Team Psychology Can Contribute to Assaults


April 20, 2006 — -- Athletes and officials at Duke University who find themselves embroiled in that lacrosse team's sexual assault scandal have plenty of company.

In recent years, colleges across the country have found themselves caught in several high profile cases of alleged rape or sexual assault by one or more members of a sports team.

To be sure, the vast majority of college athletes are never accused of any wrongdoing, and many observers describe sports as a potent character-building experience. But critics claim there are too many reports of serious misconduct by student athletes.

Details vary from one situation to the next, but many critics see the powerful influence that a team has over individual morals as a common theme running through each case. Many of these episodes of sexual assault don't involve individual aggressors, but small bands of athletes acting as a group.

Mitch Abrams, a sports psychologist and consultant, argued that groups like college-level sports teams often have their own identities, beliefs and codes. This leads to what he called "groupthink," where individual initiative is quashed by the collective values of the group.

"There's a group dynamic that suppresses the individual point-of-view," Abrams said. "There has to be increased team identity." But left unchecked, he said, these group values can easily override a young person's sense of right and wrong.

"You might have a bunch of guys who have a great [individual] moral code," Abrams said. "But inside a culture where there's groupthink that supports exploitation of women, mass consumption of alcohol that will impair judgment, and a feeling that they're above the law -- there will be members who engage in bad behavior."

Consider the following cases:

These cases represent only a handful of recent examples; many rapes and sexual assaults are never reported.

Abrams explains there's a reason each of these incidents involve athletes in team sports. "There are differences between team sports and individual sports," he said. In sports like tennis and swimming, individual achievement is highlighted.

But in tightly-knit groups where aggressive tendencies are not held in check, the social behaviors that help society to function are dismissed. "There's a sociopathic thread that goes through their groupthink," Abrams said.

Abrams is quick to dismiss the idea that contact sports like football or hockey are more likely to breed rapists than other sports.

"Contact sports that reinforce aggressive behavior are where these attacks are more likely to occur? I don't buy it," he said. "Think about how many football teams there are in this country. Then think about how often you hear about this."

In almost all cases involving sexual assault by college athletes, alcohol and drug use is cited as a contributing factor. The controls that keep young athletes in line -- many of whom are teenagers -- tend to blur after a night of drinking.

Court testimonies also indicate that many rape and assault victims are under the influence of alcohol during the time of their attacks.

"It can be a huge contributing factor," Abrams said. "If you take a group of people who are sex hungry to begin with, where there's a groupthink dynamic, then you add alcohol, you've got instant chaos."

Another factor is the sense of entitlement that some of these athletes feel is their birthright. In extreme cases, it can lead to sociopathic behavior.

"They're very narcissistic and it's all about them," Abrams said. "They don't care about the law and, most importantly, they never think they're going to get caught. If you have people who are rich and feel entitled, they feel they can afford the top lawyers and can get off."

In their sense of distinction and us-against-them mentality, athletes may not be much different from other groups, or from society at large.

"I doubt there's any group that you can find without a few individuals that engage in bad behavior," said Abrams. "Those same factors also occur in fraternity situations."

And when they're under scrutiny, groups tend to react the same way. "You see that with cops – you get the blue wall of silence. Groups that have some cohesion will give you the blue wall of silence. Circling the wagons is not a pathological thing to do," Abrams said.

"These bad things happen in our society and there's no reason to believe that sports would be immune," he added.