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More on the Dez Bryant case: sportswriter John McGrath comments

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And then there is the incomprehensible side of hazing, the creepy stuff that makes headlines when college and high school athletes decide humiliation and degradation are essential for initiation.

Hazing never has reached that level in the NFL, although some blindfolded 1998 New Orleans Saints rookies might disagree.

On the final day of training camp that summer, the rookies, with their heads in pillowcases, were forced to run through a gauntlet of fist-swinging teammates, some of whom packed coin-stuffed socks with their punches. When former Huskies tight end Cam Cleeland completed the initiation, he had blurred vision in his left eye. Another rookie, Andy McCullough, suffered a head injury, while a third rookie, defensive tackle Jeff Danish, ended up with facial bruises and a 13-stitch gash in his left arm. (Danish sued the team; the case was settled out of court.)

Granted, there’s no immediate correlation between a veteran’s harmless request that a rookie carry his pads and the frightening experience of running through a gauntlet of fists with a pillowcase on your head.

But a permissive hazing culture that left three Saints rookies injured has to start somewhere.

It starts with the premise that the youngest members of a team are fodder for embarrassment. As NFL veterans believe it’s their right to put rookies in their proper place, it’s no wonder high school and college athletes believe it’s OK to taunt freshmen and, in some cases, brutalize them.

Enough. Hazing in pro football was tolerated, I suspect, because it helped alleviate the boredom of training camps that used to resemble military boot camps. Before NFL employment became a year-round commitment, interior linemen who spent the offseason as bartenders showed up 20 or 30 pounds overweight. Those grueling two-a-day workouts were necessary – the farther away from civilization, the thinking went, the better.

That thinking no longer applies. When the Seahawks convene for training camp Saturday in Renton, for instance, those who arrive out of shape will be conspicuous. Boredom won’t be an issue. Practices are scripted to be crisp, and when the final meeting-room session of the long day concludes, players will be free to pursue the normal lives of responsible adults.

Hazing might’ve been a necessary evil in 1960, some hijinks to counter the typically oppressive environment of an NFL training camp. Fifty years later, hazing is among those inexplicable goofy traditions – along with Groundhog Day, honorary degrees, calling a basketball timeout with 1.8 seconds on the clock and the score 81-67, street-side campaign signs, Memorial Day mattress sales and jinxing a no-hitter by mentioning a no-hitter – that poses a question: What, exactly, is the point?

“There’s a certain protocol for the young guys to have an opportunity to show some humility and some respect for the veterans and what they’ve done in this league,” Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, referring to the Bryant-Williams incident, told USA Today on Tuesday. “If that means stepping back at dinner, stepping back in the taping line, taking care of pads coming off the field … we encourage that, and our guys have always been good about that.”

Harbaugh should be commended for encouraging the young guys to show some humility and some respect for the veterans.

I’m just wondering: How does demanding that a teammate carry your pads promote either humility or respect?

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By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. In April of 2024, the Alaska Press Club awarded him first place in the Best Columnist division and Best Humorist, second place.

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 current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily-- and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

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