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Put Down That Basketball! Sport Causes Crime!

That is the argument of Sebastien Roche, a French political scientist. In writing about the French riots last year, Roche has challenged the conventional wisdom that sports provide a good outlet for young men and perhaps keeps them out of trouble. To the contrary, Roche contends, “the practice of sport never reduces the number of crimes” and, furthermore, sports can even “give the opportunity to develop physical abilities useful for street crime: running, how to use impulsive behaviour, how to master the use of force.”

This strikes me as a fascinating subject, and an interesting argument, although the proof offered by Roche and his like-minded colleagues seems very thin. Their research is based on interviews with young men and shows that the more time a young man spends playing sports, the more likely he is to have committed a serious crime. But does this mean that sports are the culprit? Couldn’t it just as easily mean that the kind of young man who’s criminally inclined a) doesn’t have a job; and b) therefore has a lot of free time; which c) he spends playing sports? The argument that sports and violence go hand and hand is a powerful one (though hardly new: Robert Lipsyte, for one, has written convincingly on the subject in the past); but I don’t find Roche’s arguments very persuasive.

I learned of this study thanks to Stephane Neyreneuf, who read about the subject in L’Equipe, the French sports newspaper. Stephane was kind enough to send along an English translation, which I believe he did himself. It is not the most fluid translation (no offense, S.) but it is a really fascinating article, including counter-arguments to Roche’s claim, and so I include it below in its entirety:

L’EQUIPE, October 11th 2006, page 10.

More sport, more crimes?

Several scientific surveys question the supposedly positive role of sports.
A year ago, riots happened in about ten sensitive neighbourhoods. The death of two teenagers in Clichy- sous-bois, electrocuted in the power transformer where they hid to escape from a police control, caused this outburst.
After thirteen nights of clashes, declaration of state urgency and curfew in many cities, the Prime Minister announced a budget of 100 million euros for associations working in those urban areas notably in the field of sports. The Prime minister asked Jean-François Lamour, Minister in charge of Youth, Sports and Associations, to increase the availability of cultural activities and sports for those urban areas.
This approach has been common since the beginning of the 90’s when Bernard Tapie, then CEO of Adidas and future Ministre de la Ville (department in charge of cities, development, problems of inner city neighbourhoods, integration…), rushed into the suburbs to hand out balls and sports shoes to the youngsters.
Yet, in the meantime, several authors have underlined that there is no positive link between the practice of sport and the decrease of juvenile delinquency. Sebastien Roché, head of research at the CNRS, teacher in Political science in Grenoble recently published a book on last year’s riot. In December 2005, this sociologist summed up the conclusions of two previous surveys (1999 and 2003). They clearly underlined that “the practice of sport never reduces the number of crimes”. On the contrary, they tend to show that such a practice “can give the opportunity to develop physical abilities useful for street crime: running, how to use impulsive behaviour, how to master the use of force”.
Those surveys also reveal that sport often offers the first fight opportunity, “more often than nightclubs, bars or any other place” precise Roché. What if France had it all wrong on how to tackle delinquency?

Interview of Sébastien Roché :
? In France, we love conventional wisdom »
Where does the idea that building gymnasiums would help to bring peace in inner city suburbs come from?
Sébastien Roché:
According to me, there is no scientific research proving this link while existing research shows the contrary. As soon as 1994, Marie Choquet and Sylvie Ledoux worked on this theme at the INSERM*. From a national sample and with another methodology, they found the same conclusions than our study. In other countries, notabily in the United states, regional studies lead to the same results. But in France, we love conventional wisdom so much that we don’t feel the need to verify them.
“Did the riots in 2005 confirm the results of your study?”
Sébastien Roché:
Absolutely. In difficult inner city neighbourhoods, there is a complete range of sports and cultural activities available to the youngsters. This explosion, sudden and violent, proves that there is no link with the supply of socio-cultural activities. Even gymnasiums were burnt. But on the contrary we should not conclude that cutting sports subsidies would be a solution to the problem of juvenile delinquency.
“So sports do not set fire in suburbs but it is also wrong to thing that by developing sports activities we would bring peace to difficult inner cities?
Sébastien Roché:
To consider sports as a political tool to maintain peace or to socialize youth is a false lead. When a mayor wants to fight delinquency, such an approach will always be suggested by some people. But those people don’t know about the results of the rigorous researches that have been led on this subject. In fact, the ideal that social science can help in political decision process is not common in the French political culture. Behind all this, there is a market. Associations are not necessarily looking for profit, but they want to keep their permanent staff, to keep their visibility. So they sell projects keys in hand and many mayors think it’s a good idea because they are based on the idea that those fields need to be occupied.

This is understandable at the level of the mayors but not at the state level…
Sébastien Roché:
The president himself needs to present projects which seem to obtain full support from the people. The Ministry of the Interior too, though in a different fashion. They are going to look after projects supported by the people. When delinquency is concerned, they’ll go for simple and visible solutions: jails, sports, street surveillance… there is a political use of sport. Sport is made to have fun with friends, it’s healthy. But for some goals, the practice of sports is useless.
You do not precise the sports concerned by your work…
Sébastien Roché:
We have used a sample representative of the schoolchildren population aged between 13 and 19 years old. Leading sports for this population reflects the sports that are globally the most popular meaning that soccer comes first. But the study does not make the distinction between soccer, basket ball, or judo for example. Other surveys have shown that the most aggressive people tend to go after fight sports. Those sports are taught in clubs with the sincere idea that it improves self control. But those sports are, also sincerely, chosen by those people as a way to assert their physical superiority.
You also affirm that sporting events are the first place where the young will pick up a fight…
Sébastien Roché:
As well as sport can be a time of gathering, a time to party, practising sport can involve moments of high emotion that can push people to get their revenge after a humiliating loss or when they consider that the referees are responsible for their loss. This is the logic of the hooliganism: “They won but didn’t deserve it. Justice must be done”. For this young and alert population, it is the logic of the escalation of violence”.

Jean-Philippe Acensi, delegate and founder of the “Agence pour l’éducation par le sport” (Education through sport agency) pleads for more proper judgement.

Can we conclude that sport equals danger?
Jean-Philippe Acensi
Let’s stop angelism. Enough of the speech on how fabulous is sport and on its virtues, which today are largely ridiculed. True, handing out balls does not solve any problem. The survey indeed shows this. But beware of its conclusions. We should say yes to sport and in the meantime request a true and thorough social en educative evaluation of the programs. Which sports? With what kind of management? In France, the social and educative role of sports is threatened by rising communitarism and by the extreme pressure from the media focusing on what goes wrong.
That is…
Jean-Philippe Acensi
In difficult neighbourhoods, the practice of sports is essentially masculine, the pressure of communitarism is very strong and available sports mostly concern soccer and fighting sports. Aggravating circumstance: the management of those activities is very poor. How can you pass the values of sports if there is no proper management of the activities? Contrarily to French federation of judo, which is doing a remarkable job, soccer for example very little emphasizes the management. The observatory of violence set up by the ministry and the French federation of Soccer shows a disturbing increase of violence. The images of Zidane butting Materazzi during the World Cup final and the commentaries on this act let people think that it is legitimate to do yourself justice.
What needs to be done?
Jean-Philippe Acensi
Volunteers are essential but we need to professionalize the management of those activities. The sports club must be open to a network of professionals: education, local councils… Sport must be about playing together, showing solidarity and, most of all fraternity. You cannot limit sport to only knowing the rules. We need financial means but also authentic projects such as “fête le mur” supported by Yannick Noah or a “Hundred black belt” from the judo federation.”

Percentage of teenagers who committed a serious crime (car thief, burglary, racket, frequent drug or other criminal traffic, throwing stones, aggression resulting in medical intervention) according to the time spent practising sport either freely or in a club. Example: for a population of a hundred teenagers aged between 13 & 19 years old, with a weekly practise of sports between 7 to 8 hours, 24.5 percent claim to have committed at least on of the aforementioned crime.


Those two surveys (1999 & 2003) reveal that:
– Increasing the practice of sports never results in a contraction of juvenile delinquency. On the contrary, more practice results in more crime for certain categories of teenagers notably children from the working class;
– The practice of sports in a club or association compared to free practice has only a positive incidence on the delinquency rate on 13-14 years old teenagers and white collar children;
– Sporting events are the first identified place for fights well before schools, nightclubs or bars.
In 1999, 2288 teenagers between 13 and 19 years old from Grenoble and Saint Etienne have been interviewed by Sébastien Roché and his team. In 2003, 1614 teenagers from Grenoble and its outskirts have answered to the survey.
The “national education” communicated the list of schoolchildren in those areas while confidentiality was guaranteed. Each teenager had a questionnaire to fill only on the base of voluntary and anonymous declaration. The information gathered were thus deemed to be more accurate and sincere than those collected by the police. Crime (degradations, theft, aggressions…) were classified in the questionnaire under a number not under their denomination to facilitate the release of information during the interview.

JEAN-FRANCOIS LAMOUR, ministry of Youth and associative life, rises up against this survey: “it’s a witch hunt”
L’équipe: What do you think of this survey?
Jean-françois Lamour:
It is based on interviews not on facts. I am shocked by the contrast between the thin layer of statistical arguments and the peremptory reasons advanced to explain this supposed link between sports and juvenile delinquency. I am astounded by this witch hunt based on unproved assertions. The highlight of this survey consists of presenting sport as a tool box for teenagers to develop their ability to commit crime! Both educators and teenagers trained by them could rightly be upset by this conclusion.
L’équipe: What do you oppose to those results?
Jean-françois Lamour:
Well managed, the practice of a sport has a true social and educative value even if it is not always the most appropriate answer to juvenile delinquency. It allows youngsters, some of them have dropped out of school, to have a new insertion opportunity. That’s why I have developed the “Parcours Animation Sport” (PAS) which allows 2500 teenagers from difficult suburbs to train to become educators by benefiting from a personalized follow up and a first job. I didn’t see any future delinquents in those young people.
L’équipe: What else behind this PAS?
Jean-françois Lamour:
Let’s face the facts including the initiatives of those wonderful people who refuse fatalism. The project of “L’association sportive des Minguettes**”, in Vénissieux, and of the “Centre de recherché et d’éductaion par le sport”, led by Béatrice Clavel, is an example. Senior lecturer, she has developed a method with a solid scientific base which has been validated on the field. At their arrival in the club, 80 % of the teenagers had difficulties to learn the rules and to socialize. After a few months of soccer practice, with a qualified team of trainers and the right pedagogy, you do not find this same percentage. In the northern neighbourhoods of Le Havre, the association “l’émergence”, piloted by Allaoui Guenni, obtains positive results in terms of professional insertion thanks to the practice of fight sports. Local businesses have recruited 380 of those young people. There, we are far from one study which conclusions are disputable.

*Created in 1964, Inserm is a public institution with a scientific and technical vocation, under the dual auspices of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Research.

**Les Minguettes is a famous difficult neighbourhood near Lyon.