Domestic Violence and the Super Bowl: If, When and How to Engage

Feb 2, 2011

On Sunday, February 6, millions of people will tune in to watch the Super Bowl. In the past, Super Bowl Sunday has brought a public conversation about domestic violence because of now-discounted decades-old claims that domestic violence escalates on Super Bowl Sunday. There is no hard evidence that Super Bowl Sunday is a “day of dread” for women, or has measurably more incidents of domestic violence than other days. “We have spent years dispelling that myth,” said Family Violence Prevention Fund President Esta Soler. “Domestic, sexual and dating violence are serious problems every day, and are not tied to the Super Bowl.”

The issue arose again last week when the Heritage Foundation scheduled a news conference in Washington, D.C., featuring author Christina Hoff Sommers, a well-known critic of feminism and women’s causes. The event was entitled, “Super Bowl Hoax Anniversary” and was scheduled to feature other well-known backlash leaders and critics of the violence prevention field. The event was postponed until late February (after the Super Bowl) due to a snowstorm.

The History

The Super Bowl and domestic violence likely became entwined in Americans’ minds in 1993, when advocates helped convince NBC to broadcast a public service announcement on abuse during the Super Bowl. It featured a well-dressed man sitting in a jail cell saying, “I didn’t think you’d go to jail for hitting your wife.” Afterward, 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.

Domestic violence and the Super Bowl emerged again several years ago when 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.

“For many years, domestic violence leaders have been careful to note that no hard evidence links a rise in domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday,” Soler added. “Yet opponents continue to reach back to this event from many years ago to try to discredit our work. They should instead focus on helping us end violence and keeping survivors safe.”

The Facts

Some research exploring a link between domestic violence and football has received recent media attention. In 2009, the National Bureau of Economics released a working paper from economists Gordon Dahl and David Card which found that losses in professional football games – specifically when the home team suffers an upset – can lead to an eight percent spike in the number of police reports of spousal abuse within a short time of the game.

Family Violence and Football: The Effect of Unexpected Emotional Cues on Violent Behavior also found that the spikes in domestic violence reports were greater if the game was especially important (for instance, if it pitted the home team against a key rival or determined who got a playoff spot). The working paper did not examine police reports on Super Bowl Sunday, and the spikes in violence it found to be associated with losses were comparable to those recorded on summer days when the temperature was higher than 80 degrees. And these spikes in domestic violence police reports were considerably smaller than those recorded on major holidays like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July.

Contrary to the National Bureau of Economics working paper, a small study 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 Indiana University Bloomington researchers examined police reports of domestic violence incidents in 14 cities, finding a small increase on Super Bowl Sunday – but it was a smaller increase than was seen on holidays such as Christmas and Memorial Day.

Since no rigorous national studies have firmly established a rise in violence on Super Bowl Sunday, and because there has been considerable backlash about unsupported claims to the contrary in the past, the Family Violence Prevention Fund recommends that advocates not reach out to media on this.

Talking Points for Advocates Who Receive Queries

  • Domestic violence is a crime, whether it happens on Super Bowl Sunday or any other day. Violence is a problem of epidemic proportions in this country.
  • Sadly, domestic, dating and sexual violence occur every day, whether a football game is being played or not.
  • While there have been no rigorous national studies on whether domestic violence increases during the Super Bowl, we do know that victims are beaten and killed every day by their partners. The Justice Department reports that, on average, four to five women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every day in this country.
  • Domestic violence is a serious problem in our [city/town] and throughout the country. [Provide data about domestic violence in your community or state.]
  • We can all play a role in helping to stop violence against women and children. Men in particular can make a real difference by teaching boys and girls what a healthy relationship looks like and that violence is never the answer.
  • [Add information about your organization’s work to stop violence and help victims.]