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Does Domestic Violence Really Increase on Super Bowl Sunday?

Rob Carr/Getty Images

In the 1990s, reporters began circulating a chilling statistic: Super Bowl Sunday was the most dangerous day of the year for women in abusive relationships. Riled up watching the violence onscreen and often under the influence of alcohol, male football fans were said to unleash their aggression on their partners—leading to a spike in women’s calls to crisis hotlines and visits to the ER. The AP labelled Super Bowl Sunday the “Day of Dread.” The Boston Globe reported that women’s shelters were always inundated on the day of the big game. Just a few months ago, Mika Brzezinski told her Morning Joe audience that Super Bowl Sunday has the highest rate of domestic violence of the year.

Recent events have done little to dispel the idea that there’s a link between football and domestic violence—but this particular stat isn’t substantiated. In fact, the idea that Super Bowl Sunday has the highest rate of domestic violence of all the days in the year was debunked long ago. In 1993, Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle tracked down the researchers cited by the various reporters, and all of them said they had been misquoted or misunderstood. “I proved that all their assertions and demographics were fraudulent,” Ringle told me over email. “But the myth persists. It's harder to kill than a vampire. … It resurfaces every year at this time.”

And the question of whether Super Bowl Sunday is particularly risky for partners in abusive relationships continues to attract researchers’ attention. In fact, new research has suggested that there may be an increase in domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday, though it’s no greater than the increase on other holidays that revolve around drinking and spending time with family. 

In a paper published this past summer in the Journal of Family Psychology, a team of researchers led by Randy McCarthy analyzed data on nearly 25,000 incidents of “partner maltreatment” (defined as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect) involving members of the U.S. Armed Forces. On the week-to-week level, rates of domestic violence were highest on Saturdays and Sundays—a trend that didn’t surprise McCarthy and his colleagues, since those are the days couples tend to spend the most time together. For the same reason, they predicted an increase in domestic violence on holidays: As they expected, rates of domestic violence reach annual highs on New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July. But they also rise on New Year’s Eve, Memorial Day and, yes, Super Bowl Sunday.

In a 2007 paper in the journal Human Organization, Kathryn Ochs and Tara Robertson used another type of data—calls to a local women’s shelter—to examine temporal trends in domestic violence. They analyzed 2,387 calls to a shelter in Tuscaloosa, Alabama over a three-year period, supplementing the phone data by conducting interviews. Unlike McCarthy, Ochs and Robertson found no increase in calls during alcohol-centric holidays like the Super Bowl, New Year’s, and Independence Day. They did observe a significant increase in the summer months, which, they speculate, may be driven by mothers thinking about the upcoming school year and looking for a safe environment for their children.

Jane Shivas, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women, confirmed that the Super Bowl isn’t an especially busy time for shelters in New Jersey.  “In New Jersey, the Uniform Crime Reports from the NJ State Police have shown that, for at least the last two years, the highest number of reported domestic violence incidents occurred on Sundays, but do not support the belief about Super Bowl Sunday, specifically,” she says.

Domestic violence experts have been exasperated by this claim for over two decades. “When people make crazy statements like this, the credibility of the whole cause can go right out the window,” a psychologist who treats battered women told Ringle. “The reality is that domestic violence occurs every day in the US,” says Kenya Fairley, a director at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. “That’s what the conversation needs to be about.”