The Culture of Team Sports: How Did It Go So Wrong?

If you are anything like me, the recent events of Steubenville and of Rutgers are weighing heavily on your mind.  If you think the two aren’t related, I ask you reconsider.  

Same-sexed role model’s are the most influential in a young man’s life.  Coaches wield extraordinary influence over their team. They teach the athlete to be aggressive,  to “take” the other team.  They train them to win. Failure by the athlete to be aggressive or to win results in humiliation, shame and being ostracized.  The athletes value and worth is tied directly to aggression and winning.  Coaches drive this point home on a very regular basis.  The aggression on the field pays off with a huge and very pleasant adrenaline rush.  When their aggression pays off with a win, they are heros.  They are celebrated by everyone: adults, teachers, parents, peers, virtually everyone in the community including local law enforcement.   The athlete learns from an early age aggression is required, aggression feels good and aggression is rewarded.  Winning becomes an ingrained part of who they are.  

Sports aggression has been linked to sexual aggression.  The athlete is highly motivated to win.  He is seeking that rush of adrenaline and the reward of the win.  The athletes conquests are celebrated by his peers.  

“They develop a powerful subculture founded on aggression, privilege and the scapegoating of women. Friendship is expressed through hostile teasing one player calls "busting." And, according to Dr. O'Sullivan, "Sports fosters this super-masculine attitude where you connect aggression with sexuality. These men see themselves as more aggressive. I talked to one pro-basketball player who says that for years he raped women and didn't know it. Sex was only satisfying if it was a conquest."


The other component to consider is that not only is there a connection between aggression and sexuality, there is strong male bonding ritual in play here.  Athletes travel in packs, literally and figuratively.  They have bonding rituals that further incite and support the aggression.  They often live together at college and even at the Pro level to some extent.  The indoctrination into this strong male bonding and aggressive code of conduct often begins at an early age.  It is a lifestyle.  Frenzied, highly sexualized rituals among male athletes is well documented.  

You now have these packs of highly aggressive, highly sexualized, athletes going into a culture that celebrates them as heros.  The occurrence of gang rape on college campus by athletes is well documented.   

“Most psychologists believe that powerful male bonding is the essence of gang rape - that, in fact, the men are raping for one another. Peggy R. Sanday, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania anthropologist and author of Fraternity Gang Rape (NYU Press, 1990) explains: "They get a high off doing it with their 'brothers.'" The male bonding in these groups is so powerful and seductive that, says Dr. Walsh "one man leads and the others follow because they cannot break the male bonds." Those men present who don't rape often watch - sometimes even videotaping the event. And, explains Gail Abarbanel, L.C.S.W., director of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica Hospital in California, "There has never been a single case, in all the gang rapes we've seen, where one man tried to stop it." Even the voyeur with a stab of guilt never reports his friends. "That's the crux of group rape," explains Abarbanel. "It's more important to be part of the group that to be the person who does what's right."


Athletes are revered everywhere they go.  They are rewarded with praise, gifts, scholarships, huge salaries, lucrative endorsement deals, etc...  In their mind,  they are privileged and are entitled to anything they want.  By the time they are at the Pro level they are also very wealthy and a rape victim doesn’t stand a chance.  If charges do ever result in a trial, the rapist has access to a powerful legal team, publicist and support of fans.

The truth is most rape cases by athletes are never reported.  Of those that are reported, they often never result in charges.  Instead, the accuser is often shunned by the community!  Of the few cases that do result in charges, most do not end in conviction.  This is disproportionately high for athletes when compared to the population at large.  As a society, we support our athletes.  The athlete knows this.  It is a position of esteem and celebrity.  Aggression is an element with high reward and value.

“Researchers say a crime is often not even perceived by society as having occurred when an athlete, or group of athletes, is involved. ''The entire group will fall behind the accused and deny an offense has been committed,'' said Dr. Claire Walsh, who directs the sexual assault recovery program at the University of Florida. ''The entire community associated with this group will come to its defense. In every single case they will deny there was gang rape but that there was group sex.''


The idolization of athletes continues even after allegations of rape or sexual assault surface.  In 2006, during the infamous Duke men’s lacrosse team sexual assault scandal, Duke’s bookstore saw a three- or four-fold increase in lacrosse paraphernalia sales (Rovell).  Furthermore, when big stars are accused of rape or sexual assault and go on trial, their celebrity protects them.  Jurors might feel as though they “know” the famous defendant through years of watching him play sports; to them, the survivor pressing charges is, to them, a nobody (Weir and Brady).


There are many reports of student groups hosting fundraisers to cover the cost of defending athletes charged with rape!  

Right about now I can hear the skeptics crying foul and asking “What about the false allegations their celebrity status brings?”   To that I would say, do you really think a woman would ask to be shunned by her peers, her character and sexual history become fodder for gossip and used against her?  to become the target of the celebrated team?  to be subjected to a trial and to endure the scrutiny of a defense lawyer?  I think this graphic better answers the skeptics:  

Bottom line:  A coach can have tremendous impact on the individual athlete and the team as a whole.  When an athlete is the victim of abuse,  he carries with him the aggression of an athlete and the rage of an abuse victim.  Do you think an abusive, overly aggressive coach who repeatedly bullies, humiliates and degrades his team will have a positive effect on the athlete and the community?  

I have read and heard a lot about how coaches are driven to win. “Their livelihood depends on winning.”  Winning brings in money, status, supporters, the school/team.  Often, like the athletes themselves, bad behavior by the coaches is overlooked as long as they are winning.   I would ask the school to consider how scandals like Rutgers, Steubenville, Penn State, Duke, etc...impact the school?  How did those scandals impact your bottom line?   Don’t schools have a moral obligation to athletes to protect them from abusive coaches and to protect the population from aggressive athletes?  Clearly, Rutgers didn’t think so.  The head of the Athletic Department was only interested in “rehabilitating” the abusive coach.  Where was his concern for the victimized students?  The President of Rutgers admittedly couldn’t even be bothered to watch the video of the abuse!  Obviously he has zero concern for his students. 

The sad fact is the bad coaching that occurred at Rutgers or gang rape like that in Steubenville is nothing new.  This has been going on for a long time in the country.  (google it, you will be disgusted at how common these things are)  The negative impact of the current sports culture in this country is far dangerous to far too many.   I want to know what it will take to make it stop?  

**In the year 1995, male athletes at 10 representative United States colleges, about 3.3% of the total male population at these colleges, were responsible for 19% of the reported sexual assaults (Gallery of Dangerous Women).  What’s more, from 1980 to 1990, sports teams committed a large fraction of college gang rapes, second only to fraternities (Neimark).  Another, more recent study found that out of 168 sexual assault allegations against athletes from February of 1992 through December of 2003, 46 cases reached a plea agreement, 22 cases went to trial, and six athletes were convicted (Weir and Brady).  In percentage terms, 27.4% of the cases reached a plea agreement, 13.1% went to trial, and a measly 3.6% led to conviction.  The combined plea agreement and conviction percentages result in an overall conviction rate of 31%.  In 1998, the rape conviction rate in the 75 largest United States counties was 52%—over 20% higher than the conviction rate for athletes (Weird and Brady).  *Source:

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