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The Super Bowl and violence against women

suburban myth #30

Materials compiled by

Robert T. Carroll

On January 18, 1993, a media "watchdog" group called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) put out a news release that stated: "The Super Bowl is one of the most widely viewed television events every year. Unfortunately, women's shelters report that Super Bowl Sunday is also one of the worst days of the year for violence against women in the home." According to Laura Flanders of FAIR, the release cited press reports from the New York Times (1/5/92 and 1/22/92) and the Chicago Tribune (1/27/91), which were based on accounts of those who work with battered women.

On January 27, 1993, a news conference was called in Pasadena, California, the site of the forthcoming Super Bowl game, by a coalition of women's groups. At the news conference, reporters were informed by Sheila Kuehl, head of the California Women's Law Center that Super Bowl Sunday (SBS) is "the biggest day of the year for violence against women." (Kuehl went on to become a California State Assemblywoman and then a state senator.)  Forty per cent more women would be battered on that day, according to Kuehl. She based her claim, she said, on a study done in 1990 by Janet Katz (et al.), a professor in Sociology and Criminal Justice at Virginia's Old Dominion University. That study found that an increase in emergency room admissions on Washington Redskins regular-season weekends "was not associated with the occurrence of football games in general." According to Cecil Adams, the 40% figure was based on data regarding home wins by the Redskins.

The folks at FAIR were kind enough to send me the Old Dominion study ("The Impact of Professional Football Games Upon Violent Assaults on Women," G. F. White, J. Katz, and K. E. Scarborough, Violence and Victims, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 157-171, 1992). Over a two-year period 680 women were treated in emergency rooms for assaults, lacerations, etc.--an average of less than one per day. The statistical analysis is dense and difficult to follow, but a footnote contained the following:

On the day of a win the actual mean number of women admitted is 1.05, the average expected number is 0.75, one day after a win, actual 0.80; expected = 0.58; two days after a win, actual 0.70, expected 0.63.

On "win" days, therefore, violence increased 40%. But there were only 20 such days during the two-year study period. Doing the arithmetic, we find that 15 cases were expected, while the actual number was 21--a difference of six cases. You can trick this out with all the statistical jargon you like, but it seems foolish to base any grand conclusions on such trifling numbers ("The Straight Dope," April 14, 2000).

Also present at the press conference in 1993 was Linda Mitchell, a representative of FAIR. Mitchell did not challenge the statistic nor the claim that SBS is the biggest day of the year for violence against women.

On Thursday, January 28, 1993, Laura Flanders and Lenore Walker, a Denver psychologist who invented the term "battered woman syndrome" in The Battered Woman (1977, reprinted 1980), appeared on Good Morning America. Walker claimed to have compiled a ten-year record showing a sharp increase in violent incidents against women on Super Bowl Sundays. She has not made this data available to the public. Walker has a Website called Domestic Violence Institute, but no mention is made there of this data or of any studies based on it. (Walker made the news again when she agreed to testify for the defense in the O.J. Simpson trial.*  She vigorously defended her position, although she was not called on to testify.)

On Friday, January 29, 1993, Lynda Gorov reported in the Boston Globe that women's shelters and hotlines are "flooded with more calls from victims [on Super Bowl Sunday] than on any other day of the year." Gorov cited "one study of women's shelters out West" that "showed a 40 per cent climb in calls, a pattern advocates said is repeated nationwide, including in Massachusetts." Gorov claims that her source for these claims was FAIR.

On Sunday, January 31, Ken Ringle, a Washington Post staff writer, wrote that the claim that forty percent more women would be battered on SBS was a contrivance by women’s groups and FAIR in an effort to get a Public Service Announcement (PSA) on domestic violence shown by NBC on SBS. (They succeeded. NBC showed a 30 second PSA before the Super Bowl. If they had had to pay for an ad of that length it would have cost some $500,000.) Ringle claimed that Linda Mitchell of FAIR told him that the authority for the 40 per cent figure was Lenore Walker. He also claims that Walker's office referred him to Michael Lindsey, a Denver psychologist and an authority on battered women.  

On February 2, Boston Globe staff writer Bob
Hohler published what amounted to a retraction of Miss Gorov's story. Hohler got FAIR's Steven Rendell to back off from the organization's earlier support of the claim that there is a significant rise in domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday.*

Ringle claims that the women’s coalition made reference to "national studies" that linked Super Bowl Sunday to increased assaults. Laura Flanders maintains that “no such claims were made. In fact,” she says, “FAIR made the point repeatedly that domestic violence movement is gravely underfunded and understudied.” Flanders claims that no predictions about violence on SBS were made by FAIR and that “in countless interviews” the women’s coalition used the word “anecdotal” to describe its evidence. Flanders also claims that FAIR interviewed the authors of the Old Dominion study but because of “the small sample involved, they chose not to express the study results in percentage terms as the activist had.” No mention is made by Flanders that the Old Dominion study was about emergency room admissions on Washington Redskins game days, not domestic violence on SBS. 

In short, FAIR knew that Sheila Kuehl’s claims were misleading and not supported by the facts. Yet,  FAIR “did not see this as misrepresentation,” according to Flanders. 

According to Ringle, Linda Mitchell was aware during the original news conference that Kuehl was misrepresenting the Old Dominion study. She didn’t challenge Kuehl, she said, because "I wouldn't do that in front of the media.” Said Mitchell: “She has a right to report it as she wants." 

FAIR's bias seems evident: they are interested in fairness and accuracy if it suits their agenda.

The shelters and hot lines, which monitored the Sunday of the 27th Super Bowl with special care, reported no variation in the number of calls for help that day, not even in Buffalo, whose team (and fans) had suffered a crushing defeat.*

Cyndy Perkins, Interim Director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, was asked if the Hotline saw any increase in calls on Super Bowl Sunday in 1997. Perkins said that 1997 was the first year they specifically tracked for an increase in calls but there was none, neither on SBS nor on the day after.

In 1994, Congress asked the National Research Council, an independent Washington, D.C., think tank, to evaluate the state of knowledge about domestic abuse. The NRC report concluded that "this field of research is characterized by the absence of clear conceptual models, large-scale databases, longitudinal research, and reliable instrumentation."*

In short, the myth of the Super Bowl as a day of national violence against women began with the claim by FAIR that Super Bowl Sunday is one of the worst days of the year for violence against women. This claim was supported by three news articles based on stories by workers at women's shelters. No follow-up was done on these stories by FAIR to determine if the impressions of the workers were supported by the facts. Sheila Kuehl of the California Women's Law Center then called it the biggest day of the year for violence against women. She even specified just how big by claiming a study showed that there was a forty per cent increase in battered women on SBS. Kuehl's claims have no basis in fact, yet the statistic was given to a reporter by FAIR with reference to a new source: Lenore Walker. FAIR later backed off this assertion. Dr. Walker claims to have ten years worth of data supporting the claim of a sharp increase in violence against women on SBS, but she has never produced the data or an article, scholarly or popular, based on this alleged data. Any responsible person who had such data should publish it. Why hasn't she made this data available? Is this because her ten years of data has nothing to do with the Super Bowl and is nothing but a collection of anecdotes based on case histories? Her most popular work, The Battered Woman, created the profile used in the "battered woman syndrome" defense, and is based on nothing but anecdotes and case histories.

At present, it seems that the only evidence that SBS is a day of national violence against women is anecdotal and is contraindicated by other anecdotal evidence. No national study has ever been done on the issue. Thus, the claim that there is a significant increase in violence against women on SBS is not supported by any scientific evidence whatsoever. Nevertheless, the claim that on SBS violence against women increases dramatically is still being claimed by many journalists and teachers who should know better.

Even so, the data regarding violent crime against children, women and men in our society are sobering:

  1. 1995 Federal Bureau of Investigation data show that among all female murder victims, 26 percent were killed by husbands or boyfriends, compared to 3 percent of all male victims who were killed by wives or girlfriends.

  2. Of the 10.9 million violent victimizations during 1994, 4.7 million were against female victims and 6.2 million against male victims. Among women victims there was one rape for every 270 females 12 years old and older, one robbery for every 240 women, one assault for every 29 women and one homicide for every 23,000 women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

  3. According to a Nov. 1998 Department of Justice report on the National Violence Against Women Survey, 1,510,455 women and 834,732 men are victims of physical violence by an intimate.*

  4. Researchers at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts looked at 107 cases of rape, attempted rape and fondling at 30 NCAA schools between 1990 and 1993. Male athletes at 10 of those schools made up only 3.3 percent of the male student body, but were involved in 19 percent of the assaults.

  5. "In 1995 and 1996, there were 200 cases of college and professional athletes, almost exclusively football and basketball players, arrested for abusing women sexually or physically."

  6. In 1998, the young, blacks, and males were most vulnerable to violent crime.*

further reading

Bunk in Utah

Who Stole Feminism? : How Women Have Betrayed Women by Christina Hoff Sommers (Simon & Schuster, 1995, reprint edition)

Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes and Crimes Against Women by Jeff Benedict (Northeasern University Press, 1999)

Super Bowl myths dispelled Statistics don't support domestic violence rumors, police say By FRANK CURRERI

Abused women and the Super Bowl: Where were the facts? By HENRY McNULTY; Courant Reader Representative

The Super Bowl Sunday Myth  by Bert H. Hoff

After 20 years of domestic violence research, scientists can't avoid hard facts by Nancy Updike
May/June 1999

Does violence against women rise 40% during the Super Bowl? by Cecil Adams

The Skeptic's Dictionary entries on testimonials and subjective validation.

The political/polemical controversy

The "Stolen Feminism" Hoax: Anti-Feminist Attack Based on Error-Filled Anecdotes By Laura Flanders

Domestic Violence Campaign: Super Bowl Success Sparks Good Ol' Boys' Backlash By Laura Flanders 

Review of Lenore Walker's The Battered Woman

Defense of Christina Hoff Sommers published in The Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 66:7

Last updated: 25-Jan-2014

© Copyright 1994-2014 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.