Contributing Factors to Youth Violence
A Position Paper Opposing Further Title IX Implementation
Bruce C. Gabrielson, PhD
Chesapeake Beach, MD
Youth violence, especially male youth violence, has become a major concern in our modern society. Violence in the high school and younger age groups is a concern not only for parents, law enforcement officials, educators and politicians, but also those of us involved in coaching and administering youth sports. In my opinion, the attempt by some legislators to totally equate television, gun access, or the decay of family with increasing youth violence is in reality a simplistic means some use to cash in on media hype. While these influences may be significant, there are also many underlying factors that have considerable influence on the problem. These lower level contributing factors must be comprehensively examined for their long term effects on the youth violence problem.
This paper discusses some currently overlooked or under-emphasized factors of youth violence that may be directly related to an increasing overemphasis by society on major sports during the past twenty-five years. It suggests that these other factors need serious examination before we can go further ahead with some of our present sociological agendas, particularly those factors which are related to the reduction of minor men's sports based on overzealous enforcement of Title IX.
I have been directly working with youth athletes and organizations for over 35 years, and my observations and opinions are based on this involvement. In addition to being an educator, my background has been primarily in organizing, administering, and coaching major and minor sports for both boys and girls. I have also worked with adult, Olympic level and professional athletes.
Title IX was enacted twenty-five years ago as a means of providing proportionality for males and females in educational institutions. It was not applied to athletic programs until the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987. Proportionality is the Department of Education concept that forces all schools have about 50-50 male to female athletic participation ratios, regardless of student interest. The way the rule works is that if 53% of the student population is female (which is the case now nationally at the college level), then about 53% of the athletes must be females.
The effect Title IX has had at the college level is to drastically decrease the athletic opportunities available for males to participate in, particularly available minor sports. While participation numbers for females have risen dramatically since Title IX was enacted, numbers alone are not sufficient to justify a potentially damaging course of future action, particularly when there are indications that the law may be causing serious negative aspects on our nations young males. The underlying question posed by this paper is: How might the Title IX gender issue relate to increasing youth violence in America?
The vast majority of current violence oriented social research and opinion focuses on moral and personal issues which have something, but not necessarily everything to do with the increasing youth violence in our society. The entire area of youth violence contributors is still evolving and not completely understood. Table 1, from a report by the Addressing Violence in Oklahoma Coalition(1) consolidates many researchers opinions as to the risk factors that cause violent behavior. As the study stated:
|Social Risk Factors for Violent Behavior||Community Risk Factors for Violent Behavior||Family-Based Risk Factors for Violent Behavior||Individual Risk Factors for Violent Behavior|
Sex role socialization
Inciting events (political, judicial, sports
High levels of media violence
Illegal markets (drugs, prostitution)
Access to weapons
Lack of community involvement or support with youth
Witnessing violence in the community
Parental alcoholism/drug addiction
Physical or sexual abuse of children
Chronic neglect of children
Learned aggressive behaviors
Limited cognitive abilities
Poor communication skills
Low self esteem/negative self perception
Experiencing physical/sexual abuse
Chronic neglect as a child
Some forms of neurological
Use/abuse of alcohol and or other substances
Traumatic brain injury
Notice that I have highlighted items in three behavior risk factor groupings of the table, social risk factors, community risk factors, and individual risk factors, that have some (as yet undefined) linkage to youth sports participation. I will suggest yet two other risk factors, one that is family based, I choose to call "Misdirected Parental Activity/Support", and one social based, I choose to call "Gender Inequality". I also suggest the "Spectator Perspective", which is closely aligned with, but not necessarily a part of the inciting events factor. Our family structure has changed over the past twenty-five years. A great deal of parental interest and support has become focused towards professional excitement, ultimate financial rewards, or forcing the young athlete to get ahead or get into college by developing their major sport talents. I say major sports talents only as a way of indicating that major sports are where the majority of scholarship money is available at most schools. While seeming to help an athlete channel their talent towards worthwhile goals, this parental push has had the effect of driving many youth from being active participators into becoming active spectators.
The problem has grown slowly as our society and corresponding college support has moved away from minor sports wherein many opportunities exist to succeed, to major sports wherein everyone cannot participate. With the two pronged assault of decreasing family interest and support for many minor sports, and slowly reducing the community financial and organizational support for these same programs, many young athletes become trapped into a narrow selection of activities, and the corresponding limited future goals that go with them. With this reduction in longer term goals, such as professional sports achievement or college scholarships, many youth (predominately male) are unable or unwilling to channel their energies or aggressive behavior into less violent sports oriented activities. When we add to this condition the fact that spectators are exposed continually to violence without pain, we have created a volatile environment for violence to breed?
What has caused this increasingly dominant social trend, and what might help to correct the problem? Many theories have been offered from a number of different perspectives. I would like to blame a few principal contributors, lack of interest (or too much overemphasis) by parents, improper channeling of natural athletic abilities, forced reduction in available options for supervised aggressive release, and the exposure of a susceptible audience to media violence . For each contributor, there is, I believe, a direct correlation between major and minor sport emphasis by society, and hence an indirect correlation to the implementation of Title IX.
Misdirected Parental Activity Support
If you've tried to coach a youth team in recent years, you would immediately notice that there is a serious lack of parental support regardless of sport, particularly during adolescence. I see this problem all the time in my own team members. Coaches constantly need to arrange for or give kids rides to practices and events, not because their parents aren't available, but because they don't have the interest or are doing other things for themselves.
Many times I have picked a kid up for practice and brought him home while his parents where there all the time. They simply didn't want to be bothered. Some parents go all out for their kids sports activities, particularly if the activity is football or baseball, but most simply drop them off and pick them up without watching or any other involvement. This lack of support from the home during early years carries over to middle school and high school activities as well. How many kids would go out for sports or other after school activities if there wasn't a late activities bus to take them home?
There is also the financial burden for parents. In case you haven't noticed, participation in an outside of school youth sport isn't cheap. The cost of league fees, uniforms, insurance cards, team pictures, and simply driving to and from practice and events in becoming a real burden for everyone. Additionally, if you want to send the young athlete to a major regional or national event, costs for special uniforms, transportation and lodging, and even special training camps skyrocket. Many parents can rationalize that if they are going to pay for a sport, or if they are going to support their child's athletic interests, it should be a sport with serious financial rewards, such as a professional career or a college education. It's a gamble for the parent. If the athlete succeeds great, otherwise their son or daughter needs to find their own way. With Title IX enforcement at the college level, the serious reward is no longer there. It has now become the son who needs to find his own way.
Adult support of youth activities equates directly to what interests a youth is able to pursue. It is the parents who must make the commitment to get their older kids to where the activities they are interested in take place. Now we get to the real issue. What are our youth interested in, and what are their parents interested in? Sports have traditionally been perceived as healthy interests.
The supporters of Title IX have long said that if opportunity for females was there, interest would develop. Certainly the numbers supported this position initially. However, there was a saturation point reached where female interest simply didn't track with additional opportunity. There are many colleges with financial opportunities for female athletes available that simply aren't being utilized. Not all females are activists, athletes, or even interested in sports. At the same time for males both pre-college and college age, as opportunities decreased and as physical consolidations of the remaining activities became more difficult to find, redirection of male interest into available major sports or other activities naturally took their place.
Forcing the social agenda of a minority to influence the thinking of the majority of female youth might work for awhile, but continued pressure could also have a negative effect. The natural tendency of any group is to increase its influence and support. The natural tendency of female athletes is to increase their influence and support. However, like any other group in society, influence can only be increased to a point. Beyond that point, it takes increasing more resources and pressure to make ever smaller gains. Maybe we've reached that point in the Title IX agenda.
Non-Parental Emphasis and Support
Local boys and girls clubs play a big roll in providing organized activities for elementary and middle school age kids. However, there is a big push by these organizations to orient their activities towards major sports, primarily because of limited resources and major interest. Grade schools, middle schools and Junior high schools suffer from much of the same problem. No money for experienced coaches means no after school activities for kids.
There are real social problems with some organized activities when you get to the high school age group. Currently, football and basketball get most of the athletic support and visibility within high schools. Look at the sports coverage in any major newspaper and its very obvious what the media considers important. The problem is that by high school age, only the better athletes can make the varsity teams, and those students who aren't athletes or had no other social interests become spectators instead of trying something new.
I don't mean to imply that all kids need to be athletes, but they do need to become involved in some adult supervised activities. Organized programs give youth a sense of self worth, help them cope with peer pressures, and serve as a hedge against unacceptable social activities which could get them into trouble. Sports programs have traditionally served this roll in high schools, particularly when the goal of college recognition has a significant influence on this age group and its selection of activities.
For members of any group, the most important common denominator is the mutual support that comes from belonging. Groups provide a feeling of solidarity for members. Athletic teams are a form of group. They have rules, boundaries of behavior, and help to provide a sense of individual security for group members. In addition, athletic team participation provides the added benefits of sportsmanship, compassion, goal/individual recognition, conflict resolution and mediation training.
Consider that violent behavior can be classified in three types: pathological destructive aggression, destructive aggression (mob action - safety in numbers), and constructive aggression. Aggressive behavior is a method of fighting off frustration either by trying to make ourselves better or by avoiding being thwarted in our desires. Constructive aggression is a type of subtle aggression, a form of competition. Therefore, participation on an athletic team is a means to provide a supervised release for aggression.
Next consider the effects that athletic teams have on adolescents, and the effects a reduction in the available teams will have. Obviously fewer supervised group opportunities equates to more uncontrolled group activities. Psychologists have identified some facts about violence that have been demonstrated in society.
Now we can predict the effects on youth of fewer available opportunities for supervised group activities, particularly when the means of channeling aggressive behavior into competitive athletic activities is reduced. Adolescence is an age when youth need to find order and security in their lives, especially if they are insecure at home. When fewer outlets are available, these adolescents will still tend to group together to provide a sense of individual security from group members. Peer groups will form regardless of how many other opportunities are available, but when there are many groups, the influence any one particular group may have is "watered down". The problem occurs when a group has an unfocused or unacceptable social agenda.
Violence can breed violence, so peer groups that promote unacceptable social behavior will increase the potential for violence. Group pressure can work both ways. It can alter opinions of individuals, towards good or bad, at least for the short term. Group pressure is a basic factor in persuasion, it's difficult to not go along with the group. As food for thought, inner city middle schools, junior high schools, and high schools have selectively reduced their available athletic opportunities, particularly with regard to minor sports, over the past ten to fifteen years. Although the schools have cited primarily budget reasons and adult interest, the selection of which programs to reduce has mirrored what has taken place at the college level since Title IX. Could this be a major rather than a minor contributor to the increase in gang participation and youth violence over this same period of time?
Spectator vs. Participant Perspective
Parental overemphasis as a spectator is a problem. If parents are overly involved in football, baseball, and/or basketball as spectators on TV or at professional games, their kids may perceive these activities as the only ones leading to recognition by their parents and therefore worthwhile to pursue. Once this perception has been ingrained in a young child, it becomes difficult to break. Our great American pastimes might be a factor in our great American family downfall.
Do fewer sports equate to more spectators? Could the trend towards increasing youth violence that seems to mirror the trend towards fewer minor sports opportunities over these same years have some other indirect relationships? Growing up as a spectator leads to an adult who will likely also train his or her children as spectators. We're looking at problems now from a generation of self created spectators that have followed a generation of spectators. This leads directly to one of the most visible major violence contributor, media violence. When you are a spectator programmed to absorb excitement based on what you see, then you are at the mercy of what you are exposed to. Inciting sports activities can directly cause violent activity, but how about indirect violence through psychological programming and media exposure?
Violence on television, in the movies, in video games, and on the playing field becomes the commonplace to our youthful spectators. Since the at risk youth aren't participating directly, they can't feel the pain, so develop no adverse personal controls to limit or prevent them from finding the violent nature of these activities as acceptable behavior. They don't need to also accept the pain of practicing until they can do it right or the effort needed to get in shape. They don't need to worry about getting up in the morning with bruises or sore muscles. With this perspective of the world, violence appears exciting and not necessarily damaging to oneself.
Media dollars directed towards coverage of only major sports, even if violent, will only increase, not help, the problem of the spectator perspective. Additionally, simply creating new laws such as ratings to address a minor symptom of a major problem is an indication of the success of media hype over common sense. Remember that the television industry has a vested interest in this problem, just as the movie industry does with violent movies. Meaningless laws don't buy any additional youth control, plus they can force an adult's individual freedoms to be curtailed by the narrow viewpoint of those who want quick fixes, not cures. Adults watch violent sports, and they will let their children watch these sports, particularly if their sitting in front of a television as a spectator rather than out participating.
Gender Inequality - Minor Mens Sports Must Be Protected
The availability of many sports allows a participant to experiment until he or she finds the optimum activity wherein developed or natural ability leads to successful competition. Not everyone is six plus feet tall, two hundred pounds, or has tremendous reflexes. The very reason most sports evolved throughout history was to allow each person to find their own form of excitement and success. Forcing those young people who would otherwise participate, male or female, into the roll of an unsupervised group (gang) member or spectator for a limited number of options can quickly lead to the violence problems previously discussed.
Based on the correlation between increasing violence and decreasing opportunities for males, further sacrificing opportunities for males while creating more unfilled opportunities for females is not the best approach for society if we are to also deal with a real long term solution to the youth violence problem. The current proportionality approach is only a short term fix to an equality issue that is already causing backlashes in our nations youth. Perhaps a better approach to satisfy all concerned would be to greatly reduce major sports emphasis, and greatly increase the support for those who want to participate in minor sports, regardless of gender. If a reduction in major sports is not an option, than we simply must provide for increased opportunities rather than decreased opportunities regardless of cost or lack of interest.
It is precisely the small male social grouping within the at-risk adolescent ages that must be better targeted for enhanced participation and supervision. Certain behaviors seem to promote and continue such groupings once they have been formed and directed. In other words, get them involved in a supervised athletic activity early and then provide the longer term goals to keep them involved through high school. Reducing or eliminating minor sport opportunities at the college level is definitely driving our youth in the wrong direction. As Hugh B. Price, president of the National Urban League stated(3):
Allowing any further erosion of minor sport support or participation may also be jeprodizing an already fragile spectator/participant condition. It may be that we need much more support, especially in the adolescent risk age and gender group (specifically young males) for minor sports. To this end, the current misdirected emphasis on Title IX and gender equality based on quotas rather than interest may inadvertently result in the serious downfall of the tenuous hold we still have on traditional family structures.
While the problem is likely deeper than addressed in this paper, at least another viewpoint on contributors to youth violence is out in the open. Equal rights and gender equality certainly have their place. Big money and major sports also have their place. Allowing those activists with a narrow perspective to dictate what should be done to society without significant research into longer term cause and effect on youth is a terrible crime. The potential sacrifice of our male youth without regard to consequences is a much more serious problem than those enforcing Title IX have faced previously. Although there are significant arguments for getting on with the equalization process, my suggestion is to slow down a little now and let the psychologists take a look at what we have already done to ourselves by pursuing a quota system. Rather than simply force a social issue which may be misdirected in the long term, let's find out if we have created more damage to our youth than we have corrected in our society.
1. Perspectives on Violence:, Addressing Violence in Oklahoma Coalition, http://www.health.state.ok.us/program/Injury/violence/perspect.html
2. Perspectives on Violence:, Addressing Violence in Oklahoma Coalition, http://www.health.state.ok.us/program/Injury/violence/perspect.html
3. YOUTH PROGRAMS AND CRIME PREVENTION, Hugh B. Price, President, National Urban League