Abstract: “He Acted Out Due to Multiple Concussions”: Exploring Health and Race Perceptions of Athlete-Perpetrated Intimate Partner Violence

◆ Jennifer A. Scarduzio, University of Kentucky
◆ Christina S. Walker, University of Kentucky
◆ Nicky H. Lewis, University of Kentucky
◆ Anthony M. Limperos, University of Kentucky

Intimate partner violence (IPV) includes sexual, physical, and/or psychological violence by a current or former intimate partner. IPV is a pervasive health crisis impacting people with various socio-cultural and economic statuses (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2019a). Particularly, incidents involving athlete-perpetrated violence have been inadequately addressed by professional sports leagues, the media, and fans (e.g., Ray Rice, James Harrison, Greg Hardy). Yet, IPV rates amongst relationships involving male athletes tend to be higher than other romantic relationships (Martin, 2017; Washington-Childs, 2018). Likewise, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of head trauma suffered by professional athletes (especially those engaged in contact sports), is consistently reported by media and attributed to aggression (Meehan, Mannix, Zafonte, & Pascual-Leone, 2015; Morrison & Casper, 2016).
To develop a preventative approach to address this health issue, we must be aware of the ways in which IPV is perceived by the public. In this study, 1500 participants were randomly assigned to view a brief composite news package detailing an IPV incident involving a fictional professional athlete. We manipulated three variables: the perpetrator’s race (African American, Caucasian, Latino), sport (MMA, NFL), and the severity of violence (mild/severe). Participants assigned levels of responsibility and the seriousness of IPV as a public health concern. We also asked participants four open-ended questions, “Who do you think is the most responsible for the situation you watched in the news story? Why? Why do you think the suspect in the story acted the way they did? Why do you think the victim in the story acted the way they did?” For the purpose of this study, we conducted an iterative (Miles & Huberman, 1994) and qualitative analysis by coding the four open-ended questions.
As a theoretical framework, we used the social ecological model (SEM), to assess factors that may have contributed to perceptions, particularly focusing on mediated messages in influencing agenda setting at the societal level (CDC, 2019b).
We found that as it related to IPV as a health issue, participants often justified the athlete’s violent behavior, perceiving these transgressions to be linked to CTE or another athletic-related physical or mental health injury. Yet, CTE nor any other similar injury was mentioned or eluded to within the news videos. Additionally, related to intersectionality, participants sometimes attributed the behavior to a difference in the athlete’s race. We argue that media coverage of these types of injuries can shape perceptions about correlations between CTE (and similar injuries), race, and IPV. From an SEM approach, this has significant implications. The findings shed light on the media’s power in influencing perceptions of CTE, race, and its association with IPV, while equally emphasizing the mediated tools at our disposal which have persuasive and instrumental reach, enabling us to engage in preventative strategies to accurately educate the public about this important health issue (Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance, n.d.). Our research has implications for the study of the intersectionality of race, media, health, and sports issues while adding to the discussion of an SEM approach.