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Boys Get a Violent Message From Televised Sports

Left, sociologist Michael Messner speaks at a press conference before the Boys to Men conference at the Directors Guild; right, sociologist Darnell Hunt during the regular conference for sports and entertainment industry leaders.

Photo courtesy children now

ONE OF THE PLACES American boys go for solace is the television room, and what they see and hear there could hurt them – especially if they’re tuned to sports programming, USC sociologists Michael Messner and Darnell Hunt contend.

“The televised sports formula for manhood goes something like this: ‘A real man is tough, aggressive and, above all, a winner in what’s still a man’s world,’” Messner told sports and entertainment industry leaders gathered at the Directors Guild last month.

Messner and Hunt spoke at a conference titled “Boys to Men: Media Messages About Masculinity,” reporting findings from their study of recurrent themes in professional sports programming on network and cable television.

Sports commentators consistently portray aggression and violence among men as exciting, rewarding behavior, Messner and Hunt found. The USC researchers analyzed 22 hours and 45 minutes’ worth of televised sports programming last spring and logged 66 instances of such portrayals.

With 40 out of the 66 instances identified in the study, NBA games proved the worst among conventional sports, followed by NFL games (15 instances), extreme sports (4) and major league baseball (4). The researchers excluded professional wrestling from the tally, concluding that while “images and commentary of violence represent an important thread in the commentary of other sports programs, violence makes up the entire fabric of professional wrestling.”

OTHER troubling messages that emerged:

• Risky behavior wins respect. Athletes who play through pain or make dangerous maneuvers are proclaimed heroes. Conversely, questions of character and manhood are frequently raised about those who leave a game due to injury.

• Sports are war. On an average of five times per hour, commentators use martial metaphors and the language of war to describe sports action. Examples: “battle,” “kill,” “ammunition,” “weapons” and “professional sniper.”

“Commentators continually focus on incidents of fighting, recklessness, and courage in the face of danger,” said Hunt. “Some of the same themes even carry over to commercial breaks. Commercials often play on men’s and boys’ insecurities about not being man enough to succeed.”

On average, one boy in three between the ages of 8 and 12 watches televised sports programming every day, according an Amateur Athletic Foundation study also presented at the conference. That’s five times more often than girls of the same age, who have dramatically lower rates of depression, suicide and involvement in violent crimes, according to conference sponsor Children Now, a child advocacy organization.

While no firm causal relationship has been established between boys’ television viewing habits and such troubles, Children Now representatives urged Hollywood to develop more responsible programming for American boys, whom they portrayed as “in crisis.”

Most of the programming studied by Messner and Hunt aired during a single week (May 23-29), including two broadcasts of sports news (ESPN Sports Center), two broadcasts of professional wrestling (TNT Nitro and USA/WWF Superstars), two broadcasts of NBA playoff games (TNT and NBC) and one broadcast of major league baseball (CBS). Because the football season had ended when the sociologists conducted their study, they looked at two broadcasts of NFL games from the prior season.

Messner, who researches the sociology of sex and gender, is the author of “Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity” (1992) and “Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements” (1997). Hunt, whose research often dissects media messages, is the author of “Screening the Los Angeles Riots: Race, Seeing and Resistance” (1996) & “O.J. Simpson Facts & Fictions: News Rituals in the Construction of Reality” (1999).

MESSNER AND HUNT are both associate professors of sociology in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Sociology graduate student Michele Dunbar aided in their research, which was sponsored by the Amateur Athletics Foundation, Stanford University and UCLA’s Center for Communication Policy.

Boys Get a Violent Message From Televised Sports

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