We’ve all seen the news stories about the aftermath of hazing incidents, when alcohol abuse, humiliation and violent harassment have been inflicted in the name of “team building”. These stories are just a small sampling of a problem that seems to be epidemic in athletics at all levels, from rural high school programs to elite colleges and universities to world famous professional teams. Hazing, or targeting rookies for humiliating, and even dangerous, rituals, is not a new phenomenon. However, our focus on the prevalence of hazing is a new phenomenon, especially the impact at the high school level.
Whether they’re trying to be sensitive to students or trying to protect the school’s image, school districts frequently won’t provide information about hazing. "Initiation Rites in American High Schools: A National Survey," a study by Alfred University in 2000, found that nearly half of all students who join any group in high school are subjected to hazing. The same study found that both female and male students report high levels of hazing, but male students are at highest risk, particularly for the most dangerous hazing.
With the exception of newspaper and yearbook staff, every high school organization was found to have significant levels of hazing. In fact:
- Sports, music, art and theater groups were significantly high in every form of hazing.
- Cheerleading and vocational groups were significantly high in humiliation and substance abuse forms of hazing.
Obviously, the severity varies from case to case, but every athlete is at risk of being hazed. Some athletes, however, are at higher risk than others, particularly those playing lacrosse, swimming or ice hockey. See the hazing risk for more sports, here.
Early lessons make all the difference
Experts say players are indoctrinated when they’re young or junior and new to the team or program. Some will become the victims, some will be bystanders, forced to watch others being harmed. These young bystanders often keep silent out of fear or misguided loyalty. Bystanders are at higher risk of becoming perpetrators when they are senior team members themselves; thinking it's their duty to uphold team "tradition". Sadly, in most team cultures where hazing is prevalent, hazing rituals are passed down from year-to-year without much reflection or resistance. Today's aggressors were often last year's victims.
The need for belonging and camaraderie make it possible (and more likely) for these student athletes to tolerate hazing. Student athletes who are hazed feel pressure to stay silent because speaking up could jeopardize either their spot in the lineup, or the team’s success if the perpetrators are removed from the team. A study by the Vanderbilt University Medical Center reports that a large majority of student-athletes who are hazed don’t even describe what happened to them as hazing, but (obviously misguided) ‘team building’. This means there might be even more hazing incidents than we realize.
“Typically, hazing peaks just before the start of the regular season, but it can return just prior to playoffs if younger players are brought up to the varsity,” says inCourage’s Garland Allen. “Unfortunately, many players and coaches mistakenly think that hazing will build a sense of team. In reality, hazing undermines the very essence of team. Don’t confuse hazing with real team-building.”
The difference between hazing and team building activities
So, if our kids won’t report it – if they even recognize it – what can we do to about hazing? While student athletes are an obvious audience for any hazing education, it is also essential for coaches and other educators to be equally well informed about hazing and, most importantly, hazing prevention.
Are there solutions to this ugly aspect of team sports? Can we push back against this pervasive history and change the culture of hazing on our teams?
There are, and we can.
- Involve student athletes in creating your team’s anti-hazing policy
- Have an adult present in team rooms before and after practices and games. If gender differences exist between players and coaches, team captains can be enlisted to monitor behavior in these areas.
- Whether you are a coach or a parent, always provide opportunities for your kids to talk to you in private.
While the damaging-yet-secretive history and traditions of hazing are important reasons why it continues, these rituals thrive when there is already a toxic team culture. No team is immune to some form of negative behavior, but athletic directors and coaches have the power and responsibility to shape a culture that reduces the likelihood of it occurring. Players may think hazing helps build a sense of team but it’s our job to ensure that they understand what hazing is versus positive team building.