Start understanding the invisible norms, social costs, prevalence - and what you can do about it.
I have found myself reflecting on the notion of rites of passage while reading recent accounts of the alleged sexual abuse of younger players by varsity football team members in Sayerville, N.J. Examples of “rites of passage” can be found in most cultures and inter-generationally. Associated with initiation into adulthood, these rituals involve a young person enduring severe physical/psychological hardship and/or risking death or serious injury to perform a task deemed essential to proving skills valued by one’s tribe. (Think Masai youth venturing alone into the savannah to kill a lion with a spear…) Even if the initiate avoided the physical death that might be the consequence of such a ritual, he or she underwent a symbolic, psychological death of childhood, viewed as necessary by the elders for successful transition into full-fledged adulthood.
North American “Rites of Passage”
Reading the long list of recent sports-related hazing incidents prompts me to wonder if some high school locker rooms are the current equivalent of where childhood goes to die. Plenty of examples of brutal behavior toward teammates can be found in collegiate and professional sports, as well. This triggers a further thought: If an initiation rite implies what a society’s elders believe about “tribal” adulthood, the message being heard by some youthful perpetrators is truly terrifying.
The Social Cost of Camaraderie
Perhaps our sense of outrage has been numbed by the prevalence of sensational news stories about hazing so egregious that it results in death, trauma, cancelling of entire sports seasons, victims having to move to new schools in new towns, and criminal charges. And despite the fact that 44 states currently have anti-hazing laws on the books, the headlines and scientific surveys alike reveal that in middle and high school settings, hazing is increasingly violent and involves adolescents sexually abusing their peers. Those who study this trend theorize that social media has played a role in providing young people with examples of far more brutal hazing tactics than those their parents might have participated in. (A study cited later in this piece revealed that in more than half the hazing incidents mentioned by respondents, a member of the offending group posted pictures on a public web space.) The reported facts of the Sayerville case and others like it demand that adults – parents, teachers, and coaches – must not assume that any tradition in which younger players are subjugated by older players is essentially harmless, even when the aim is to build team spirit and camaraderie.
Hazing vs. Bullying
Much attention has rightly been focused on bullying. While the pendulum of social sentiment has appropriately swung away from dismissing bullying as a “normal” part of childhood and early adolescence, or from diminishing the potential harmful effects of being bullied, key differences between bullying and hazing may have clouded our judgment when it comes to adopting zero tolerance for hazing. According to information posted on the website www.HazingPrevention.org, while many of the same intimidation tactics are involved, bullying behavior seeks to exclude the victim; hazing is seen as a means ultimately to include the victims, after they have endured the intimidation, proven their loyalty, and thus “earned” their way onto the team. Bullying is about exclusion; hazing is about inclusion. This distinction apparently confuses both kids and adults, perhaps granting those who haze a “pass” no longer conferred on bullies. Further, no kids want to be bullied, but they may keenly desire the sense of belonging to a team that they see as the result of unpleasant experiences associated with hazing. New team members participate more or less willingly. And many young people who haze their peers see their actions as conferring that status of belonging and as a part of the tradition of their team, not to mention as an expected demonstration of their varsity status. Again, adults need to recognize hazing as not only potentially illegal, but morally untenable. Parents, teachers and coaches are obligated to equip young people to resist, as well as provide support, when they report being party to hazing.
The Hidden “Norm”
In a large national study involving over 10,000 college students (Allan & Madden, 2008), hazing was defined as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” Almost half of the students reported coming to college having already experienced hazing. However, given that nine out of ten students who reported experiencing behavior consistent with the above definition nevertheless did not consider themselves to have been hazed, the prevalence of hazing in high school is probably underreported. Additionally, in 95% of the cases where students did identify their experience as hazing, they did not report to campus officials.
- Parents must acknowledge that this behavior is occurring on a widespread basis.
- Adults in middle and high schools who are responsible for team sports must be more vigilant.
- School administrators must foster a positive school climate that extends to all sports activities.
Prevention Starts at Home
Parents can help their kids grasp the realities of hazing by suggesting they ask themselves the following questions, drawn from the work of HazingPrevention.org:
- Would I feel comfortable participating in this activity if my parents were watching?
- Would we get in trouble if a school administrator walked by and saw us?
- Am I being asked to keep these activities a secret?
- Am I doing anything illegal?
- Is this causing emotional or physical distress or stress to myself or to others?
- Does participation in this activity violate my values?
Leading a Cultural Shift
Again, the cultural response to bullying has begun to shift away from entrenched but misguided notions – adults should “let the kids sort it out” or enduring peer intimidation will help a young person “develop grit” – to an understanding of the long-term, insidious harm caused when bullying is tolerated. Experts on hazing note that despite more high profile cases or anti-hazing laws, only a similar cultural shift will result in change. And they point out that adult leadership is critical.
- Clarify Expectations: Parents and educators must take a strong stand that any activity that involves subjugating a new teammate is counterproductive to positive bonding, not to mention morally wrong. Teenagers naturally want to be more creative than the class preceding them; unfortunately this puts them on a dangerously slippery slope when it comes to upping the ante with regard to hazing.
- Encourage Assertiveness: As is the case with bullying, adults should focus energy on encouraging bystanders to speak up when they are uncomfortable with any form of peer intimidation.
- Enforce Family Values: Parents must clearly communicate to their kids that any path to team membership involving ritual humiliation is not worth the price of “belonging”, i.e., “I hope you get to play on the team for many reasons, but nothing would justify your being intimidated by older teammates/ intimidating younger teammates.” Sports participation should not require abandoning essential values. (Parents of varsity football players not involved in the alleged sexual abuse in Sayerville have signaled they may sue the school district for cancelling the season because they fear their sons’ prospects for playing Division I football are being jeopardized. Consider the message that this conveys about what they truly value.)
- Develop Safe Reporting Mechanisms: Parents and administrators must unite in assuring young people that their reports of hazing will be handled responsibly. If the priority is to establish an emotionally and physically safe environment for young athletes (as it should be!) then adults must guarantee a safe place for victims, or others reporting, to come forward.
- Designing Intentional Hazing Substitutions: Teachers and coaches can help young people examine school traditions around initiation, and facilitate establishing safe, effective options for fostering team unity and loyalty. All activities should communicate respect and support for new team members.
Establishing improved traditions for initiating new players to the team can provide a genuine opportunity for returning players to consider what they value most about team sports, and then design rituals that foster a sense of belonging by reflecting those positive values. In the process, team captains and varsity members get to practice leadership skills and make ongoing activities their own, rather than perpetuating a questionable practice because “that’s what we did last year.”