When rites go wrong
Initiating new members to a team is an age-old rite of passage that's meant to promote team loyalty and build up athletes' confidence. So how have hazing rituals come to this?
The photos are candid snapshots of a part of student life most universities and colleges probably wish didn't take place. Among the tamer ones: a women's swim team member with "Do Me Here" written on her bare back and arrows pointing to her buttocks. A shirtless young man from a baseball team having his hair buzzed off while he holds a bottle of what looks like vodka to his lips. A volleyball player blindfolded, tied to a post, dressed in a dress and splattered with some sort of liquid.
The photos, posted on the Internet at badjocks.com, were from sports team hazings in the United States and were included in a presentation to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport annual general meeting in Ottawa in June. With the start of a new academic year, and with the memory of incidents at McGill and Simon Fraser universities still fresh, hazing is on the minds of a lot of athletic directors.
Harmless fun? Valuable team-building? That's what teams' initiation rites are supposed to be. But changing technologies, in particular digital cameras and the Internet, mean that more people are finding out about formerly secret rituals - rituals that, according to some researchers, have become more sexualized and more degrading. And changing attitudes mean more initiates are willing to complain about the rituals. The result is that hazing is now largely prohibited, while university sports officials try to find positive ways to build team spirit - ways that don't involve excessive drinking, humiliation, nudity or broomsticks.
The Simon Fraser swim team was prevented from competing at a championship in March, and the university revised its code of conduct, after it determined that unacceptable behaviour took place at a house party organized by senior team members. Last year, McGill cancelled its football season after an 18-year-old rookie said he was sexually assaulted with a broomstick.
"We really don't have a good sense of how prevalent [hazing] is," says Marg McGregor, executive director of CIS. She says she knows of no Canadian statistics on hazing. "Part of that is that people just aren't going to go on record and say it's happening."
The data that exist are from the United States. A 1999 study of initiation rites in U.S. sports teams prepared by Alfred University in Alfred, New York, found that more than three-quarters of the 325,000 university athletes in the U.S. had experienced some form of hazing to join a team. Half of those rituals involved alcohol, two-thirds involved humiliation and one in five involved illegal or violent activities such as kidnappings, beatings or crime.
The study defines hazing as any activity that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers a person wanting to join a group. It notes that "because people's perceptions of hazing vary, it is difficult to delineate positive or acceptable initiation rites from questionable or unacceptable ones." What one student finds funny or acceptable, another will find degrading.
The Alfred University study was part of a presentation to the CIS annual meeting by Joseph de Pencier, director of ethics and anti-doping services at the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. A Canadian who played sports at an American university when he was a student, he says he thinks the two countries are similar enough for American statistics to be relevant to Canada.
Initiating newcomers is deeply ingrained not only in sports, but in various aspects of university life. There are some gripping descriptions of hazing in Making the Team: Inside the World of Sport Initiations and Hazing, published in 2004 by Canadian Scholars' Press and edited by Jay Johnson, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, and Margery Holman, a professor in the faculty of human kinetics at the University of Windsor.
In an introductory essay in the book, Mr. Johnson and Brian Trota, the producer of a weekly radio sports show in Toronto, write: "historically, tradition in the hazing ritual is important to bring a sense of cultural identity to the youth."
Dan McNally, director of athletics at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., says that initiations are team-driven. While he doesn't see the benefit, a number of players have told him they felt good about initiations that made them feel part of the team. "For me to sit here and say there's nothing good about it, it's presumptuous," he says. "All the coach does is tell you whether you make the team. Your teammates tell you whether you are part of the team."
The Trota and Johnson article cites a sharp rise in all kinds of hazing on university campuses after the Second World War. But what hazing involves seems to have changed considerably over the last half-century. A description of hazing on U.S. campuses published in October 1956, in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology newspaper The Tech, sounds positively quaint:
"Freshmen are generally required to wear a beanie and an identification tag. Then to give the upperclassmen a feeling of superiority, several rules like do not walk on the grass, carry matches for upperclassmen, know the college songs and cheers and be ready to recite them on demand, etc., are imposed upon the freshmen."
Yet, even then people worried that rituals were becoming bolder and more sexualized. The same article refers to incidents at two Canadian universities. Quoting the Queen's University Journal, it says freshmen were given a tape measure and told to obtain the vital statistics of co-eds designated by seniors. And it describes a "deskirting" of "freshettes" at the University of British Columbia: "The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Freshettes reported that action would be taken against the EUS's [Engineering Undergraduate Society's] treeing four skirtless girls . . . They were left ravished and weeping in the EUS offices by the lustful mob."
Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of urban education at Temple University in Philadelphia whose research focuses on the intersections between youth, popular culture and pedagogy, says there's been a shift over the years in what hazing involves. "Initially, hazing was a practice designed to promote unity and loyalty within a particular organization," he says. "The idea was to break you down and build you up, and in many ways the rituals were symbolic; they weren't abusive. A person may have you doing their laundry for weeks" or rookies might have to carry the baggage of other players.
The rituals were designed to have people humble themselves to ultimately build their self-confidence, and also to have more trust in the organization they were joining, he explains. "But we've become more obsessed with the process than with the product. It becomes more about making someone do what I did, or worse - just for its own sake. Building a strong community is not the goal anymore."
This has led to more degrading hazing ceremonies. "They are going more and more underground, and they are becoming more and more sexualized. You see more homoerotic acts, even among females," says Dr. Lamont Hill.
Curiously, it's technology that allows people to brag digitally about what is supposed to be a secret: that's how photos get posted to the Internet. "It's not just a ritual, it becomes a spectacle," says Dr. Lamont Hill. "Now universities are forced to respond to these things."
These incidents are becoming both public and the subject of complaints, partly because society as a whole is changing. Mr. de Pencier of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport says the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has made people who believe their rights are being violated feel they can take on large institutions. He says the media may also play a role by shining a light on what used to be secret. "Until these things are put under public scrutiny, people don't think about them. The attitude has been: That's the way we have always done things. It's not until you see something on the front page of the Globe or on the Internet that you say, 'That's harmful!'"
It's possible that the competitive sports environment may itself damage athletes' sense of responsibility. Sharon Stoll, a University of Idaho professor of physical education, has measured the moral-reasoning skills of more than 70,000 American student athletes since the 1980s. She says her research shows that athletes have lower moral-reasoning skills than the general student population. Dr. Stoll says she believes the situation is a direct result of the competitive sports environment, where better-than-average players early on develop a sense of entitlement and where competition is often practised in a negative way. A curriculum she's developed, called "Winning with Character" (a four-year intervention program that at least six U.S. colleges have purchased), aims to help players improve their moral reasoning and develop a sense of responsibility through extensive discussion, writing and feedback.
But once you decide to stop hazing, how do you welcome new members into a group? Even people who are front and centre admit there's no magic solution.
Jay Johnson, co-editor of Making the Team (and who's teaching this fall at the University of Windsor), believes it's important to retain the concept of a ritual. "When schools come down with a zero-tolerance policy, it creates a huge void," he says. "I think the ritualistic aspect of the rite of passage is crucial to maintain."
Mr. Johnson also says that sports teams may rebel against hazing alternatives imposed on them by university administrators. One solution is to offer teams a menu of alternatives, or to step back altogether and tell them to develop their own rituals within set limits that don't involve shaving team members, stripping them naked and parading them around.
An option put forward by some universities is community service, which nowadays is often proposed for the broad student community. But Mr. Johnson says community service doesn't work for every team. "Women's teams are a lot more receptive to community service or cooperative games," he says, "whereas the men's teams need challenge or physicality. Things that do work with men's teams are rock climbing, white-water canoeing - something that's challenging."
At McGill, one type of team-building involves getting team members from one sport - say, football - to spend a day with a team from a completely different sport - say, rowing. The footballers learn how to row and at the end of the day have a friendly competition with the rowing team. Captains are encouraged to take the lead in suggesting activities, says Derek Drummond, McGill's interim director of athletics and professor emeritus of architecture.
But positive activities have to be reinforced in other ways to prevent hazing from continuing. "You have to get rid of bad apples who can't adapt," says Mr. Johnson. "And that's from the bottom up - athletes, coaches, athletic directors. They are all complicit in creating this culture."
Ms. McGregor of CIS says that something as simple as selecting team captains can be critical. "All the universities have policies prohibiting hazing. The issue is what happens in those moments when the teams find themselves in a situation. If the captain says 'we're not going to the dark side' then the team will follow."
Ms. McGregor says alumni sometimes pressure teams to keep time-honoured hazing rituals alive, and again it takes a strong captain to resist that pressure.
Corey MacDonald, a fourth-year student in human kinetics, is captain of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees men's hockey team, and he knows what hazing can be like. "I've been around hockey for quite some time, and hazing has always been there," he says, adding that he encountered it before entering university, and it usually involved alcohol.
The Gee-Gees hockey team might make new members clean up the bus after a road trip, or pick up pucks after practice - but that's as far as it goes, says Mr. MacDonald. "We're not interested in alienating guys by embarrassing them."
However, he acknowledges that there are times a team can come under pressure to do things - either from players who have picked up hazing habits in junior hockey, or from alumni who recall stories from their time on the team. "It's my position as captain to put an end that that kind of mentality," he explains. "If the captain is not going to control that, who is?"
For Ms. McGregor of CIS, hazing is "one of those issues that will always be a work in progress." To assert that hazing can be eliminated is like saying racism can be eliminated, she concludes.
"I don't think there's a finish line there. The potential exists for this to occur. You will always need to be vigilant."
Making the Team: Inside the World of Sport Initiations and Hazing, edited by Jay Johnson and Margery Holman, 2004, Canadian Scholars' Press.
Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers, and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment, and Humiliation by Susan Lipkins, 2006, Jossey-Bass Inc.
Codes of conduct
Most universities have codes regulating student behaviour - either codes of conduct or regulations governing such things as sexual harassment. In some cases there are codes specifically for sports teams, but often the general university policy applies. And in many instances, universities are in the process of revising or updating their codes. The following examples link to the codes of selected universities around the country:
Simon Fraser University has a Code of Student Conduct - www.sfu.ca/policies/teaching/t10-01.htm - that outlines inappropriate conduct and provides for penalties, ranging from a warning or reprimand to deregistration, forfeiture of awards or financial assistance and permanent suspension. Registrar Ron Heath says that students signing up for sports have to sign the SFU Clan code for sports teams. Both the sports and the general university codes are in the process of being revised.
University of Saskatchewan has a policy on discrimination and harassment: www.usask.ca/policies/2_05.htm. A specific code on hazing is still in the works.
University of Toronto has a Code of Student Conduct, www.utoronto.ca/govcncl/pap/policies/studentc.html, that deals with such things as sexual harassment and more general items such as knowingly endangering health or safety. Sanctions include reprimands, fines, community work, right up to suspension or expulsion.
University of Ottawa doesn't have a code of student conduct, though it does have a code that applies to students in residence. The university is in the process of preparing a code of conduct for athletes.
University of New Brunswick has a Student Disciplinary Code (www.unb.ca/current/disciplinary_code/) to regulate misconduct. UNB at Saint John also has a handbook for sports clubs (www.unbsj.ca/athletics/clubs/documents/UNBSJClubsHandbook2005-6.pdf) that states hazing is not tolerated: "A good rule to follow when deciding whether an activity is hazing is this: If you have to ask if what you are doing is hazing, it probably is."