Sports Can Nurture Bad Behavior Among Teammates If Unchecked

Sports Can Nurture Bad Behavior Among Teammates If Unchecked
portrait of Dean Golembeski
By Dean Golembeski

Published on August 5, 2021

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College athletes can benefit from the sense of community their team provides. But the close relationships they form can also make it easier for antisocial behaviors to thrive and spread among teammates if coaches and administrators fail to provide adequate oversight.

That's the key finding of new research by Dr. Brianna L. Newland and Chris Imbrognp of New York University and Dr. Stacy Warner of East Carolina University, who coauthored a June 2 article in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Sports entitled, "The Role of Community in Athlete Transgressive Behavior."

"This study indicates that a close community can ... facilitate transgressive behavior. Therefore, it is important for coaches, administrators, and recreation supervisors to recognize these behaviors can negatively influence other team members, and should closely monitor the behaviors of athletes in these contexts," the article states.

The authors continue, "Whether it is on-the-field concerns, like performance enhancing drugs or tactics that physically harm the other team, or off-the-field violence or hazing, it is important for sport managers, coaches, and administrators to better understand the role that the community formed via sport contributes to or detracts from such transgressions."

“Sport, in and of itself, does not develop the positive traits and characteristics that we often (blindly) attribute to sport.”

In an email response to questions from BestColleges, Newland provided further comment on the role that coaches have in shaping behaviors.

"The values of the coach and program are critical for developing young athletes. Research has illustrated that sport, in and of itself, does not develop the positive traits and characteristics that we often (blindly) attribute to sport. It really is the values, teachings/mentoring, and program values that develop and support positive outcomes," she said.

She also noted that other school officials have critical oversight roles.

"As we've seen with the Larry Nassar abuse case, the leadership, who should have been monitoring, failed spectacularly. Michigan State was too concerned with protecting its own than protecting victims. So, all involved should have some type of review and oversight if we do want to effect real change," Newland said.

More Than 300 Athletes Participate in the Study

To gather data for their study, Newland, Warner, and Imbrogno emailed surveys to 2,000 Division I athletes and recreational players. A total of 389 surveys were completed, with about half coming from Division I athletes. The sports of those surveyed were not specified.

"This is a very protected group and many universities are not willing to allow access to athletes. So, while I would certainly love to invite all athletes to participate, the reality is that there are many challenges around reaching them. We were lucky to get support from several athletic departments," Newland said in her email.

The responses were evaluated using a scale that focused on such behaviors as hazing, fighting outside of sport, driving drunk, using recreational drugs, risk-taking, and defending teammates in a fight.

The results showed that while overall transgressive scores were low among those surveyed, male athletes proved to have higher levels of antisocial behavior than female athletes. Those engaged in intercollegiate sports also had higher scores for moral disengagement, the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and violence against partners compared to recreational athletes.

“There is research that has demonstrated that athletes have lower moral development than the general population, which leads to problematic behavior.”

"There is research that has demonstrated that athletes have lower moral development than the general population, which leads to problematic behavior," Newland explained. "Teammates tend to show collective moral disengagement, or the shared beliefs in justifying negative actions by others in the group."

The researchers offered some simple advice to ensure that college athletes act properly on and off the field. "Open discussion and communication around behavior expectations, and intolerance toward transgressive behavior are steps practitioners can help to mitigate such behaviors," they said.

The study also left researchers wanting to learn more, and not just about college athletes.

"I would like to extend this study to understand antisocial behavior among groups with tight communities like fraternities/sororities, high/low performing sport teams, and high/low performing individual sport athletes, and general population students to explore the role of community on behavior more deeply," Newland said.

Bad Behavior in College Sports Is Frequent and Protected

To illustrate how a community can nurture bad behavior, the researchers pointed to the case of Derrius Guice, a former running back for Louisiana State University (LSU).

Several women accused Guice of sexual harassment and sexual assault in 2016 while Guice was a student. The university failed, however, to investigate, call law enforcement, or follow the procedures for reporting as outlined by Title IX. Guice was allowed to complete his career at LSU and then head to the National Football League.

"The norms of the LSU football program and administration were to protect the athlete (and coaches), thereby condoning transgressive behavior," the researchers write.

Significantly, the university's handling of the sexual misconduct, prior to the time Guice was a student and after, has come back to haunt it.

There's a long list of athletes, coaches, team doctors, administrators, and support staff who acted improperly or broke the law and then often were shielded by their college.

On March 5, LSU released a copy of an internal investigation that was conducted in 2013 concerning then head football coach Les Miles. The report found that Miles had acted inappropriately around women and, as a consequence, was banned from being alone with female students. Despite the investigation, Miles kept his job for almost three more years until he was fired in 2016.

On April 6, LSU associate athletic director Sharon Lewis filed a $50 million Title IX lawsuit against the university. In her lawsuit, she claims she was a victim of retaliation because she protected female students from Miles.

Finally on April 26, a federal Title IX lawsuit was filed against LSU alleging sexual misconduct. A total of 10 women have now joined the suit as plaintiffs.

Unfortunately, LSU is not alone when it comes to supporting sports communities where the antisocial or criminal behavior of athletes, coaches, administrators, and others involved with athletics is tolerated.

In fact, there's a long list of athletes, coaches, team doctors, administrators, and support staff who acted improperly or broke the law and then often were shielded by their college. Penn State University, Baylor University, and Michigan State University are among those institutions that went out of their way to hide behavior involving sexual assault, domestic violence, hazing, the use of performancing-enhancing drugs, and more.

Institutional Responses Vary

The NCAA now requires its member institutions to provide sexual assault-prevention training for coaches and players. The Big 12 and SEC have adopted proposals that prevent conference schools from accepting transfer students with histories of domestic violence or sexual assault.

Indiana University also has adopted a similar policy. The University of Michigan, which faces four sexual assault lawsuits from former members of its football, hockey, and wrestling teams, announced a plan on July 15 that seeks to bolster its sexual-misconduct policies impacting all members of its campus community, not just athletes or their coaches.

Still, while some schools seek to change, other schools do accept athletes with troubled histories. That's because the NCAA has no rules stopping those guilty of sexual crimes or violent misconduct from participating in the programs it oversees. USA Today brought this issue to light in a December 2019 investigative article.


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