Team Psychology Can Contribute to Assaults

ByABC News
April 20, 2006, 4:12 PM

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: