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How does violent and sexual hazing get started? Column by Grand Rapids columnist Bob Becker

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Author: Hazing incidents becoming more violent
Sunday, June 24, 2007
By Bob Becker, Press Sports Editor

GRAND RAPIDS — A pack mentality. The need to belong. A feeling of power that comes from intimidation.

Those are mindsets that often manifest themselves in hazing — and can lead to serious consequences for the perpetrator, according to Hank Nuwer, who teaches journalism at Indiana University but is best known as the foremost authority on hazing in the country today.

His three books, “High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage” and “The Hazing Reader,” put the activities of teams, fraternities, even businesses, under the microscope, and have helped change the way we look at the practice.

“If you have been a member of any group, any time, any where, you most likely have been hazed,” he said. “A lot of it was innocuous, but more and more the practices are becoming violent, demeaning and at times, deadly.”

Nuwer’s research has documented hazing cases back to the late 1800s. By the 1970s, hazing centered around drinking, at times requiring a new player to drink vast quantities of alcohol, while at other times having a player restrained and forced to drink.

“But then things got really serious,” Nuwer said. “Right now I have list of 25 sodomy incidents. That’s not all of them, but some of the worst.”

There were no high school sodomy reports issued prior to 1983.

Home is no better

Now that the word is out, parents are trying to accommodate the kids by allowing events in their home.

“It’s no different than parents serving alcohol to their kids in the privacy of their homes,” he said. “They seem to think it is safer, if they do it here it will be safer.

“They think it is a worthwhile thing to do, rather than draw an absolute line.”

To Nuwer, there are no gray areas when it comes to hazing.

“I don’t want to come across as a professional do-gooder,’ he said. “But the bottom line is that we just can’t say, ‘Don’t take it too far’. We have to start saying, ‘Don’t do it at all.’

“That’s the real problem, giving kids permission to do it in some ways.”

He gave an example. Kids think it is funny to give somebody else a “wedgie”, which means pulling their underwear up as high as they can.

“One kid touches the victim sexually, even unintentionally, and every kid involved is facing multiple years in jail and a lifetime on a sex offenders list,” he said. “A prank becomes a sexual assault.”

Too many times players from decades ago tell today’s players about how tough they were and how difficult their initiation was, inferring that this year’s team is made up of “wusses.”

“So today’s kids try to take it even farther, and that’s when disaster hits,” Nuwer said. “There has to be a leader in the locker room who says ‘Hold off, we aren’t going there!’ Team captains have to start acting like team captains.”

Hazing is supposed to be a bonding activity, something to help build teamwork.

But there are other ways to do that, like taking the team out to help build homes for Habitat for Humanity or along a river bank to clean up trash.

“Winning goes a long way toward bonding, and you can have fun on road trips,” Nuwer said. “Unfortunately we’ve seen incidents where younger players were scared to death to ride the team bus or go into the locker room.”

Only a minority of hazing incidents are ever reported to authorities.

“At that age (teenagers), hormones can overwhelm the brain, which makes teens vulnerable to the pack mentality,” said Larry Dugan, a certified sports psychologist in Grand Rapids.

“To people who don’t have a mature brain, the power that comes from hazing can be very seductive, and they tend to want to do more and more.

“There is power in intimidating others. And for some people beating up others emotionally is the same as beating them physically. And once these people start doing that emotional kicking, they tend to want to kick longer and harder.”

Feeling a sense of power

Hazing can be a confidence booster for the instigator, according to Bruce Fowler, a Grand Rapids clinical psychologist at Aspen Psychological Services.

“It makes you part of the club, and we all want to be part of a club,” he said. “But for some people within the group doing the hazing, it’s a kind of bullying, and they need that sense of power. In some cases it’s to compensate for their own feelings of smallness, they use their power to overcome their own lack of self-confidence.

“Unfortunately, some young people have a distorted sense of ‘belonging,’ especially those unsure of their own personal identity.”

Dugan spent several years as a high school track coach, so his approach to sports psychology goes beyond the office.

“I have dealt with athletes on many levels,” he said. “When there are no consequences for their actions, a child will develop narcissism, excessive self-love and believe they are not bound by common social structures.

“That’s how we get kids who look first to satisfy their own needs, including following a leader to find those the group can control and make to feel unworthy, thereby giving them power they don’t otherwise have in their lives.

“That is what we wind up with when kids aren’t taught reality, respect and responsibility.”

–Bob Becker

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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