Yes, Domestic Violence Spikes During the Super Bowl

More studies in recent years support the "myth" that women and advocates have been sounding the alarm on for decades.

In Depth
Yes, Domestic Violence Spikes During the Super Bowl
Photo:Mario Tama (Getty Images)

Super Bowl LVI between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams will take place this Sunday in Los Angeles. People will drink, emotions will spike, roughly half the fans will be upset after the game, and yes, domestic abuse incidents will most likely occur at a higher rate than usual in households across the country.

The most cited research on the issue is a 2011 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, which found that unexpected or “upset losses”—for example, defeats when a home team is predicted to win by four or more points—are correlated with a 10% increase in the rate of domestic violence. The study found that this rise in domestic violence took place during a narrow window of time around the end of the game, and that the window expanded following disappointing outcomes for more important games, like those against rival teams, playoff games, or, say, the Super Bowl.

The 2011 study’s findings were mirrored by a 2014 study in the UK that found a 26% increase in reports of domestic abuse when the national soccer team won or drew, and a 38% increase when the team lost, suggesting heightened emotion around a team loss can increase the likelihood of violent behaviors toward an intimate partner. A 2017 study in Canada found calls to a domestic violence hotline consistently rose by 15% when the local soccer team was playing.

Just last summer, another study in the UK that analyzed 523,546 domestic abuse incidents reported to the Greater Manchester Police between 2012 and 2019 concluded that intimate partner violence broadly increased after games, “driven exclusively from male perpetrators on female victims.” The 2021 study’s findings about what drives this increased violence contradict previous speculation that men become more violent solely due to heightened emotions during big games—instead, the study suggests increased violence is driven by alcohol consumption during games. This prompted one University of Oxford researcher to suggest delaying games to the evening to discourage prolonged day-drinking, or scheduling games on weekdays, to “help prevent a considerable amount of domestic abuse.”

Research into increased risk of gender-based violence during sports games should not be conflated with the police-propagated myth that the Super Bowl leads to increased sex trafficking. Sex workers have discredited these claims, which are reportedly being weaponized to arrest and criminalize more sex workers ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl. Two major anti-trafficking groups and even the FBI have disputed that there’s any evidence the threat of sex trafficking or human trafficking increases for this event, but the LA County sheriff has continued to push this narrative ahead of the upcoming game. Before Super Bowl LIV in Miami two years ago, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office made dozens of trafficking-related arrests, which the Miami New Times reported had primarily targeted sex workers.

For whatever reason, academic research correlating domestic violence with major sports games — while better supported by evidence than the sex trafficking myth— is met with greater scrutiny. It’s not surprising these studies aren’t particularly well received in a society that tends to ignore domestic violence—which is both pervasive and vastly underreported—just as routinely as it covers and makes excuses for male-dominated institutions like the NFL, a sports league in which domestic abuse has been rampant. In the years before the recent wave of research on domestic violence and sports, the phenomenon was written off as a myth by several male journalists. In one notable example, a 1993 Washington Post article called “Debunking the ‘Day of Dread’ for Women” largely reduces early research on the issue to feminine hysteria, or that pesky “network of feminist activists orchestrating a national campaign to ask males to stop beating their wives and girlfriends after the Super Bowl.”

The Post’s 1993 article particularly pushed back against the claim being made by anti-violence advocates at the time that the Super Bowl is the single highest peak of domestic violence cases in the calendar year. To the article’s credit, this isn’t true, as there’s no single day we can definitively label as the day that the most cases of domestic violence will take place. But plenty of research has shown that triggers like the holiday season or natural disasters that keep people confined to their homes can increase the risk of domestic violence — and this research isn’t as contested or controversial as studies about sports and domestic violence, which may be perceived as an attack on a traditionally masculine interest.

More recently, a 2015 HuffPost article offers the important critique that advocates shouldn’t “make domestic violence about the date on the calendar rather than the reprehensible act itself.” But most takes disputing studies and claims about sports games and domestic violence ultimately rely on an almost condescending sort of nit-picking to ignore that while no one day can provably be a peak, that doesn’t mean a spectacular, hypermasculine event like the Super Bowl has no measurable impact on rates of domestic abuse, at all.

Of course, sports itself isn’t the driver of violence, although the innate brutality of a sport like football, nor the NFL’s long history of players being accused of domestic abuse and cheerleaders alleging sexual harassment and mistreatment, are worth examining. With or without high-stakes games like the Super Bowl, abusive men would find some other reason to abuse. The hypermasculine energy and intensity surrounding football games is often just the most readily available trigger—and it’s also a culturally acceptable trigger. Violent riots often led by drunk white men after sports games are frequently written off by law enforcement and national media as something akin to boys being boys, while riots and protests in the wake of police killings of Black people are violently policed and treated as existential threats to community safety.

Where women and LGBTQ people are ridiculed for whatever it is that sparks their fandom, and people of color and particularly Black communities are told there’s no acceptable way for them to protest state violence, white male sports fans are pretty much expected to become drunk, violent, and emotional over the outcome of a sports game. The double standard and intense pushback on the data speaks to broad cultural permission that society gives to white men and only white men to be aggressive—all over some other men throwing around a ball on their TV screens.

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