Photo of two high school lacrosse players fighting for the ball. Photo by H. Michael Miley, Flickr CC

During his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Brett Kavanaugh repeatedly referred to his experiences in high school and high school athletics in ways that depicted sports as wholesome and beneficial for youth. While not denying the benefits of sports, sociological research highlights the detrimental impacts of athletic involvement as well. And in contrast to Kavanaugh’s characterizations, this research shows that athletic participation is often associated with substance use and abuse, violence, and risk-taking among boys and young men in the United States.

The connection between athletic involvement and alcohol use is well-established through research, and the connection is especially pronounced for white male athletes at the top of their peer status hierarchy. Ironically, being high-status in high school drives both alcohol use and some of the protective features of sports, like connection to school and higher grades. Nationally representative surveys have also demonstrated that involvement in organized sports is associated with binge drinking in college, and that binge drinking continues after actual athletic participation ends. Recent work on drug use indicates that male athletes are more likely to be prescribed opioids, accidentally overdose, and have used opioids recreationally than non-athletes or female athletes.
Classics in the field of sport sociology discuss the “Triad of Violence” that is taught through sports: 1) violence against women, 2) violence against others, and 3) violence against the self. For example, male athletes learn to play through pain and to talk about (heterosexual) sex as a conquest. More recent research continues to find links between sports and violent behavior, especially for contact sports. Since risk-taking is central to both the meaning of sport and the meaning of masculinity, it is not surprising that male athletes are more likely to engage in a variety of “risk-taking” behaviors, from drunk driving to unprotected sex.


For other work on how masculinity norms in sport link to sexuality and race, see here!