Saint Joseph's University Magazine: Can Athletics Deter Bullying?

Friday, September 1, 2017

by Laura Crispin, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Economics

In the United States, one in five high school students reports having been the victim of bullying. The reach of its negative effects — lower test scores, lower educational attainment and lower wages throughout life, among other things — suggests that understanding the determinants of bullying and identifying policies to reduce victimization are critically important.

To address these concerns, I collaborated with Dimitrios Nikolaou, Ph.D., assistant professor of economics at Illinois State University, to consider the possibility that athletics, which are widely available at most high schools, may be the key to reducing in-school victimization.

Why would participation in athletics reduce the likelihood of being bullied? Students who engage in athletics may be physically stronger, less likely to be “loners” and active in supervised afterschool time, all of which should deter bullying. Empirical evidence from the nationally representative Youth Risk Behavioral Survey and Panel Study of Income Dynamics Childhood Development Supplement supports this hypothesis.

Our research shows that involvement in athletics substantially reduces the likelihood of being bullied by up to 10 percentage points, which has appealing policy implications: By expanding access to athletic programs and encouraging participation, schools may be able to significantly lower the instances of bullying.

Unlike an “anti-bullying program” that would focus only on bullying, this suggestion is attractive because, in addition to reducing bullying in schools, athletics also have direct, positive effects on student outcomes. Athletic participants have higher educational attainment, higher test scores in high school and higher wages relative to their peers. Therefore, our research suggests that expansion and promotion of high school athletic programs may be successful in a number of ways — in addition to reducing bullying.

Unfortunately, many school districts across the country seem to be moving in the opposite direction. In 2012, for example, many schools in Ohio implemented “pay-to-play” policies, where students’ families needed to pay fees — ranging up to several hundred dollars per activity — in order to cover the cost of the students’ participation in sports and other activities. While many school districts face tighter budgets since the recession, such policies that restrict access to extracurricular activities may lead to unintended consequences and these schools may see in-school victimization rates rise as fewer students are able to participate.

What began as a simple research question for us has now led to a complicated research agenda as issues continue to arise. First and foremost: What if athletes are less likely to be victimized because they are the perpetrators? Additionally, given concerns of cyberbullying, do the benefits of athletics prevent online victimization as well? Do the results hold for younger children, such as those in middle school, where victimization rates are higher? Could the same hypothesis apply to other extracurricular activities?

We plan to address these questions through ongoing research to provide a thorough understanding of the relationship between athletics and bullying, hoping to provide policy suggestions that will reduce victimization and lead to better educational and labor market outcomes for children.

Expand this section