Sports hazing on the rise, officials seek prevention

27th November, 2010

Hazing

Baseball players inappropriately grabbed each other's genitals at a high school in Utah earlier this year. A soccer player in Connecticut was hog-tied and sodomized with the sharp end of a plastic knife. In Oklahoma, a football player suffered a head injury after being stomped on by teammates.

Once known as an activity mostly causing problems in fraternities, sororities and the military, hazing has emerged from the shadows in high school and college athletics. The rise in reported hazing cases has parents and school administrators concerned about the safety of student athletes and also has them questioning why athletes abuse other athletes.

Since the number of initiation-related accidents have grown and received national publicity during the past decade, the activities have also spurred parents, school administrators, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and various anti-crime organizations to push state legislatures and the federal government to create and enforce stricter laws against hazing.

In a 2001 survey by Alfred University in N.Y., the only comprehensive study of sports hazing, only 12 percent of more than 500,000 high school and college athletes checked the "yes" box when asked specifically if they have been hazed. Yet, when questioned about activities they engaged in when they joined a team - everything from physical abuse to wearing embarrassing clothes - 83 percent were subjected to what Alfred researchers deem as unacceptable hazing.

Hank Newer, author of "Hazing: When Writes Go Wrong," said athletic hazing differs from that of fraternities, sororities and the military because coaches have already decided which players will be on the team. Without formal pledge programs or fraternity-style houses to gather in, most athletic initiations revolve around one big night of activities. Even if hazing is wrong, Newer said, the need for acceptance and approval is still important to the individual athlete.

"There are probably an awful lot of sports teams that have very minor hazing initiations or none at all," Newer said in a recent press release. "But let's look at the 80 percent who are hazed, and athletes who are involved in criminal behavior. We can't ignore what is going on because they are a danger to themselves and others."

While there are no federal laws to condemn hazing actions, 41 state legislatures have adopted anti-hazing laws. Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Michigan, South Dakota, Nevada and Wyoming do not have anti-hazing laws. Because of a recent major football hazing incident and pressure by school administrators, Michigan will soon become the newest state to have laws against hazing.

Before the death of Alfred student-athlete Chuck Stenzel in 1978 and a campaign by his mother to stop hazing, no states had adopted laws against hazing. Although many states now have laws, most have their own definitions of hazing.

"One state says not even verbal abuse is allowed, and another state says it has to include physical abuse, and other states have nothing at all," said Kerry Trouten, professor of criminal procedure at the University of West Virginia. "There is a lack of cohesiveness. Hazing is either a crime or not and it needs to be clarified."

Alfred researchers believe they have the clearest definition of hazing: "An activity expected of someone joining a group or team that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of the person's willingness to participate. This does not include activities such as carrying balls, team parties with community games, or going out with teammates unless an atmosphere of humiliation, abuse or danger arises." Most of the time, such activities are carried out by older players who abuse younger, newer players.

In one instance, several upperclassmen at Stevenson (Ill.) High School blindfolded sophomores and tricked them into sitting up into the bare buttocks of older players, an exercise known as the "atomic sit up."

Prosecutors struggled with the legal issues in the case because Illinois' hazing laws only apply if there is bodily harm to the victim. The defendants were only booked with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. The judge ordered the defendants to pay a small fine, participate in community service and write a 300-word essay on respecting other students. Some states would have been stricter, but again Newer said the true limits of hazing have been too blurred.

Many anti-crime groups and legislative officials agree that only adopting federal anti-hazing laws will solve the confusion of what hazing is or what it isn't, according to Brad Leronne, president of the Stop Hazing Foundation. There have been discussions in Congress about passing an anti-hazing bill, but no action has been taken yet.

Newer also said another major challenge in outlawing hazing is dealing with the athletes' perception of what hazing actually means. Many of those who have gone through or have initiated stress-inducing activities after joining a team argue that "hazing" - a word with a negative connotation - fails to describe their experiences because they choose to participate in the rituals and have even often enjoyed them.

David Manning, a senior soccer player at Louisiana State University, said hazing, which sources say has existed since at least 500 B.C., has become part of the human culture. He only views it as a traditional act when a new team member is initiated, not violence.

"I really don't think people see our side of it all," Manning said, claiming that because he was hazed as an underclassman, he should be able to haze younger players. "Some people think we are just trying to punish the little freshmen, but we are just trying to gain respect and bring us all together because it builds up the team. The freshmen learn to trust us all the way."

Manning said he does not consider hazing a crime and does not support anti-hazing laws. He did, however, say some hazing incidents do get out of control, but he believes only if the action fits another crime should the initiator be in legal trouble.

While some students may condone their actions, many disagree.

Brandon Clemens, professor of criminology at Sacramento State University, said many anti-hazing activists are fighting against hazing as though it were sexual harassment. Like sexual harassment, he said, evidence of damage to the victim is often hard to detect since many hazing incidents cause more psychological damage than anything.

Clemens also believes the Changing attitude in today's society that "boys will be boys" has spurred the efforts by many to fight hazing. Lionel Tiger, an anthropologist at New York State University, said the changes in views are partly because more women are in government and are making the laws.

"The climate of opinion has changed away from the male standard of behavior to more of a female standard of behavior that says anything unpleasant is acceptable," Tiger said. "Guys may see it reasonable to give someone a hard time, even if it's not right."

In a recent hazing case, a student-athlete sued his university but twice a male judge rejected his case. A female higher court judge then reinstated the case and reportedly scolded the first judge for not taking the lawsuit seriously.

Clemens believes the new attitude toward hazing and the views women politicians have brought are the correct ones. He said hazing has always been violent and caused injuries and death but males have condoned the actions throughout the centuries because of a "macho" attitude that they can handle pain. Recent statistics back up his claim.

While there have been hundreds of hazing-related deaths in fraternities and sororities, there has been only one other athlete besides Stenzel known to have died in a hazing incident: Nicolas Huber, a lacrosse player at Western Illinois University in 1990 when he was forced to binge drink. ESPN, however, reports that at least 90 hazing incidents have caused serious to life-threatening injuries while hundreds more have caused psychological and mental abuse. Those numbers cannot be measured, Clemens said.

Hazing among athletes not only occurs in high school or college, but also the professional ranks. In 1998, National Football League rookies Cam Cleeland and Jeff Danish were injured at the New Orleans Saints' preseason training camp. The two players were forced to run through a line of veteran players who struck them with a bag filled with coins. Danish was also forced to jump out of a window, causing injuries that ended his playing career.

One of the more notable cases occurred last December when University of Vermont administrators cancelled the school's hockey season when a fourthstring, walk-on goalie filed a lawsuit against the university and eight other players who allegedly hazed him. In the state attorney's report released to ESPN, the goalie and four other freshmen were forced to march inside the basketball gym naked while holding the genitals of the teammate in front of them in the so-called "elephant walk."

"That case made a statement," Newer said. "For years, many cases were kept silent, and when it was reported, not much was done. Now, someone finally stepped up and said, 'No, this will not happen here.' "

Less than a year later, in August, administrators of Wayne County High School in Homesdale, Penn., cancelled the school's entire football season after three teen-agers sexually abused younger teammates at a weeklong summer football training camp near Philadelphia.

Robert F. Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Association, said high school and college athletes have been less equipped to deal with the issues of hazing, often misinterpreting the seriousness of the activities. Kanaby said hazing is partly the student's responsibility, but much of the blame for its rise lies with school administrators that have ignore hazing until it becomes a reality at their school, Kanaby said.

"Schools need more hazing-awareness classes," Kanaby said. "If so many principles, presidents and other officials insist on waiting until the young football player breaks his leg in a hazing incident and slaps a lawsuit on the school, then it will continue to be a never ending issue."

Many parents of hazing victims have often wondered where the coaches have been during the incidents, since they are supposed to supervise the team. Newer said coaches are meant to coach a team and cannot watch out for his or her players 24 hours, seven days a week. "They aren't babysitters," he said.

Besides offering hazing awareness classes, Leronne said schools should establish welcome programs for first-year or transfer student-athletes. He also said coaches should at least try to make a better effort to be aware of what the members of the team are doing when they are not playing on the field.

"Rites of passage have been integral and valuable for new players," Leronne said. "But better, more positive programs for initiation have the potential to be more constructive and productive than pledging rituals."

While Leronne is optimistic that hazing will soon become an obsolete practice, he is aware that many students will continue to have the wrong impression about hazing and will keep doing in behind the backs of school officials.

Such cases include soccer players from Quincy College in Manhattan, N.Y., a school that has been involved in a few serious hazing cases. After being warned by school administrators, juniors and seniors continue to force freshmen players to walk on needles before each season begins. Quincy players recently told ESPN that they believed the ritual helped the team's chemistry off the field, and it would also help lead to success on the field.

"Say you're going into a dangerous situation, like an opposing team's arena," senior player Rex Martin said. "Or say you're in the military, and you're going across the hill. You don't have the time to investigate the person next to you. You want it before hand, and the initiation stuff is that test."

Yet, there's no evidence that hazing helps a team wins on the field. In fact, Quincy finished last season with 15 less victories than the previous year when it advanced to the NCAA Division II playoff quarterfinals, a time when the walk-on needles ritual was non-existent.

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