One ancient ritual described in the Old Testament concerned the selection and eventual banishment of a goat from the rest of the flock. This goat would often be stained with a red pigment, representing the collective sins and wrongdoings of the entire community. According to tradition, this goat was sent into the wilderness to encounter Azazel, a fallen angel similar to Satan or Lucifer. A medieval mistranslation created the modern legend of an escaped goat, or scapegoat.
In modern terms, a scapegoat is often a member of an organization who is held responsible for the failings or shortcomings of the entire group. The chief financial officer of a bankrupt company may be held responsible for its financial failings, for example. A disgraced executive may be blamed for a company's exposed wrongdoing, or a low-level politician may be treated as a representative of widespread governmental corruption.
This is not to suggest that a scapegoat is completely innocent of the allegations or has been sacrificed unfairly. A person found guilty of public corruption while in office may become a symbol for others who have committed similar crimes but have not been indicted or punished. When a scandal involving illegal steroid use broke out in the sports world, some people believed a handful of players who admitted their drug use had become scapegoats for their entire organizations. This person can also be viewed as a sacrificial lamb who accepts punishment in order to protect others.
There are also situations in which a scapegoat is selected for political or strategic reasons. Pinning the blame for a company's failings on a low-level executive, for example, may take the legal focus off higher ranking officials. The low-level executive's future may not be so bright, but at least the organization as a whole would survive public scrutiny by punishing a designated offender. Often, this person's role is to put a public face on wrongdoing or corruption and accept the consequences of other people's actions.
Scapegoating can also be considered an act of self-preservation. Rather than accept the collective blame for a broken window, for example, a group of amateur baseball players could single out the batter to blame. Although the actions of every player contributed to the damage, placing all of the responsibility on the last player to touch the ball would absolve the rest of the group of personal liability. It is often much easier for a group to designate one person to take the blame rather than accept individual responsibility for certain transgressions.