, or null relationship to violent media portrayals. Within the set of 23 medium and highest relevant studies, seven report a positive effect, three of which apply only to girls. Four studies in the summary set showed a negative effect, that is, with increasing media violence, there is less violent behavior. A further nine studies report no effect. The remaining three studies produced an “interaction” whereby a positive effect was found but only for people high on trait aggression at the time the studies were begun.

As will be apparent to the reader, Savage's review is contrary to previous reviews of the literature and the conclusions of a large majority of aggression researchers. However, this is not to say that violent media depictions do not impact violent criminality. Rather, “the body of published empirical evidence on this topic does not establish that viewing violent portrayals causes crime” (Savage, 2004, p. 99). Put another way, the methodological shortcomings identified in the review may simply have masked or rendered the designs insensitive to true, positive relationship between violent media portrayals and violent criminality. That possibility remains.

Suggested Readings

Bibliography references:

Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2001). Media violence and the American public: Scientific facts versus media misinformation. American Psychologist, 56, 477–489.

As this article and a variety of other sources make clear, exposure to media portrayals of violence lead generally to an increase in aggression on the part of viewers. (p.132) Yet, confusion on the question reigns in the public mind. On the one hand, we hear from aggression researchers stressing that the negative effects on viewers as a result of watching violent programming are well established. At the same time, those representing the entertainment industry dismiss or minimize suggestions of harmful effects to the viewing public. This article effectively lays out the reasons for the discontinuity between media reports and scientific knowledge on this critical question.

Goldstein, J. H. (Ed.). (1998). Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment. New York: Oxford University Press.

The author has assembled a diverse set of eminent scholars, each expert addressing the question from the perspective of their respective discilines. The fundamental question of why we are drawn to violence is explored in a variety of settings that range from children's toys and literature to religion, media, and sports. It is the starting point for those who ask why and those students of aggression who would seek to answer the question.

Palmer, C. T. (2006). “Shit happens”: The selling of risk in extreme sport. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 13, 323–336.

This scholarly article is recommended for those even toying with the idea of buying a media-promoted “adventure package” that involves any one of a number of extreme sports, for example, mountain climbing, extreme skiing, white water rafting, paragliding, or bungy jumping. Sports magazines, television promotions, and media advertising extol the thrills and chills of extreme sporting adventures while all but ignoring mention of the real presence of substantial risks, that is, injury or death. Ill-trained, inexperienced, and often physically unfit individuals seek peak experiences for a hefty fee. The Everest (1996) and Interlaken canyonning (1999) disasters serve to illustrate the dark underbelly of this burgeoning industry.