Friday, November 20

Football and violence

An unsettling new study suggests that upset losses in NFL games cause an increase in reports of male-on-female domestic violence (hat tip to Freakonomics).

The study is by controversial economist David Card and Gordon Dahl. They look at how many reports of domestic abuse police in NFL cities receive shortly after games where the local team was expected to win by more than three points, but actually lost. They find that these upset games increase the likelihood of domestic violence occurring by 8% for male-on-female violence compared to non-game days. There was no notable effect on female-on-male violence.

Their result, if it's accurate, leaves a real ugly taste in my mouth about humanity. To suggest that something as simple as a favourite football team losing unexpectedly can lead men to beat up women is extremely disturbing.

As the study notes, traditional economic models of domestic violence (yes, there are such things) tend to paint abusers as making a "rational" decision about how much abuse to inflict. Although any kind of domestic violence is abhorrent, I think there is something slightly more comforting about this kind of explanation of domestic violence, since it assumes the abuser had full ownership of their decision. That means the abuser is the bad guy and we can point the finger of blame squarely on him.

But if football results actually have a causal effect on domestic violence, it leaves the door open for arguing that violence is not entirely the abuser's fault -- rather, football is partially to blame. That, to me, is a very scary prospect.

There is a big unanswered question about their results, however. Are the upset losses really causing the spike in domestic violence, or is alcohol the main factor? People are probably far more likely to drink when their home team is playing than when their team has a day off. If that's the case, alcohol could be the catalyst that tips abusers over the edge, rather than the outcome of the football game.

Card and Dahl address this in their paper by basically saying there isn't enough information available to make convincing conclusions about alcohol. "Overall, about 20% of at-home male-on-female incidents … list alcohol or drugs as a contributing factor. The relatively low rate of alcohol and drug involvement could reflect under-reporting, or a tendency by police to cite alcohol and drugs as a contributing factor only in cases with high levels of intoxication," the authors note.

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I've been super busy with school lately, so my blogging has been sporadic and will likely continue to be quite occasional over the next few weeks.