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In recent years law enforcement agencies, school officials, parent groups, and community leaders have become more aware of the negative effects of hazing on athletes. Hazing is a challenge that athletes encounter everywhere in the world. However, hazing is not restricted to athletes, but rather surfaces in the workplace, fraternities and sororities, the military, and in many other organizations where membership is sought and where the approval of the group is deemed important by those seeking admission.
Hazing in sports offers vivid pictures of human experience that run the gamut from the amusing and the affectionate to the abusive and the abominable. One might think that a single word could not bear such contradiction. Yet, hazing is an all-purpose word that lends itself to a qualifier, as seen in a Sports Illustrated for Kids interview with children between the ages of fourteen and seventeen who were asked, “Do you think there is good hazing and bad hazing?” They replied, “Yes.” As a framework for capturing the essence of hazing, a consideration of the good, the bad, and the ugly offers an appropriate starting point.
We have few succinct ways to describe what some people consider “good” forms of hazing: swimmers bonding over breakfast in their pajamas after teammates awaken them in the middle of the night; football players singing their college fight songs to audiences of well-meaning, although tunefully impaired, professional athletes and coaches; good-natured contests designed to build camaraderie and esprit d’corps are thought of as routine team-building exercises. People consider these to be harmless gestures that encourage athletes to get to know and support one another.
In contrast, the practice of hazing has also produced a vocabulary of its own, reflective of a far less benign form of behavior. Athletes and nonathletes, and the culture in general, have more than passing familiarity with beatdowns, forced drinking, public humiliation, shaved heads, simulated sex acts, swirlies, tea bagging, and threats of physical and mental harm. Activities played out under the guise of bringing athletes together divide the athletes into victims and perpetrators.
College campuses during the 1800s were, in some respects, much different than those of today. Most of the institutions of higher education were single-gender, and of that group most were men’s colleges. The “football rush,” an annual interclass football game staged between freshmen and sophomores, conveys a feeling for the atmosphere in schools of the day. To avoid the interference of professors, students scheduled the game to coincide with Monday afternoon faculty meetings. On “bloody Monday” the brutal hazing of freshmen would take place on the football field at the hands of the once lowly sophomores now moved up in the class power structure.
In 1923 the beating of Hobart freshman Lloyd Hyde resulted in two senior football players being expelled and three other senior athletes receiving lesser punishments for their involvement in the beating. The athletes who assaulted Hyde may have been members of the same fraternity. This would not have been uncommon during the 1920s, a decade when college fraternity hazing had become rampant. In February 1932 the editors of the Law Journal urged higher education authorities to ban all forms of hazing because “it does not make for education, but for barbarism.” Another seventy years passed before many public policy makers and educators recognized that the brutality associated with hazing constitutes criminal conduct and took steps to pass legislation barring it. Between 1990 and 2002 the number of antihazing statutes in the United States increased from twenty-five to forty-three.
Prevalence of Hazing among Athletes
Despite the long history of negative hazing among athletes, people have done little research on the topic in general. The first baseline study of hazing was undertaken at the direction of Edward R. Koll, president of Alfred University, after an incident on that campus. Of the 2,027 athletes who responded to a national survey, 80 percent were subjected to what the researchers called “questionable” (humiliating or degrading) or “unacceptable” (high probability of causing physical injury and/or being illegal) activities as part of their initiation into a college sports team. More than 50 percent were involved in some kind of alcohol-related activity, and 35 percent participated in a drinking contest.
Since that initial study others have followed. Based on the findings across these studies, several trends are emerging. Specifically, although the frequency of hazing does vary by sport, athletes may be hazed regardless of the sports they play. Men athletes are more likely to have physical harm done to them during hazing, whereas women athletes are more likely to experience humiliating or embarrassing forms of hazing. Additionally, significant numbers of athletes are unable to correctly define hazing while believing that being subjected to these kinds of experiences as a condition of joining a team is worth it. In effect, athletes who have been hazed and who haze have difficulty distinguishing between what they call “fun” and “hazing.”
In September 2004 Garrett Watterson, a first-year football player at Sandwich High School in Massachusetts, was the target of a “beatdown” by nine of his teammates. One of the blows he received resulted in a ruptured spleen. Initially, he told his family that he suffered the injury when tackled at practice. While Watterson was undergoing surgery, local prosecutors charged with felony assault and battery two of the players accused of instigating the beatdown and causing the injury, while the remaining players were charged with misdemeanor hazing.
This example provides insight into the patterns that contribute to the difficulty that athletes have in distinguishing hazing that constitutes criminal conduct and/ or socially deviant behavior from benign hazing. Consistent with other types of interpersonal violence, denials on the part of both victims and perpetrators occur while strong codes of silence are enforced. At the same time, community members often rely on explanations or rationales to minimize the behavior. In this case, some students at the high school believed the incident was “blown out of proportion” and that the criminal charges were “excessive.” To demonstrate their support for the instigators, students wore T-shirts calling attention to the unfair treatment that the alleged perpetrators were receiving.
This lack of sensitivity for the victims, coupled with the secretive nature of the practice, contributes to its potency as a socializing agent and the willingness of so many people to ignore the trauma caused to the victims. Hank Nuwer, an expert in the subject, points out recent trends in entertainment contribute in a negative way to the social mores that influence hazing. He notes, “The media standards have changed in terms of embarrassing somebody. We humiliate. We vote people off. Kids are very aware that you laugh at these things” (Wahl and Wertheim 2003, 68).When considered from the standpoint that hazing occurs among the young and is tied to a belief system that justifies this behavior as a necessary price of acceptance, the task of intervening is challenging.
As more states have adopted antihazing laws, and as educational institutions have been called upon to develop student conduct codes that address hazing, systemic mechanisms to educate athletes about hazing are slowly being put into place. Perhaps in time these measures will result in more athletes being able to discern the difference between team-building exercises and forms of interpersonal violence. However, given the cycle of violence that exists in hazing, more education and education of the right kind are needed.
- Egan, E., & Dempsey, B. (2004, June). Kids speak out: Hazing. Sports Illustrated for Kids, 16(6), 50-55.
- Ehrlich, J. H. (2003, December 2). Mepham investigation highlights limits to disclosing records. New York Law Journal, 16.
- Gershel, J. C., Katz-Sidlow, R. J., Small, E., & Zandieh, S. (2003, May). Hazing of suburban middle school and high school athletes. Journal of Adolescent Health, 32(5), 333-335.
- Johnson, J., & Holman, M. (2004). Making the team: Inside the world of sport, initiation, and hazing. Toronto, Canada: Canadian Scholars Press.
- Longman, J. (2004, September 29). At Mepham, play begins but the pain never ends. New York Times, p. D1.
- Nuwer, H. (2001). Wrongs of passage: Fraternities, sororities, hazing, and binge drinking. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- Nuwer, H. (2003). The hazing reader. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- Robinson, L. (1998). Baptized a hawk: Initiations in junior hockey. In L. Robinson (Ed.), Crossing the line: Violence and sexual assault in Canada’s national sport (pp. 56-64). Toronto, Canada: McClelland & Stewart.
- Smith, R. (1988). Sports and freedom: The rise of big-time college athletics. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Staurowsky, E. J. (2003). Hazing. In D. Cotton & J. Wolohan (Eds.), Law for recreation and sport managers (pp. 282-293). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing.
- Wahl, G., & Wertheim, L. J. (2003, December 22). A rite gone terribly wrong. Sports Illustrated, 99(24), 68.
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