The University of Minnesota, and the Toxic Influences that Fuel Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Sports
By Sheilla Dingus
December 21, 2016
I recently had the opportunity to speak at length with Dr. Mitch Abrams, regarding the problems of domestic violence and sexual assault in sports.
Dr. Abrams has consulted with thousands of athletes over the past 22 years and has developed programs for athletic organizations at all levels – youth through professional. He is the Founder and President of Learned Excellence for Athletes – his sport psychology consulting company is located in New Jersey. As a forensic psychologist, he is also an expert in risk assessment, an area which is highly under-utilized, but necessary, if we are to stem acts of aggression in athletics, and even as a society.
His book, Anger Management in Sport, is the only one on the market that not only describes the problem of violence in sport, but provides the “How-To” of teaching athletes, coaches & parents to “adjust the flame” so as to use their anger to help performance, rather than engaging in behavior that they will regret.
Initially I conducted our interview as part of my research into a trilogy about domestic violence and sexual assault in sports. Part I deals with domestic violence, and Part II sexual assault. Part III is a discussion of actionable solutions.
Dr. Abrams offered many insights in this regard that space didn’t permit in the original series, so in light of yet another violent case in the news, the Joe Mixon, assault, I spoke with him again and wanted to share his thoughts in this regard along with excerpts of the original interview in order that we might have a better understanding of factors that contribute to the problem and what can be done.
We first discussed the root of the problem, first in society and how it flows into the world of athletics. Today’s segment focuses primarily on collegiate athletics (hint: expect a follow up.)
SHEILLA: I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak with you on this important topic, Dr. Abrams. To start off, could you elaborate a bit on what you feel fuels the problems of domestic abuse and sexual assault, especially in the athletic arena?
DR. ABRAMS: Well, there’s a couple of pieces to the puzzle. One of them is that most of the time boys are being taught, in my opinion, incorrectly what it means to be a man. And it’s probably not clear any more than in the athlete culture because in the athlete culture, whether you’re male or female, the goal is to hide your emotions, right? So there’s two issues. One is the issue of not owning your emotions, not being real in who you are and valuing your relationships and communicating that; and the other thing is the idea that women are there for the taking, that they’re objectified and not to be respected.
And so, if you put the two together, left unchecked, you have a lot of boys who think that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do in order to become a man and have sexual conquests. And, ironically, in my experience, it’s the exact opposite; meaning that if you have to objectify women, whether it’s coercing people into sex, paying for sex, drugging them into sex, that’s not a sign of being a man. That’s pathetic and desperate.
In fact, if you take a look at research of what are the three things that people find most attractive, male or female, if you take physical attractiveness out of the equation, like if you’re in a club and there’s not a lot of talking, physical attractiveness is going to open or close the door. But what we know, I mean, everyone has had this experience when they looked at someone who is real attractive, and the more you talk to them the less attractive they become. So the things people rate as most important when you talk about attractiveness for a potential partner, number one is always confidence. Confidence, intelligence, sense of humor.
And so, masculinity for men, to me, is about teaching them how to be really confident. Self-esteem problems in our society are an epidemic. When I’m doing these presentations, sometimes I’ll ask people, especially young folks, “Who has more problems with self esteem, men or women or boys or girls?” And most people inherently think girls because our society bombards females with imagery of “you have to look this way in order to be acceptable, you’re going to stink at math and science, and you’re supposed to be okay with accepting 70 percent of male salaries.”
It’s nonsense. But what do girls do? Girls wind up [with] social intelligence from the time they’re very young, so when they’re involved in play, it’s collaborative play. And they’re also taught that it’s okay to ask for help. So when girls struggle, they’re more likely to ask for help, more likely to go to therapy, more likely to improve things. Many girls, despite the expectations of low self-esteem, increase their confidence and competence, by increasing their social intelligence.
In fact, if you take a look at when boy/girl interactions become most interesting , I guess, it’s around fifth or sixth grade when girls have gone through that growth spurt and guys are kind of feeling less than because they’re still shorter, and the girls have the social intelligence . And if everything just stopped there, women would inherit the world.
Unfortunately, too many girls, in my opinion, start believing this myth that their identity is going to be defined or evaluated based on the quality of the boy that they’re with. And if not for that, if and when girls focus more about bettering themselves and getting where they want to go, then they’ll be in a much better position to be successful, than to identify themselves based on the partner that they’re with.
Now, if you take a look at the flip side of it, my point is society tries to demand girls have low self esteem, and many girls wind up, especially in this day and age, and I think sports helps, but things are on the rebound, with the expectation that women are going to go and pick their place in society on their other than merits. There is still a lot of work to do, but it is improving I think.
Boys, on the other hand, we aren’t even allowed to talk about boys having low self esteem … they joke about, you know, if a guy gets lost he’ll never ask for directions. I think that comes down from the very beginning that when boys have low self esteem or they don’t know what to do or they feel confused, they’re not allowed to ask.
So what do boys do in response to that? They stick out their chest and try to fool the world that they’re more confident than they are. “I had sex with eight women today.” You’re seven years old. You don’t even know where your penis is yet. So what happens is boys try to stick out their chest and try to fool the world that they’re confident. Not really confident. It’s really self-esteem problems that are thrown under the covers. Instead, what we want boys to be able to do is to own what they don’t know, own what they’re scared of, be respectful of themselves because a lot of the times when men engage in domestic violence and sexual violence it’s the projection outwards of their own insecurities. If you’re a confident man or confident woman, for that matter, you’ll be able to get partners. You’ll be able to have meaningful relationships. Using power and coercion to get what you want proves the exact opposite: That you’re not a confident man; that you’re not a man with healthy masculinity as I would define it, and I think as most people would define it.
That is why when we’re talking about improving masculinity, it’s about having these conversations with boys and young men about what it really means to value the people in their lives. And it’s very difficult to do that if you don’t value yourself first.
And so, we have to create an environment for boys and young men where they can admit that they’re confused, that they can get help when they ask for it . Then we have to have better role models. This is kind of the secret of sports that people don’t want to talk about. There have been people complaining that athletes were more violent than non-athletes, even though there’s no research to prove this. . .but nobody talks about all the kids that were saved by sports or the single-parent household where they’re starving for a male role model, and the coach can take that role.
Now, unfortunately, if you have a coach that has, you know, pathological or toxic masculinity, then they’re going to transmit that to the boys as well. And so, that’s why I’ve said this quite a bit, that of course women have a voice in this, women have been experiencing oppression and subjugation by men for a long time. But when women speak to boys and young men, they hear it as male bashing, so they just close them out. They have to learn this from men.
SHEILLA: I was reading your Psychology Today piece, and I noticed that. And it’s like, “Wow, that’s something that I really hadn’t thought about!” But when women speak about it, they come across as preachy, I guess.
DR. ABRAMS: Sometimes. I think it has more to do with the receptivity of the boys than it has to do with the effectiveness of the women. I’ve spoken to women and presented with women that know the material as well as me, if not better. And the truth is some women are going to be able to connect with certain crowds better than some men. But it’s an obstacle that makes it difficult for women to talk about this. I mean, don’t get me wrong, and when you hear an advocate tell their story, especially a survivor of assault, a lot of eyes go up. Boys did not previously consider those as real. The problem is the defensive structure is such that, oh, it’s just one case; well, that doesn’t happen here. And so, what we want to be able to do is to teach young men with as many different modalities as possible. . . The “No More” commercials drove me absolutely nuts. If I see one more person standing on TV talking about how hard it is to talk about this. . . it’s a lot harder to not talk about this!
And I think there are several reasons why we haven’t seen a reduction in this problem over the years. I can talk about that as well, but I think that what really needs to change is we need more men to come to the table
SHEILLA: That makes a lot of sense. Talking about how this is hard to talk about, actually, I think in some ways it is, but that makes it even more important for us to talk about it. I’m a rape survivor, and I was silent for years because of the attitudes of society.
DR. ABRAMS: Yes. It is so hard to get a rape prosecution, it is disgusting. Because besides the rape, that’s not traumatizing enough? Then, there’s the rape kit, retraumatization again. And then you have to go tell your story to somebody else. And then the lawmakers have come up with shield laws that have really been rather powerless in protecting women – the idea that anything you’ve done in the past is inadmissible in a proceeding. Lawyers have just skewered it. It’s kind of like, she slept with six different guys, objection, that’s a violation of the rape shield law, okay, please strike it from the record, even though the jury has just heard it.
DR. ABRAMS: So what happens is that there are so many obstacles for women to come forward. I’ve talked about Title IX being maybe a deal breaker because what happens is that for many women the negatives outweigh the positives to come forward. They’re going to be shamed. They’re going to be told it’s their fault. And society is unbelievable. Interestingly enough, I’ve experienced the idea, there’s this belief that men are going to be the ones that shame the women and, yes, that happens, but I’ve been surprised about how often I’ve seen women shame women as well. And so, there’s so many obstacles.
SHEILLA: Some serious allegations of sexual assault have surfaced in the University of Minnesota. How would you evaluate the situation?
DR. ABRAMS: I read the report. I have read tons of reports through my career and I am always suspicious that what I read is a version of the truth. That report, however, was pretty damning. There was a lot of graphic detail that many people want to believe is fiction, but it happens…often. The factors that stand out were a woman that was drinking earlier in the evening (bringing into questions about capacity to consent), her stating that she repeated on several occasions that she did not want the sexual activity to continue, that the first two people she was engaged in a sexual act with, she seemed ambivalent but also continued to “get it over with” and prevent further demands, and then several other athletes coming and going into the room with a herd mentality that reflected their belief or intention for many of them having sex with her. The texts in the report related misogyny that was rampant and saw the victim as simply a vehicle for their needs to be met. There also seemed to be little appreciation for how terrifying it is for a woman in that situation who feels like she cannot escape. Now, keep in mind that this was not a criminal report and the criminal process didn’t come to the conclusions that the school’s report did. The Forcible Compulsion statute that is present in New York, one could argue, was depicted in this case.
SHEILLA: How would you approach teaching these athletes about consent, and then how would you go about discouraging the mindset that fueled the assault?
DR. ABRAMS: Like I have said, you need to completely change the prevention models. You tell me? How many different athletes had the opportunity to be the “BYSTANDER” to intervene and didn’t? From the president to the AD to the coach, they need to give the message that any sexual indiscretions will not be tolerated. That we have an expectation that our athletes will be MEN and we will teach them what that means. That brings it back to the Toxic Masculinity work I talked about earlier. My program spends a lot of time on the different aspects of consent. Under what conditions is a victim unable to give consent? Underage. Under the influence. Unconscious. Mentally Ill. Afraid…. Athletes simply don’t know and this is juxtaposed with their peers egging them on…even a recruit was encouraged to engage with the victim. Reading that transcript, it is all too familiar. Something that I sometimes do to rattle the athletes is draw out their homophobia. Often, they try to present as Uber-men…ultra-heterosexual…but if they don’t see the victim as a woman…as a human…aren’t they simply ten guys have sex together…and there happens to be a woman there? This tends to rile them up…and then it leads to an interesting conversation. I also talk about what prison is like. How the victim, the perpetrator and the school’s future changes after these types of incidents. Drug and alcohol education. Treatment options. Consent having to be affirmatively obtained. No confusion. Did you get her Yes? If you’re not sure, the answer is no. And again, it always starts and ends with a conversation about what it means to be a man. These problems have to be dealt with systemically…with a culture shift and ongoing program. Not one-time shotgun presentations.
SHEILLA: What advice would you give to women who find themselves in this type of situation?
DR. ABRAMS: That is so much harder to answer than people realize because almost any recommendation makes it sound like they could have or should have avoided getting into that situation. Are there times when people are intoxicated or sexually aggressive and their are cues to identify and steer clear of? Yes. Are there also times that there are no signs and someone they think they can trust, turns out to be the perpetrator? Absolutely. More often than not in fact. When you ask, what advice would you give to women who find themselves in this situation, do you mean during the assault or after it? During the assault, what advice can anyone give…if they are incapacitated physically or under the influence and cannot defend themselves, or afraid they will be hurt or killed…? I have heard every answer – from “fight for your life” to “just try to survive it” and everything in between.
I think the best advice is for anyone that is in danger of being victimized for them to firmly and clearly communicate what they do not want to do. Because there are some men who believe “no means yes” and are all too quick to believe that they know what she really wants, I think it is important for the woman to try to clarify any ambivalence. “No. I don’t want to do that. Stop.” And it does not matter if they had consensual sex in the past. It doesn’t matter what her reputation may be. It all boils down to a very simple thing, especially since consent is based on this moment in time, communicate clearly what you don’t want. Now if you were talking about what advice I give women after the fact, there is still a lot of variability. First, you don’t have to carry this by yourself. Get the help and support that you need. There is the concern that people may not believe you. There will some people who tell you how you should feel or what you should do, but the treatment of any trauma starts with empowerment. It is important to not feel alone. Talk to professionals. Whether they are those at the hospital or the counseling center or wherever you go to speak with someone who has helped people in this situation. Talking with friends is often the first step that people take. I think it is also worth discussing the decision of whether or not the individual wants to report what happened. This is, unfortunately, a time-sensitive decision in that, if the victim wants to increase the likelihood of a prosecution (and many don’t care about that at all), the rape kit and the examination by the SANE nurse are often critical to securing the biological evidence that will assist the prosecution. It doesn’t mean that the assault cannot be reported later, but the longer the wait, the less physical evidence, the more it becomes a he-say/she-say situation.
As I’m talking though…there is really so much to discuss…I’m not sure where to end…these situations are so complicated…the wrongness of the behavior is not…but the advice to give is going to be situational dependent and based upon what the victim is feeling and thinking and wanting to do.
SHEILLA: Do you feel the legal system makes it too difficult to prosecute these types of cases, and if so, what suggestions would you make in that regard?
DR. ABRAMS: At times. There are certainly cases that the police have fumbled and there have been problems with investigations, but I think the more common problem is that it doesn’t get to the law enforcement’s hands. I think there are times that these incidents are reported up the chain of command of the school and, unfortunately, they are more interested in “protecting the brand” than human rights.
There’s the issue that Title IX lawsuits – we haven’t see one really win big yet. There have been a couple of settlements, and they’re growing, that are in the hundreds of thousands or low millions, but there’s going to be a groundbreaking lawsuit that’s in the tens or hundreds of millions, I’m telling you. And when that happens, there’s going to be a lot of silent victims that are going to come forward and want their pound of flesh, for good reason. And schools are going to close. They’re not going to be able to financially afford this. It will bankrupt a lot of schools, especially the smaller ones. To not put better programs in place, including all of the things I’m talking about, is the epitome of poor risk management.
One recommendation that i have offered is to do away with campus security and have all universities have their own police force, with sworn law enforcement who are trained to investigate sex crimes and report to a prosecutor’s office, not the Dean of Students. That is not to say that this is foolproof as there have been cases where there has been favoritism (paired with poor investigations) by law enforcement – that was the accusation made in the Florida State – Jameis Winston case…but I still would rather gamble on law enforcement than the school’s aimed at protecting themselves. Like I said, when Title IX lands a huge payout, a lot is going to change.
SHEILLA: Let’s talk a little about Joe Mixon. A video was recently released, showing the University of Oklahoma football player delivering a knock-out punch to a young woman. Clearly the video shows this was a bi-directional confrontation, yet there’s no excuse for striking the woman in the manner in which he did. First of all, how would you evaluate the university’s handling of the situation?
DR. ABRAMS: Unfortunately, I believe the answer, as usual. is found if you consider financial issues. If a university wanted to make a statement about the intolerance of violence…especially violence against women, when they saw that footage, they would have expelled him. Of course, this is complicated though right? If he were a lesser talented athlete in a lower revenue-producing sport, would he have been expelled? I think he would have been. However, schools invest a lot of money in athletes, so they are hesitant to part with a valuable commodity (and yes, unfortunately I think a lot of sports sees the athletes as commodities more than as people), especially when they know that if they cut him, someone else would be happy to scoop him up. If the school were held financially responsible for that athlete’s behavior, considering they wouldn’t be there if not for their football scholarship, would they still be so supportive and tolerant. If a Title IX lawsuit threatened the financial bottom line of the university, would they handle it differently? I would guess the answer is yes.
SHEILLA: Just to clarify; the university did suspend him for a season, as I understand it. Do you feel that was too light a punishment, especially since you noted that if he was expelled someone else would have picked him up?
DR. ABRAMS: Punishment, by definition, is to decrease the likelihood of a behavior to happen again. Given his public behavior, I don’t think the punishment was effective. He has not been in trouble with violence as of yet, but his non-chalance and dismissal, I think are poor prognostic signs. Schools have to do what they feel is right…to insure that all of their students (and athletes) represent the morals the university claims to value. The fact that others may pick him up? To me, if you try to help someone and it doesn’t work, sometime you cut your losses…otherwise you’re throwing good money after bad money. The only way to determine if a punishment works is by it’s outcome. But again, it isn’t just about punishment….it’s about what else you have to help the athlete to change…
With all of that said, do I think that expelling athletes from school for this type of behavior, alone, will change the problem? Actually, no. I think that will lead to more angry athletes being violent OFF of college campuses. We see the same thing in prison. If all we do is punish, and not assess needs and provide treatment, there will be more victims. So then, what is the correct punishment? I’m not sure. I would like to know what was done and the details that are not publicly available before I would give an opinion. But…as I’ve said before, I would start with a risk assessment and then develop a treatment program tailored to Mixon’s specific issues. The things that stood out to me the most in that clip were that a. Mixon was not in a “rage” when all of this transpired. He walked in calmly and walked out calmly. The situation appeared to escalate quickly with Mixon saying something to the victim’s male friend and then the victim initiating contact with him quickly. There was no compunction or delay. Mixon rose to the challenge and had his right fist cocked as she was initiating contact with him, with a push. Then when she slapped him, her hand hadn’t even left his face before he caught her with a hard right hand. He had no hesitation about hitting a woman. He had no fear or concern that this situation could escalate to a level where HE could be hurt, as well as her. He did not have any remorse like, “Oh shit, what did I do?” He just walked out. And when he was interviewed about it a year later, he seemed smug and still remorseless, begging the question of what treatment he received and is he any less likely to re-offend?
SHEILLA: What recommendations would you make to increase the probability that this doesn’t happen again?
DR. ABRAMS: For one thing, if I were the athletics department, I would be embarrassed that, in all of the clips that Mixon has been seen in since then, he has been less than remorseful, has been self-aggrandizing and did not seem to have been counseled by the coaches and athletics department in a manner that got through to him. His behavior, that was often under the guidance of legal counsel, was superficial. That being said, I don’t know what was said to Mixon by the coaching staff and Oklahoma personnel. There have been several Oklahoma athletes that have had transgressions with women that give the perception that this is not dissuaded, let alone detested, by the culture. Therefore, the first thing that has to be in place is a culture that is zero tolerance for any athlete acting this way. Like I have said, prevention, risk assessment and treatment. All of this has to be put in place. For Mixon specifically, I would want to know much more about him than what the public does. Use forensic tools to pull out the dynamics. Find out if this has happened before…if so, why? How? Develop a plan specifically for him and of course, simultaneously have attached consequences to his compliance, i.e. removal from the team, suspension, loss of scholarship…if there were criminal consequences, they could be added too. The point is, these things keep happening across the country…not just an Oklahoma or Baylor thing…more has to be done.
And without being able to personally evaluate Mixon, it appears he attempted to walk away, and then when words were exchanged and she grabbed him, he lashed back violently. Are there any specific suggestions you’d make in regard to helping him to manage his anger in a different way? Athletes need to be afraid. Years ago I started talking about the Myth of the Violent Athlete. No one will believe they’re innocent…regardless of the data proving against it. Athletes need to be wary of the bullseye on their back. They will be demonized before facts are released. They have to be MORE afraid than the average person that their behavior will be scrutinized. I have seen in social media that some people were saying that his behavior was okay because she hit him first. That’s not going to fly, especially with the damage he inflicted. You want to see an increase in social intelligence…for athletes to recognize a situation that can escalate and get the hell out of there. Athletes don’t know how to recognize when they’re getting angry or they may not know their personal direct triggers. Improving that self-awareness can give athletes the opportunity to use their tools (including the ones that we will teach them) to adjust the flame and leave the scene BEFORE they do something they regret. Anger is so misunderstood…it is very dangerous when it creeps up on you…but powerful when you can harness it.
Dr. Abrams had many more fascinating thoughts and perspectives to share. In our next chat, We’ll take a deeper dive into the treatment and discipline and the differences in the pro versus collegiate athletic culture.