Hazing: Rituals of Bonding or Humiliation? (page 3)
Both the magazine Sports Illustrated and the newspaper USA Today published major stories about hazing incidents in our schools and colleges, especially among athletes. Accounts of student athletes being subjected to harmful and degrading acts as part of an initiation to become members of a team were highlighted. Lest we think hazing is a problem confined to boys, both articles reported the flagrant abuse that transpired at a “powder puff” football game between junior and senior girls at a suburban high school outside Chicago. The event, caught on video and aired repeatedly on television newscasts, showed seniors kicking and punching their junior counterparts as well as smearing them with a mixture of house paint, fish guts, and human feces. Several of the juniors required hospital care for their physical injuries (one can only imagine the extent of their emotional injuries).
Hazing is not a new practice, although some researchers believe it is on the rise. It has been occurring on athletic teams and in fraternities for years. There are those who view its purpose as a harmless rite of passage. Perhaps for many that may be its intent, but all-too-often the actions that fall under the umbrella of hazing are anything but harmless. In a well-publicized case on Long Island in New York, a junior and a senior football player sodomized several jayvee players at a football camp with broomsticks, pine cones, and golf balls. The coaches were in a different cabin and reported that they were unaware of these events. The reason the acts were discovered was that one boy experienced ongoing intense pain as well as rectal bleeding that soiled his sheets and underwear. He asked his mother to take him to the doctor. When the latter asked what had caused these injuries, initially the boy was hesitant to respond but finally revealed what had occurred. Obviously many acts of hazing are not reported because of embarrassment and/or fear of retribution (one learns that “tattling” is strictly forbidden).
The Sports Illustrated article noted hazing “is firmly entrenched in an American sports culture that values tradition, team bonding, leadership hierarchies and assertiveness.” Hank Nuwer, an assistant professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has authored four books about hazing, commented that the formal definition of hazing includes a wide array of behaviors. Hazing is seen as “any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of that person’s willingness to participate.” Nuwer observed in the Sports Illustrated piece, “It’s almost like we need different terms, like we have with manslaughter and murder. Having someone put on silly clothes is called hazing, and so is sodomy.”
The problem of definition was noted by Norman Pollard, director of counseling/student development at Alfred University in New York. Pollard and his colleagues undertook a comprehensive, nation-wide study of hazing following such incidents at Alfred. In this study approximately 10,000 athletes at 224 colleges were asked about their high school experiences. One intriguing finding was that while only 12% said they had been hazed, 80% said that had been forced to engage in dangerous or humiliating activities. “They thought it was something else,” Pollard noted. “It was across the board, urban, rural, by sport.”
USA Today reported a similar phenomenon when conducting interviews with five high school students. The selected students had participated in a “Respect and Protect” campaign that has as a primary goal the limiting of student violence. Thus, they were assumed to be sensitive to issues of harassment. Four of the five students said they were not aware of hazing occurring among their peers; yet, as they described clubs, teams, and groups to which they belonged, instances of hazing were very evident. It is interesting that the students did not identify these events as hazing and, if anything, they minimized their impact or offered excuses for their presence.
For instance, a sophomore boy endured the following freshman initiation as a football player: “They tied me to a chair and shaved my head and eyebrows. I saw it all as fun. We didn’t necessarily see it as violence. It was like bonding. No matter what, everybody had it done to them.” A junior girl observed, “I had to do some things—give up my lunch money or do their homework. It’s something you see every day. It’s something you basically have to get over.”
As I read these accounts I questioned whether these students had, in fact, “gotten over” these experiences. To say “everybody had it done to them” or “it’s something you basically have to get over” doesn’t suggest that the hazing is viewed as harmless or as easily forgotten. The Alfred University study found that a number of the students who had been hazed in high school “talked about being depressed and suicidal. Thirteen percent said they thought about revenge.” Although in terms of its definition hazing differs from bullying in that hazing is typically part of a process to join a group, while bullying is used to exclude someone from a group, just as being bullied can generate pain for untold years so too can being hazed.
Ellen deLara, a Syracuse University assistant professor of social work, interviewed approximately 1,000 victims of hazing as part of research for a book she co-authored, And Words Can Hurt Forever. She noted in the USA Today article that the emotional consequences of the abuse can last a lifetime. “Just like someone who has been in a war, there can be heightened sensitivities, nightmares, flashbacks. They are carrying around an extreme amount of rage, and that plays out in their relationships. They get triggered by things that seem the slightest bit disrespectful.” DeLara reported that the most frequent comment from hazing victims was that “parents don’t really have a clue” that hazing is occurring.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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