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Sociologists Debate Whether Athletics Deter Delinquency

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Fort Worth--Does participation in interscholastic athletics tend to deter juvenile delinquency?

That was one of a number of questions debated here last week at the second annual conference of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (nasss).

One of four professional organizations in this field, the group of college and university sociologists was founded three years ago to promote and advance an understanding of the interaction between sport and society and to promote scholarly research in the subject.

'Deterrence Hypothesis'

The belief that participation in organized sports deters young people from engaging in delinquent activities is not new, speakers at the meeting agreed. The "deterrence hypothesis" was initially used as a justification for building playgrounds in the early 19th century and later to garner support for organized sports. The theory was that the "unruly immigrant mobs" pouring into the country would become integrated into American society through playground activity and sports.

According to one early theorist, said Jeffrey O. Segrave, instructor in the department of physical education and dance of Skidmore College, the purpose of sports was to provide an "innocent outlet for their animal spirit."

Mr. Segrave defended the "deterrence hypothesis," arguing that participation in athletics may prevent the onset of deliquent behavior for the following reasons:

Athletes are exposed to strong conformity, rather than deviant influences;

Their off-the-field behavior is typically regulated--no smoking, no drinking, a curfew, and other such health-related rules;

Athletes are likely to perceive school as a source of success rather than frustration;

They are less likely to be bored during non-school time;

Athletes can assert masculinity through athletic accomplishments;

Athletes are less likely to be labeled as deviants in the first place.

After measuring delinquent behavior from police and court reports and interviews with juveniles, Mr. Segrave concluded that "athletes tend to be less delinquent than non-athletes."

And athletes, he said, are less often involved in serious crimes than non-athletes.

Not so, responded Andrew Yiannakis, Director of Sport and Leisure Studies at the University of Connecticut.

That research is faulty, he said. "This whole approach is based on an erroneous assumption, that by studying a sampling of athletes and comparing them with non-athletes we are working with an intact group," he said.

"In fact, they are self-selected groups. The results may reflect the attraction of conformers to an athletic program and the hasty retreat of non-conformers from an athletic program," Mr. Yiannakis continued. "Internalized personality problems may predispose juveniles to avoid organized social programs."

Less Threatening Activities

Less structured activities and less common sports may, in fact, be less threatening for delinquency-prone juveniles, Mr. Yiannakis suggested, and may work better as deterrents. For instance, the Outward Bound program, he said, may be more effective in reaching delinquent juveniles than organized sports programs. Not so, countered Robert Regoli, a sociologist and criminologist. He argued that neither position had been scientifically tested in any way.

"They've fallen into the dualistic fallacy," he said, "where you try to divide the world into delinquents and non-delinquents. It doesn't work that way. Is there something called a delinquent? What constitutes delinquency? What kind of delinquency? What in the world are pre-delinquency tendencies?"

The moderator called the debate a draw.

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