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The time is now for Pro Sports to write and to enforce hazing policies

Pullquote: Hazing is on its way out, and like it or not, the Dez Bryant refusal to carry pads is one of those “things will never be the same moments.”

by Hank Nuwer

Ralph Houk, the manager of the New York Yankees who died at 90 this month, was a tough leader who never needed to exhibit his toughness. His service to the country on D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge was all his players needed to know about his character.

Perhaps the best-known quotation attributed to Houk appeared in his obituary. “I don’t think you can humiliate a player and expect him to perform,” he once said.

Houk’s career and life illustrate an important lesson. You can’t demand respect from subordinates, be they athletes, soldiers, fraternity members or everyday workers. That respect is given because it is merited.

And that holds true for senior members of a team, brigade, Greek or occupational organization. They are entitled to respect by virtue of their accomplishments as athletes and team leaders. Moreover, the respect shown them by fans has financial implications. These athletes, many of them anyway, not only earn respect, but the best of them like Houk, go to their graves with an illustrious sheen attached to their lives.

The best of these earn the sobriquet of legend. And their plaques grace various Halls of Fame from Cooperstown to Canton to Springfield.

Let me make one thing clear. I don’t begrudge athletes–especially legendary athletes–their fame, their salaries, their lifetime opportunities to enjoy a professional existence playing sports the rest of us cherish from the stands.

But over time we fans have seen athletes tarnish the very sports that have give them a comfortable living and eventually deprived them of the very self-respect that drives or drove them on the playing fields to do their utmost and, if the stars were all in alignment, to win or establish personal or team bests.

There isn’t a sports-loving elementary school kid or grizzled old timer that doesn’t know the problems of sport. Steroids and illicit performance-enhancing drugs. Booster bribes and payoffs. Gambling, point shaving, domestic abuse and sex scandals. Hazing.

Hazing? “Wa-aaaa-it a minute?” you say.

Yes, I maintain that hazing belongs on that list. Hazing, the practice of senior players, coaches or managers demanding artificial respect of incoming players by humiliating them or using them for cheap entertainment, needs to end.

It is one of those “we’ve always done it” practices that on the surface seem harmless enough, even humorous. Servitude–carrying pads or helmets or luggage. Pranks–sending rookies out to collect mythical “free” holiday turkeys from merchants. Skits–having rookies sing collegiate fight songs.

Yes, harmless enough, even humorous, until you think about such practices. And THINK is the operative word.

Or, better yet, GROUPTHINK is the operative word. For there is no thinking when hazing activities, as so often they do, spill over into reckless group behavior, “creating delusional feelings of invincibility, destroying moral qualms in the interest of group unanimity, put a newcomer in harm’s way with seeming disregard for his stress and safety, and demonstrate post-incident denial in the face of clear-cut evidence that they have erred.” [See Irving L. Janis “Groupthink” and my own “Wrongs of Passage,” p. xxiv]

In our society of extreme behaviors, where so-called sexting, harassment, cyberbullying, and stalking are deadly headline grabbers, it seems incomprehensible that the commissioners of all the professional and top amateur sports have not joined the NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in demanding an end to hazing. The very nature of men and women in groups is that collectively a skewed attitude occurs–unless stopped by education and enforcement–toward sexual misbehavior, performance-enhancing drugs, alcohol, initiations and so on. Call it arrogance. Call it entitlement. Call it what you will, Commissioners, but you must call players on it.

When it comes to passing the buck on hazing, no one passes it better than the likes of Bud Selig, Roger Goodell and David Stern–and their respective predecessors as commissioners.
Moreover, these commissioners, athletes, coaches and managers have indeed turned a blind eye toward the depraved high school (and less commonly college) hazing behaviors that foolish (and sometimes sadistic) high school athletes carry out in the misguided belief that they are carrying out “a time-honored tradition.”

And that mindless copying of inane behaviors sure hasn’t made pro athletes exempt. Anyone else getting awfully bored with idiotic athletes slamming whipped cream and shaving cream pies into their teammates’ faces seemingly one-post game interview after another?

How many anally penetrated high school athletes from Indiana to New Mexico to Connecticut will it take before Selig, Goodell, Stern and their ilk say, “Gee, there seems to be a national disgrace here.” How many young fourteen-year olds have to bear the shame of genitals or buttocks being rubbed into their very faces before Selig, Goodell, Stern and so on say, “Gee, the number of incidents sure is mounting.”

How many high school hazers have to spend jail time and endure expulsions before pro sport in general wakes up to the epidemic of high school initiation assaults this nation is enduring.

And should we just say never mind to the fact that at least one (and often many) hazing deaths per year occur on college campuses from 1970 to 2009? That the concept of an alcohol initiation for rookies is so common that the NCAA and various fraternal organizations–all dedicated to wiping out hazing–hold their breaths collectively each time pledging and a new sports season begins.
Maybe so, if some sportswriters are to be believed.

The number that call hazing a “time-honored tradition” is staggering. In the last couple days, writers and bloggers from ESPN, the San Antonio Express News, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, on and on have used the biased and inane expression “time-honored tradition.” Moreover, there is really a double hazing, a double humiliation, that takes place when bloggers and sportswriters gleefully write columns extolling the creativity of participants in this or that hazing prank.
Now for the good news. Unlike 1998, the year Coach Mike Ditka’s New Orleans Saints beat the living tar out of two rookies in a ganglike or military run through a gauntlet, in 2010 we are seeing and hearing the voice of reason from many coaches, managers and athletes who have condemned hazing as either a distraction or unnecessary “tradition.”

This includes the likes of Coach Wade Phillips of Dallas who told reporters “I don’t believe you have to initiate anybody.”

Make no mistake, it took a long time and many tragedies and scandals for the NCAA to take a strong stand on hazing, but once it did, there is no backing down.

Hazing is on its way out, and like it or not, the Dez Bryant refusal to carry pads is one of those “things will never be the same moments.”

Instead of initiations, we’re seeing more and more veterans believe in mentoring–in taking rookies into their care–both as a human gesture and because true camaraderie is at least or more conducive to a winning team attitude than is mindless initiation in the name of misguided tradition.

Major Ralph Houk was right. Big-time sport is humiliating enough thanks to blooper reels on ESPN, hostile crowds, and the pain of injuries and defeats.

Humiliation has no place in the locker room of pro or amateur sport teams.

Lots of people get that. The NCAA and NFHS get it. Many Canadian junior hockey coaches get it. When will the commissioners of big-time sport finally wake up to 2010 and join them my making enforceable league policies prohibiting and defining hazing?

Some of these remarks by Hank Nuwer were made on July 26, 2010 to a national group of high school students at a Ball State University Journalism Workshop panel discussion.

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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