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By Sarah Ford, InPsych feature writer

The darker side of humanity is under the spotlight in the ongoing sex abuse allegations against Australian football and rugby players. For psychologists it’s an opportunity to delve into diverse psychological and social issues, including sexual aggression, group behaviour and hero identification. Events in the sporting world reflect wider social and cultural practices, providing insights that apply far beyond the football field.

Professor Peter Terry, Chair of the APS College of Sport Psychologists and a professorial research fellow in the psychology department at the University of Southern Queensland, says the alleged abusers represent a deviant group within sport. “We are talking about a very small minority and they’re very extreme incidents”, Peter says. “But I do think they reflect certain subcultural differences within those (football and rugby) sports.” He says research shows that some people in contact sports have a dual moral code; one that they apply to life generally and another they apply to sport. This may involve their attitudes and behaviours to violence and aggression, such that they are passive off the field and aggressive on the field. “They see themselves as operating in a parallel world where the normal rules may not apply”, Peter says. “So you get these subcultural norms that are really quite different from societal norms.”

There is a stereotype that male athletes in contact sports are more sexually aggressive in their attitudes and their normative behaviour than other athletes and non-athletes, but recent research does not support this belief. Smith and Stewart (1998) examined sexual aggression, hostility towards women and rape-supportive attitudes in British male athletes. They compared findings for contact sport athletes, non-contact sport athletes and non-athletes and found no significant differences between groups. Results showed that, regardless of sport, men who were more competitive and win-oriented reported being more sexually aggressive. The authors suggested this reflected a general need to dominate others, on or off the field. Study participants were college students so these findings cannot be generalised to the populations that have been implicated in the sex abuse claims.

A range of factors contribute to the belief of some sport stars that they can live according to their own rules. Players are often placed on a pedestal and treated as special, Peter says. “They clearly are talented but the treatment extends beyond that to the point where they may believe that the normal rules don’t apply to them, which feeds their notion that they live in a parallel universe.” Some sporting groups foster the notion that players belong to an elite club, and being accepted in the club involves following behavioural codes that are socially unacceptable in mainstream society. As a state-level rugby union player in the UK during the 1970s, Peter saw at first hand some of the behaviours associated with this subculture, "There was a lot of drunkenness, nudity, sexism and racist songs", he says. "At the time, this was clearly a subculture that revelled in behaving badly." Peter believes that most sporting groups have now moved on, but it appears that change has eluded some. “Some of these sporting groups are the last bastions of male chauvinism, and while societal expectations have changed, the behavioural norms in those groups have lagged behind.” Take players who hold these attitudes and who are used to being treated differently to others, add sexually available female fans, fuel with alcohol, and it’s a dangerous cocktail. In such circumstances, when a female who appears to be a willing sexual participant says no, some players are not going to react well, Peter says. “I don’t see this (alleged abuse) as premeditated”, he says “It’s a situation that gets out of hand, but that is in no way meant to excuse the behaviour.”

Changing sexually aggressive behaviour

Changing the behaviour and attitudes of these players requires work at the individual and organisational level. Peter says that, because athletes are generally pragmatic, a behaviourist approach works well with individuals. Based on social exchange theory, when the perceived costs of an action outweigh the perceived gains, then the action is much less likely to occur. For example, dealing increasingly harsher penalties for violent sporting behaviour has changed practices, Peter says. “Violence in sport has been a long standing issue and you can see that the norms have been changed through some very severe punishments that have been handed down.” Administering heavy penalties for on-field violence, a far lesser crime compared to sexual aggression, starts to shift the culture towards punishing unacceptable behaviour generally.

Essentially the goal is to change the culture of sporting organisations from an implicit acceptance of this behaviour to zero tolerance. There are encouraging signs from some leading figures within football and rugby who have publicly expressed their disgust at allegations of players’ sexually aggressive behaviour, a message that may not have been so clearly stated to players in the past. Sports clubs are often likened to families and there is a tendency to deal with problems within the family. This breeds a culture in which problematic behaviour is covered up and players are unlikely to be confronted with the consequences of their behaviour, reinforcing a sense that they are above the law.

Education programs that address some psychosocial aspects of being an elite athlete, including dealing with fans and the media, have been run at various football and rugby league clubs. But Peter says many clubs continue to spend far more money and time developing the physical capabilities of players than on preparing them for the psychological challenges they may face. This occurs despite the recognition within sport that psychological factors are key influences in determining a player’s success. When young football or rugby players are recruited, often some of their education is sacrificed and they are suddenly treated as special and paid a lot of money, Peter says. “It’s hardly surprising that some of them go off the rails.”

One positive implication of these sex abuse allegations is that clubs are increasing efforts to address players’ psychological and social concerns. For some time the national and state Institutes of Sport have placed more emphasis on balancing the demands of sport with career and education. Peter says this approach, along with the work of psychologists, aims to help young athletes find their way through life’s challenges. “It’s hard enough for any adolescent to work out what’s right and wrong”, he says. “When you take people out of their support network, put them in this high pressure environment where they are expected to perform, they work hard and they play hard - and they play inappropriately sometimes.” That’s where the support is required. “The Institutes of Sport take this seriously, but some of the professional clubs don’t place as much emphasis on it, and the level of support is not continued once the player is in the public eye.”

Sportspeople as role models

Given the high esteem in which sports stars are held by Australian society and the media, athletes are often held up as social role models. Young people, who are in the process of forming their own identity, look to such “heroes” for guidance on how to behave. Various North American studies show that sport heroes are minor yet significant role models for young people, particularly males (Wann, Melnick, Russell & Pease, 2001). Australian children are also likely to identify with sport heroes, given the nation’s adoration of sporting icons. Based on observational learning, watching a sport star’s behaviour and the consequences of that behaviour can affect a fan’s choice to adopt or reject the star as a role model (Wann et al, 2001). For example, youngsters note if aggressive play helps athletes attain their goals, and if this is met with approval or disapproval. Behaviour that is rewarded is more likely to be imitated than that which isn’t, but even behaviour that is punished can still be learned, according to (Wann et al, 2001). Young people who learn these disapproved behaviours may avoid enacting them in the presence of disapproving agents, such as parents and coaches, but will imitate the hero’s negative actions when those people are absent.

There is scant evidence on the degree to which sporting heroes’ negative behaviour influences fan behaviour. Wann researched the relationship between sport fandom and adult fans’ use of alcohol (1998a) and tobacco (1998b) in the USA. With athletes regularly portrayed as high consumers of alcohol and tobacco, and sport teams often being sponsored by, and strongly endorsing, such products, it was expected that fans would consume more of these substances than non-fans. However, the author found no association between sport fandom and alcohol and tobacco consumption.

Ms Roslyn Webb, a clinical psychologist and adolescent psychotherapist, and a lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, says that in the adolescent population, vulnerable young people are more likely to be influenced by the sexually aggressive behaviour of sports heroes. Most young people are able to determine what is right or wrong in the behaviour of admired sports personalities, and would not emulate abusive behaviours in order to be like them. Vulnerability develops from poor early childhood experiences, such as being undervalued and abused, such that children in these circumstances enter adolescence lacking a strong sense of self as an individual and a sexual being. Roslyn says that those who are vulnerable are more likely to look for guidance from stars, such as sporting heroes. This is particularly the case for adolescent males, who are seeking guidelines on masculinity, male sexual behaviour and how to appear powerful. In comparison, young females are vulnerable to being victims of sexual abuse if, for example, they have a history of abuse and have observed abusive treatment of other female role models, especially their mothers. Adolescents are self-conscious about their developing bodies, and it is a critical time for the formation of body image and sexual identity. Roslyn says that if young people experience shame about their bodies or were abused “it will have an enormous influence on how they deal with their body and how they see whoever they idolise as dealing with other people’s bodies.”

“If a young girl has low self esteem, she might latch on to some sporting hero to provide a sense of kudos”, Roslyn says. “It’s a way to impress others and delude herself that she is important.” In situations where a girl wants to escape, such as if she thought she was going home with one team member and finds half the team there, sometimes she is physically unable to leave and other times she might lack the internal strength to say “no”. “Some girls have such a sense of self loathing or disgust that they just go along with anything”, Roslyn says. “They feel they deserve to be treated like dirt.”

Sport stars: they’re only human

Many sporting heroes are also adolescents, particularly with the recent prolonging of adolescence into the early 20s. Roslyn says that sports stars can positively inspire young people in areas such as fitness, health, commitment and determination towards reaching goals. However, it is likely that the males involved in these sex abuse allegations are struggling with problems similar to those of other vulnerable young people. “They themselves are troubled and often it’s around the same issues, such as masculinity, potency, needing to go along with the group and be accepted”, she says. “They do not have the strength in themselves and the capacity to contravene the group; they might be seen as weak or possibly unmasculine or gay.”

Young people would benefit from the message that anyone can be struggling and vulnerable, even these stars. Conveying this message involves ensuring that young people see there are appropriate legal, moral and ethical consequences for abusive behaviour, as well as showing that these struggles are part of the human experience and there is an opportunity for understanding and working out problems through accessing appropriate psychological help. Roslyn says the media, sport organisations and team mates have a responsibility to young people to show that they respond appropriately to player’s problems by not hiding them, and not totally vilifying players at the same time. For example, last month Collingwood Football Club fined its entire playing squad following a night of alcohol-fuelled unruly behaviour, and enrolled some players in alcohol education programs. “It is important that adolescents see that the parent organisation doesn’t try to cover up or minimise things, but that there is something deeper going on”, she says. “It’s the recognition that a struggle is universal and there is no such thing as a super human being who does everything right.”


Smith, D., & Stewart, S. (2003). Sexual aggression and sports participation. Journal of Sport Behavior, 26, 384-395.
Wann, D. L. (1998a). A preliminary investigation of the relationship between alcohol use and sport fandom. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 26, 287-290.
Wann, D. L. (1998b). Tobacco use and sport fandom. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 86, 878.
Wann, D. L., Melnick, M. J., Russell, G. W., & Pease, D. G. (2001). Sport fans: The psychology and social impact of spectators. New York, NY: Routledge.