The Andover High School boys’ basketball team began their season this week under a cloud of public scrutiny resulting from allegations about team hazing that occurred this summer while the team was attending a privately operated sleep-away basketball camp.
According to news accounts, two older players initiated a disgusting “game” with younger players in which the loser had to eat an Oreo cookie covered in what the news article delicately described as “bodily fluids.”
The incident is being investigated by school officials and the police. Hazing is illegal in Massachusetts. Those convicted of hazing face up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine. Anyone who witnesses hazing but does not report it faces a $1,000 fine. The Andover boys’ coach claimed, through his lawyer, that he reported the incident as soon as it came to his attention in mid-November.
Despite school anti-hazing policies and even state laws prohibiting hazing, high school and college athletes, both male and female, continue to participate in these degrading and often dangerous activities. In the name of “team building” and “initiating new team members” many athletes and some coaches fail to see the harm in this enduring sports ritual. Every so often, when a death occurs as a result of hazing, as was the case recently with the Florida A & M marching band, we pay attention for a minute.
Hazing is still an active part of sports (and marching band and Greek) culture that is difficult to eliminate. High school and college athletes see pro teams hazing rookies. It seems like there is mounting pressure each year to top the previous year’s hazing activities to be more disgusting, more humiliating, more dangerous. Plus, there is the “pass it on” revenge mentality of hazees who want to be hazers the next year. A disturbing part of some of these team hazing rituals is the prevalence of simulated sex acts, rape with broomsticks, nudity or, as in the case at Andover, the ingestion of sperm. All of these hazing activities are based on a toxic mix of homophobia, humiliation and the need to exert power over other younger or smaller teammates.
Hazing, though a kind of bullying, has a different purpose than typical bullying. Rather than reinforcing a student’s outsider and inferior status and making it clear that the student being bullied will never be accepted into the bully group, hazing is framed as a rite of passage that must be endured before a student is accepted into the group. Hazing is often defended by both hazers and hazees and framed as a positive activity: team building.
What does it take to change this deeply rooted aspect of sports culture? Laws help. Education helps. Public exposure helps.
The real route to change, however, requires a much deeper change in athletics. Hazing will always be with us unless we can make respect a key underlying core value in athletics. Respect for self, teammates, referees, opponents and the game. As long as sports are thought of as a metaphor for war and the process of competition is framed as battle of masculine domination and subordination, hazing will continue to be an accepted part of sport culture. I am not talking about respect as it is often used in sports. I am not talking about perceived slights to one’s manhood as disrespect or earning respect because of one’s dominance as a feared physical presence on the field.
I mean respect as a baseline expectation of all coaches and athletes in all aspects of athletics. Respect as a core value would mean never tolerating hazing, bullying, name-calling, taunting, stomping or any of the other cheap ways that athletes and coaches seek a superficial imitation of respect.
I love sports and competition. They have been a part of most of my life as a high school, college and adult athlete. I have not always been respectful myself in my interactions with opponents or teammates, but perfection is not the goal. The goal is learning to be respectful when it is most difficult. The heat of competition challenges us to live up to our ideals, but when athletes and coaches do it, they earn a deeper kind of respect. Respect begets respect.
We need coaches who can teach this to young athletes. We need pro athletes who set an example of what true respect looks like. We need to teach young athletes that hazing is not only illegal, it is disrespectful and unacceptable on a much deeper level . I hope every high school coach in the country takes this opportunity to sit down with her or his team to talk about hazing and respect and makes it clear that being a teammate is not about enduring humiliation and degradation or inflicting pain and embarrassment. It is about respect and support. It is about the collective pursuit of excellence with honor.
Sadly, in sports, we too often accept a pale and distorted definition of respect that in its fragility and artificiality, actually promotes behaviors that we profess to abhor.