Do School Sports Have a Positive Impact on Juvenile Delinquency?

One of a parent’s worst nightmares is to find out that your child is involved in delinquent behavior. In the United States, the juvenile delinquency rate is one of the highest in the industrialized world, according to a 2004 publication by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention 1. Historically, school and organized sports was thought to give kids at risk of deviant behavior an outlet for their aggression, states a 2007 article in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. However, a 2008 study in Science Daily shows that new research may be proving this theory to be inaccurate.

Pathways to Delinquency

The OJJDP has laid out three distinct pathways that a child can follow to juvenile delinquency. The first path starts prior to 12 years of age and begins with stubbornness when asked to comply with authority. This behavior gradually increases to defiance, such as refusing to go to school. A second pathway starts prior to 15 years of age and begins with small acts of misbehavior, such as writing on other people’s property. This progresses into property damage, such as smashing windows, and eventually escalates into more severe acts of delinquency. The third path, which has no age limits, begins with your child showing small acts of aggression, which gradually develops into fighting and violence.

Sports as a Deterrent

In the Journal of Sports and Social Issues, a 1982 article calls using sports as a deterrent to delinquency was once thought of as “a panacea for juvenile delinquency.” It was thought that school sports and organized recreational activities built character, allowed an outlet for aggression, provided a structured environment and was a positive example of socially acceptable behavior 4. However, evidence-based research shows that delinquency in adolescents is still rising.

Contributing Factors

Many school sports provide an arena for acceptable violence, such as football, hockey, basketball and soccer. Sports can also perpetuate “jock identity,” where it’s cool to be the roughest player on the team. Studies, such as the one in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, suggest this is a risk factor for violence being taken onto the streets. Even if your child is involved in school sports, if she dislikes school, she is more likely to be involved in delinquent activities or risky behavior. Another risk factor for delinquent behavior is too much participation in school sports. Too much involvement with sports means less time with family.

Alternative Activities

Research shows that the best deterrent to delinquent and predelinquent behavior is a balance in your child's life. Equal amounts of family time and church time, along with school activities, can help curb reckless behavior. If delinquency is a major issue, enroll your child in less conventional types of activities, such as an outdoor educational program for troubled teens. These activities may help encourage him to come to terms with his identity and form better coping strategies.