Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007
Late one night in September 1989, my university roommate came home to find me standing on the balcony of our 10th-floor apartment, bent double over the rail. My head was shaved and I was completely naked, my buttocks and legs covered in black Magic Marker. I was extremely drunk and violently ill. It was one of the best nights of my entire undergraduate experience.
I had just come from Rookie Night, the annual initiation ritual welcoming the new members of the McGill varsity soccer teams. A typical Rookie Night went as follows: Following practice on the Friday after final cuts had been made, the men’s and women’s teams would gather on a nearby field. Male and female rookies would pair up for drinking games and minor humiliations.
Then we’d head for a pub where the women’s rookies would dress up in skanky clothes, the men would have their heads shaved, and they’d be sent out with black markers to get civilians to sign their bodies in semi-private places. Then everyone would get drunker before going home.
Good times, good times.
Everyone loved Rookie Night, especially the rookies. And why wouldn’t they? It was the last step to becoming full members of an exclusive club. Many rookies routinely kept their heads shaved well into the season, as a way of signalling their ongoing sense of pride of accomplishment and belonging.
So much for all of that. Last month, McGill’s senate endorsed an anti-hazing policy, forbidding sports teams from holding “inappropriate” initiation ceremonies, either on or off campus. The goal of the new policy is to ensure the “dignity, safety and well-being” of the players, and it encourages athletic teams to engage in “team building” exercises for rookies. An appendix to the policy gives a list of proscribed activities, including drinking or doing drugs, serving alcohol to minors, forcing anyone to participate in an activity, tattooing, shaving heads, paddling, whipping and simulated sexual acts, as well as “calisthenics not related to a sport.”
The policy was cooked up in response to an unfortunate incident that occurred in the fall of 2005 involving a rookie football player, nudity and a broom handle. The student alleged he was sexually assaulted by veteran players, and six members of the team were suspended after an investigation confirmed that rookies were indeed anally prodded with a broomstick.
This is a complicated issue, and there are a number of questions that need to be sorted out. The first one is straightforward: Sexual assault and other criminal acts have no place in any athletic initiation, just as they have no place in any aspect of civil life. Anyone who commits such acts should be charged, and any coaches who condone such behaviour should be fired.
Equally simple is the reasoning behind McGill’s new policy: It is afraid of getting sued. But shaving heads, performing calisthenics, simulating sex acts and getting drunk are not criminal acts, and I don’t see how the university can justify preventing consenting adults from doing these things, either on campus or on their own time.
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Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007
If there is one thing that is sure to get lost in all of this, it is the substantial virtues of initiation ceremonies. One of the most legitimate beefs against liberal democratic culture is that it leaves little room for the heroic dimension of life. The old “warrior ethic” ideals, of the honour that comes with competition, battle, and even death have almost completely atrophied, and while SUVs and iPods and flat-screen TVs give us plenty to live for, we no longer have a collective sense of what would be worth dying for.
Philosophers over the years have used different terms to describe this ethic. Plato called it thumos, usually translated as “spiritedness” or “passion.” Hobbes called it pride, Rousseau talked of amour-propre, and Hegel described it as part of our desire for recognition. These are all ways of getting at the same phenomenon, namely, the desire to compete, to assert oneself over and against others.
Modern life allows for very few public outlets for this drive, and an easy way of understanding our culture’s many forms of runaway status-consumerism is to interpret them as distorted expressions of thumos. Why is everyone so obsessed with fine wine or organic produce? Why do two-person families have three cars, and why do suburban men buy barbecues that could heat a medium-sized village? In a liberal society, we must be public egalitarians and private romantics.
Competitive sports remain one of the few remaining outlets for this desire for recognition. It may or may not be true that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton (and Wellington may not have ever said it), but one thing is certain: Sport serves as a reasonable facsimile for war, a place where the virtues of victory, honour and self-sacrifice can be given their head.
You will object that this has nothing to do with Rookie Night, that McGill soccer will be just as thumotic as ever in the absence of a night of shaved heads and simulated sex. It will not.
The central function of initiation ceremonies is to catalyse the formation of the in-group/out-group collective identity that is necessary to play team sports at any serious level. To put it bluntly, you have to trust that the guys next to you on the field are willing, at the limit, to get seriously hurt in the name of victory. And letting your teammates do things like shave your head, get you drunk, and embarrass you in public is the only way of building that trust.
Andrew Potter writes a column on public affairs for Maclean’s.