Domestic Violence & The Super Bowl: The Myth

On February 6, millions of people will tune in to watch Super Bowl XXXIX. In the past, Super Bowl Sunday has been a time of public debate over the prevalence of domestic violence in our communities. At times, domestic violence experts and those working to help victims have been criticized, in part because of decade-old claims that abuse increases on game day.

Two years ago, for example, columnist and commentator George Will raised the issue on ABC’s This Week, criticizing “feminists” for spreading false information about a link between the Super Bowl and domestic violence, and telling women to “relax and enjoy the game.”

This week, the Lansing State Journal carried a column on the Super Bowl “hoax.” It said, in part, this “month brings the anniversary of feminists depicting Super Bowl Sunday as the annual high-water mark for the beating of American women by their husbands and boyfriends. Feminists find this self-evident, since on that day men celebrate the testosterone-besotted violence of professional football . . . Lies about domestic violence only serve to trivialize a serious problem.”

Others have referred to the claim that domestic violence increases on Super Bowl Sunday as an “urban myth” or a “noble lie.”

Today advocates stress that there is no conclusive evidence that domestic violence increases during the Super Bowl. “Violence against women is wrong whether it happens on Super Bowl Sunday or on any other Sunday,” said Family Violence Prevention Fund President Esta Soler. “While there have been no rigorous national studies on whether rates of domestic violence increase during the Super Bowl, we do know that women are beaten and killed every day by the men in their lives – whether there is a football game or not.”

The Myth

The Super Bowl and domestic violence probably became entwined in Americans’ minds in 1993, when advocates helped convince the NBC television network to broadcast a public service announcement (PSA) on domestic violence during its Super Bowl coverage. The PSA featured a well-dressed man sitting in a jail cell saying, “I didn’t think you’d go to jail for hitting your wife.” Afterwards, the announcer said, “Domestic violence is a crime.”

While many commentators applauded NBC’s decision to air the PSA, others claimed the network had been coerced by inflated claims about Super Bowl Sunday being “a day of dread” for battered women – a day when abuse increases. That same year, in a front page story entitled, “Debunking the ‘Day of Dread’ for Women,” Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle quoted experts and battered women’s advocates saying there was no discernable increase in battering on Super Bowl Sunday, or on any days when football games are played. Some later claimed that Ringle had taken their remarks out of context.

Conflicting Data

Although there are claims linking sports broadcasts to increased violence and abuse, no rigorous national studies have confirmed a link.

A limited study conducted by the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center at UCLA’s School of Public Health found that football Sundays in general are not significantly associated with increased domestic violence dispatch calls.

A 2003 study by researchers at Indiana University Bloomington, which examined police reports of domestic violence incidents in 14 cities, found a small increase on Super Bowl Sunday, but the increase was much smaller than on holidays such as Christmas or Memorial Day.

Athletes and Violence

Due in part to incidents of violence involving Kobe Bryant, University of Colorado football players and other athletes, public attention may once again turn to the link between professional sports and violence against women this week.

“Because professional athletes are so much in the public eye, if they do commit violence against women, the media tends to report it,” said Soler. “But, as public figures, athletes are in a unique position to take a stand against violence, and many are doing just that. We commend the professional athletes who are helping to raise awareness about abuse and doing their part to end violence against women and children.”

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