Hazing doesn't have to be part of the game

Friday, October 28, 2005

Want to join the team? Get ready for a dose of humiliation. And, more importantly, be sure to take your humiliation "like a man" and shut up about it. That's the message being sent out by those who persist in defend the bizarre practice of "hazing" in sport. The issue has been in the news due to two recent incidents, one involving the Windsor Spitfires major junior hockey team and another involving the McGill Redman football squad.

The hazing situation at McGill was at first met with denials, followed by quibbling over details (e.g. was the player who complained actually sodomized with a broomstick, or he just repeatedly poked in the area around his sphincter?). Eventually, McGill administration cancelled the remaining two games of a losing football season. The rest of the team is reportedly livid, blaming the player who complained about being assaulted (while apparently not feeling any animosity towards his abusers).

Jack Todd, sports columnist for The Montreal Gazette, wrote last week that "McGill just doesn't get it. Seriously, what does it take for this university to understand how very, very wrong this was? A police investigation? A mass arrest of the football team?" Adds Todd, "The cancellation was a pointless, toothless act…. The more important question is why McGill believes that it can bring this coaching staff and most of these players back next season."

In Windsor, veteran Spitfire players stripped five rookies naked and forced them all into the washroom at the back of the bus - a ritual known as "hotboxing" (remember, junior hockey rookies can be as young as 15 or 16 years of age). The incident precipitated a well-publicized fight in practice and led the Ontario Hockey League to impose a fine on the team and a lengthy suspension of team coach and general manager Moe Mantha.

Darcy Tucker of the Toronto Maple Leafs has criticized the suspension. "Things happen at the back of the bus the coach never knows about," said Tucker. "It just happens - it's part of being a rookie. There are some things that are off-limits, that's the way it should be. Putting a few guys in the washroom, I find it actually quite amusing… There's a lot of veteran guys in the NHL laughing, right now." Others in the game aren't as amused as Tucker. "There's no room for it," said Wayne Gretzky, "It's the most ridiculous thing in sports. It's just wrong. It's hard enough for a young guy to go into a locker room; it's hard enough for a 16-year-old."

Dr. Wayne Halliwell, a Canadian sport psychologist, told The National Post that, far from playing a role in team-building, hazing often has a negative effect on both individuals and teams. "There is no place for degrading or humiliating activities in team building. It's a family you're trying to create, and respect has to permeate everything you do." Halliwell criticizes "low level of moral reasoning" used to justify hazing. "It was done to me, well, we're going to do it to them."

An Alfred University study estimated that as many as eighty per cent of NCAA athletes had gone through hazing. After a horrific hazing incident in 1999, the University of Vermont pulled the plug on its hockey season and eventually paid $80,000 to settle a lawsuit from the one victim who complained (the team captain was also convicted… of serving alcohol to a minor). The incident led the state to pass legislation that made participation in hazing rituals a crime. Forty-three U.S. states now have such legislation, but the Canadian criminal code does not specifically cover hazing. When it does get reported, the tendency is to treat it as an internal team matter, to be dealt with by the very same coaches and administrators who looked the other way while it was happening.

A conspiracy of silence exists that prevents more from being done to combat hazing. If you complain, then you're just not a good sport. Tucker sums up this attitude well. "Guys took their initiation and walked away from it at the end of the day. It was kind of a laugh for all of us, It kind of brought us closer together. (But) if you take it as an embarrassment, it'll follow you for the rest of your career." Those who complain about hazing often face the animosity of teammates, coaches and even fans. In the incidents I've read about, most of the complainants have eventually left the team.

It's no coincidence that many, if not most, of the more popular hazing rituals involve sexual degradation of newcomers to the team. Homophobia is as pervasive throughout sport as it is in the rest of society, and forcing people into sexual situations is a kind of test. Hazing isn't about team building; it's all about exercising power over others and reinforcing the rigid hierarchy of the team.

When photos emerged showing the sexual abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners of war, some military officials and right-wing commentators tried to excuse it by comparing it to "fraternity hazing", as if that made it okay (Rush Limbaugh called it "pretty effective" and "a lot of humiliation", and he thought that was a good thing). Whether these kind of practices happen at Abu Ghraib, on a team bus, or in a squash court at McGill, they are completely unacceptable and illegal.

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