Additional Resources:

Practice Profile

Sports Participation and Juvenile Delinquency

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:

No Effects - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types

Practice Description

Practice Goals/Activities
Participation in sports activities is very popular among adolescents. In fact, the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health showed that among 12- to 17-year-olds nationwide, 78.9 percent were involved in organized activities, including sports lessons or a sports team (Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative n.d.). However, there is no universally accepted definition of sport. One popular definition describes a sport as “a human activity capable of achieving a result requiring physical exertion and/or physical skill which, by its nature and organization is competitive and is generally accepted as being a sport” (Eime et al. 2013, 100). As such, sports may include team and individual activities; contact and noncontact activities; and activities that take place in and out of school. Examples include but are not limited to football, baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, soccer, swimming, and cheerleading. Although they rely less on the physical skills of the participant, activities such as horse racing and chess can also be included in this definition. Thus, while the specific activities included within this general construct may vary greatly from sport to sport, the two basic components of a sporting activity include 1) physical exertion and/or skill, and 2) an element of competition.

Practice Theory
There are several theories that underlie the idea of a relationship between adolescents’ participation in sports and juvenile delinquency. Hirschi’s social bond theory (1969) suggests that individuals with strong bonds to society are less likely to engage in criminal or delinquent acts, because they could jeopardize losing those bonds. According to four central elements of the theory, participating in sports can increase youth’s 1) attachment to significant others, such as their teammates and coaches; 2) commitment to conventional activities, which can help them refrain from delinquent acts so they will not jeopardize the chance to participate; 3) belief in society’s values, because similar rules, norms, and values are being practiced in sports; and 4) involvement in sports, which gives them less time to engage in delinquency (Spruit et al. 2016).

Routine activities theory (Cohen and Felson 1979), which assumes that crime and delinquency occur when there are opportunities, would also suggest that youth will not engage in delinquency because participating in sports would reduce their time and opportunities to engage in delinquent acts (Spruit et al. 2016).

Social-learning theory (Bandura 1977) asserts that behavior is learned through observing and imitating the behavior of others (Gardner, Roth, and Brooks-Gunn 2009). Thus, adolescents participating in sports could be influenced by the behaviors of their teammates (i.e., other adolescents) or by adults (i.e., coaches and other support staff).

Meta-Analysis Outcomes

top border
No Effects - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types
Overall, Spruit and colleagues (2016) found participating in sports had no statistically significant effect on juvenile delinquency.
bottom border

Meta-Analysis Methodology

top border
Meta-Analysis Snapshot
 Literature Coverage DatesNumber of StudiesNumber of Study Participants
Meta-Analysis 11977 - 201451132366

Meta-Analysis 1
Spruit and colleagues (2016) conducted a meta-analysis to examine whether there was a relationship between sports participation and juvenile delinquency. Juvenile delinquency was operationalized as criminal behavior (i.e., violation of the law) by a minor, outside the sports context. This meta-analysis excluded other types of deviant behaviors such as behavioral problems, status offenses, and antisocial behavior (i.e., substance use or aggression).

To be included, studies had to report a relationship between sports participation and juvenile delinquency that allowed for calculation of an effect size. The studies had to include a sample where the mean age was between 12 and 18. The studies had to include both athlete and nonathlete samples and both delinquent and nondelinquent samples or samples of the general population of adolescents. Finally, the variables of interest had to be measured on the individual level.

A comprehensive search of nine electronic databases (including ScienceDirect, Web of Knowledge, Ovid, Picarta, Wiley, Google Scholar, ProQuest, EBSCOhost, and Narcis) for studies published before October 2015 was conducted. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses databases were also searched for unpublished studies. Reference sections of review studies on leisure participation and behavioral problems, and publication lists of some experts on sports and antisocial behavior, were also checked.

The initial search resulted in 414 articles, which also contained review and qualitative studies. Ultimately, a total of 51 studies met the inclusion criteria, which included 48 independent samples, 431 effect sizes, and 132,366 participants.

Studies were coded as either cross-sectional (i.e., measured the relationship between sports participation and juvenile delinquency at one point in time) or longitudinal (i.e., took the developmental aspect of the relationship between sports participation and juvenile delinquency into account). Of the eligible studies, 42 were cross-sectional, 8 were longitudinal, and 1 was mixed.

Only 29 studies reported information on race/ethnicity; of those studies, the percentage of minority youths ranged from 0 to 100 percent. Almost all studies reported on gender. Four studies included only boys, two studies included only girls, and the rest included both genders. No other demographic information on the sample was provided

The effect sizes were calculated and transformed into correlation coefficient r (where a positive correlation would indicate that athletes are more delinquent than nonathletes, and a negative correlation would indicate that athletes are less delinquent than nonathletes). It should be noted that the analysis included multiple effect sizes per study. To deal with the interdependency of effect sizes, the authors employed a three-level random effects model to account for three levels of variance, including the sampling variance for each effect size (level 1), the variance between effect sizes within a study (level 2), and the variance between the studies (level 3).
bottom border


top border
There is no cost information available for this practice.
bottom border

Evidence-Base (Meta-Analyses Reviewed)

top border
These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Meta-Analysis 1
Spruit, Anouk, Eveline van Vugt, Claudia van der Put, Trudy van der Stouwe, and Geert-Jan Stams. 2016. “Sports Participation and Juvenile Delinquency: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 45:655–71.
bottom border

Additional References

top border
These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Bandura, Albert. 1977. Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Cohen, Lawrence E., and Marcus Felson. 1979. “Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach.” American Sociological Review 44:588–608.

Eime, Rochelle M., Janet A. Young, Jack T. Harvey, Melanie J. Charity, and Warren R. Payne. 2013. “A Systematic Review of the Psychological Benefits of Participation in Sport for Children and Adolescents: Informing Development of a Conceptual Model of Health Through Sport.” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 10:98–119.

Gardner, Margo, Jodie Roth, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn. 2009. “Sports Participation and Juvenile Delinquency: The Role of the Peer Context Among Adolescent Boys and Girls with Varied Histories of Problem Behavior.” Developmental Psychology 45(2):341–53.

Hirschi, Travis. 1969. Causes of Delinquency. Berkley, Calif.: University of California Press.
bottom border

Practice Snapshot

Age: 12 - 18

Gender: Both

Race/Ethnicity: Other, White

Settings: Other Community Setting, School

Practice Type: Afterschool/Recreation

Unit of Analysis: Persons