Abuse Survives in a Haze of Mixed Messages About Teamwork
By Preston Williams
Thursday, February 12, 2009; PG10
Never understood the purpose of hazing in high school sports. You humiliate a teammate, a guy who’s supposed to trust you, a guy who might have to throw a key block for you downfield. Heck, a guy you might need to catch a ride home with sometime. And that humiliation somehow builds camaraderie?
The following season, the kid who was degraded does the same thing to somebody else. He goes from the abused to the abuser, and the shameful “tradition” continues.
There are different degrees of hazing, but with some of the more serious incidents, if a gang used the same initiation rituals, the public would view the members as animals. The soccer team at the high school? Ah, no big deal.
Most hazing incidents go unreported, but in the past decade or so, there have been news accounts of hazing-related incidents at Severna Park, Reservoir, North County, Lackey, Einstein and Centennial high schools, to name a few.
Last week, The Washington Post’s Katie Carrera reported about five Thomas Stone wrestlers facing misdemeanor charges stemming from a Jan. 20 incident in which the wrestlers taped the arms and legs of a teammate to a bus seat and took pictures and teased him, according to one of the charged wrestlers, undefeated 160-pound senior Zachary Lohr.
The five wrestlers were suspended from school, and first-year coach Michael Larson has been removed as coach for the rest of the season, although he took immediate action when he realized what was taking place on the bus.
StopHazing.org defines hazing as “any activity expected of someone joining a group (or to maintain full status in a group) that humiliates, degrades or risks emotional and/or physical harm, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.”
In 2006, information presented at the National Conference on High School Hazing reported that one in 10 college students said they had been hazed in high school but that four in 10 reported experiencing behaviors that would be considered hazing. A 2000 study by Alfred University found that almost three-fourths of high school students who had been hazed said the experience had negative consequences.
Hank Nuwer, who has written four books about hazing, including “High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs,” has documented cases of hazing in sports, fraternities and sororities, the military, law enforcement and even cooking schools and choral groups.
In light of the Thomas Stone incident, we spoke with the Indiana-based Nuwer, 62, on the phone last week.
Q Why does hazing exist in high school sports? Does it satisfy some sort of innate need for a rite of passage?
A It gives students a combination of things they’re looking for at that age: the need for a lark, the immersion in secrecy with their peers, a passage from liminal space where they went from not being a member of a group to becoming a member of a group, and then the fact there is a kind of . . . rite of passage associated with hazing and initiations in school that has kind of a romance to it.
What sort of atmosphere cultivates hazing?
Students [who have been hazed] like the idea of being a year more mature and teaching precedence to the newcomers. Research has shown that liking for a group increases with the pressures and stresses associated with harder requirements for membership. You value it more. . . . There are cases where a coach will turn a blind eye and say, “Don’t take it too far.” When you tell me at 15 or 17 or 21, “Don’t take it too far,” I’ve got a green light. You’ve already been complicit. This is for sure: The danger areas are sports camps away, buses and locker rooms that are left without adults.
Do hazers have good, albeit misguided, intentions to build team unity, or is the intent solely to humiliate or make themselves feel better about the time they were hazed?
It varies. Rationalization and justification would be common in groupthink situations. If you have gone through this yourself a year before, how can you tolerate yourself having had sexual abuse to your body or drinking to a point where you puked all over yourself unless you tell yourself there is a greater purpose and a tradition? So this must be a good experience that I went through. And so you have some dishonesty there that propels it forward.
You’ve written about the trembling young athlete in the back of the bus, knowing his time of hazing is coming and dreading the thought of the humiliation but desperately wanting to be accepted into the group. Just how conflicted are these kids’ feelings?
One player told me that you expect that hazing is going to be part of the culture, so you close your eyes to the experience and figure you’ll get through it and it will be behind you. Some people like to have attention paid to them, even if it’s negative attention. It’s coming from a superstar on your team or someone you look up to as a role model.
After Columbine and other school violence incidents, there was more talk about the prevention of bullying in schools. Has hazing benefited from that movement, or is hazing viewed as not as serious of a problem because it is seen as part of the high school sports culture?
I’ve seen some attempts, in Florida, that I think would be productive. It’s teaching kids at the second-, third- and fourth-grade levels that bullying and initiations are wrong. They’re at the age where they’re telling dad to stop smoking and stop drinking. It’s an age when there’s not a big difference between boys and girls, and their bodies aren’t changing in a different way, and they haven’t gotten arrogant yet. That’s the time that we can start teaching.
How does society play into the hazing culture with birthday spanks and other so-called rituals, and how culpable are the media for taking a lighthearted tone when reporting such cases as NFL players being taped to goalposts or a big-league baseball player having to walk through an airport dressed like a woman?
We mock and ridicule, whether it’s reality TV or things people go through. We have a society now that sees humiliation as extremely uproarious. We’re trying to come up with a quick-fix way to end hazing, which is a quick-fix way to bond, and it’s not working. It’s going to take a collective attempt by people of influence — coaches, legislators, journalists, educators — to say that this has gone on long enough. We need to make it as disgusting as drunk driving is right now.
The Thomas Stone wrestling team incident seems fairly common in terms of hazing incidents. Based on news accounts, what do you see in that particular case?
The coach stepped forward and did the right thing, and the school stepped forward and did the right thing. That’s not usual. This coach came upon something and knew what to do on the spot and wasn’t befuddled, and the school took appropriate, immediate action. That’s unusual. Usually, there’s filibustering for a few days — the school board, coaches and the administration try to figure out what to do. . . . I addressed athletic directors and coaches in Colorado once, and later a coach came up, and I asked what he would do if he walked in on a hazing situation. He scratched his chin, looked at me and said, “Starter or reserve?”
What’s an alternative to hazing?
Trying to put together a team. The idea of strong discipline, where you have a “Hoosiers” mentality where you’re going to work as hard as possible, bonding even if you gripe later. Then, besides a winning attitude and good sportsmanship, is mentoring, where the younger players are taken under the wing of the older players and are shown the ropes and understand that what we say about sportsmanship and athletics and integrity and character-building really matters. Hazing is a show of weak character and destroys character because it teaches you how to lie and cheat and cover up and demean. Mentoring in which an older player says to a younger player, “Grow up. I’m not putting you through that. Show me on the field that you can take a hit. Show me in a game that you’ve got what it takes to suck it up and do whatever you need to do to help our school win.”
How wary should parents be of sending their young athletes off to team camps or allowing them to play on teams with older kids?
Look at the character of the coach. The schools need to be better judges of the character of their coaches. Make sure there’s a hazing policy. Find out how many chaperones and adults will be present at a sports camp and if there will be adults around when the kids are showering in the locker room and will walk in if they hear something. That the athletic trainer will speak up if there are some bruises on players that shouldn’t be there or if they hear that there will be a meeting behind the stadium tonight where the rookies are supposed to show up. We make sure players have enough water, enough Gatorade, enough sleep, study halls. This is one more thing added on to it.
You have made the case in your writing that there are hazing incidents taking place in the backs of school buses and other places that are somehow accepted, yet if those same incidents took place in a car on a date, the offenders would be prosecuted. What has to happen for the two to be given equal weight?
Change the entire culture. When the entire culture looks at the Atlanta Falcons quarterback [Michael Vick], and dogfighting as an act of abuse and cowardice and animal mistreatment, and a hero becomes a villain overnight, there’s a culture change. When a quarterback or starting center abuses or touches a younger player and humiliates him, then gets kicked off the team and has his supporters, the culture hasn’t changed. If it’s wrong to have a dogfight and be abused, it’s absolutely wrong for younger players to be taunted and touched and taped in the back of a bus. Hazing has been part of the education culture for so long that it isn’t looked at as a major problem until it happens to your school. And then it’s the worst problem out there.
Varsity Letter is a weekly column about high school sports in the Washington area.