Saturday, March 19, 2011

Why Do The Kids Have Beans In Their Ears? It's Hazing Season Again

I'm sorry - what position do you play?
Years ago, one of my students told me about a team hazing gone wrong.  First year athletes were forced to drink massive amounts of alcohol.  Then strippers, hired by the older students, were brought onto the scene.  The strippers disrobed down to their G-strings and initiated a lap dancing thingie with the team initiates.  But then one of the students being hazed freaked out, started yelling and tried to escape (the doors were locked, of course.) Two other students passing by heard the commotion, called Public Safety, and then broke a window because they thought the person inside was in danger.

Want to know the best part?  The team doing the hazing was a women's team and the strippers were male. The young woman who freaked out, who was also drunk out of her mind, thought she was going to be raped as part of the "initiation."  The student rescuers were also male, by the way, which is a nice part of the story (although the students relating it had a kind of "can you believe those d0ucheb!gs?" look on their faces while relating this portion of the sorry tale.)

Let's leave aside the kind of money that is spent on these teams to have the whole enterprise be damaged, not only by the drinking and brutality itself, but by canceling the season when it is discovered, firing athletes from the team, and having a scandal to deal with as the coaches try to recruit other athletes.  What is so agonizing about this little Lord of the Flies scenario is that at Zenith, like all other schools, hazing is illegal and those who do it theoretically subject to severe penalties.  Students know this.  Each team gets a little talk from the athletic director at the beginning of the season explaining this in graphic detail:  I am the faculty adviser to one of the teams, so I've heard the talk that every team gets, and there is nothing unclear about the policy.

Then students go out and haze new team members anyway.  And students agree to be hazed, having been told it is dangerous and wrong, but leaving that information at the door because it is the kind of thing dumb grownups talk, talk, talk about.  (Note:  the incident I described above did not happen on the team I am connected to.)

Fast forward to the swim team scandal at Middlebury College reported by ABC News yesterday:

Little is known about what happened in early February at a swim team party. The event was designed to welcome first-year swimmers onto the team, but the school newspaper the Middlebury Campus reported that the party "crossed the line from innocent initiation to hazing."

This isn't the first time the Middlebury swim teams have faced tough punishment for hazing. In 2006, the men's season was canceled due to a hazing incident that involved alcohol. In 2003, the women's team missed two meets for hazing related offenses.

My question is:  why do people have to be initiated into athletic teams at all?  Isn't coming to practice enough?  And why does the discussion about sexual violence on campus not get connected to the fact that women are brutalizing each other too but calling it something else?  As a relevant aside about the willingness of students to participate in dangerous and painful acts that are the price of "belonging," click on the link above. After viewing an ad about psoriasis, you can see a short news item about a branding scandal at Texas Christian University, which the boy's parents only know about because the burn is so severe that he will require several surgeries to repair it.  Look at the $hit-eating grin on the face of the kid who was branded, and compare it to his parents' outrage.

Middlebury isn't saying what happened, probably on the advice of  their attorneys (the men's team was briefly pulled from competition too, but has apparently been permitted to continue their season.) Since Vermont has laws against hazing, if I were a local prosecutor I would start dumping paper on them right now since this is the second swim team scandal that has become public:  the men's team had its season cancelled in 2006.

But I think Middlebury should say what happened, because it is happening at other schools too.  I became privy, because of email address confusion and the tendency of angry people to hit "reply to all," to a second athletic scandal some years ago that resulted in a number of upper level students being tossed off the team mid-season.  I was stunned by the nature of the behavior being disciplined and the large numbers of people who must have known about it prior to it being discovered by administrators.  Furthermore, although it was probably a parent who blew the whistle in the first place, I was shocked by the number of parents who didn't think what had happened was such a big deal and that the punishment was out of line with the behavior (which was clearly illegal and a potential expulsion offense at Zenith.)  They were outraged that the administration even thought it was their business that this thing had happened on school property. Several emails said pointedly that the abrupt termination of their progeny's athletic career was a punishment to them because of all the sacrifices they had made in helping to develop that child as an athlete (which would make a lot of illegal behavior acceptable because.....?)

I may be one of fewer than five people left on campus who actually knows what happened, and this is because, like rape,  colleges balance the probability that this behavior will continue regardless of what they do against their strong desire to manage public information about the school.  The secrecy of college judicial boards undermines a critical function of punishment, which is to deter future behavior by making it clear to the larger community what constitutes unethical behavior and why it is unethical.  If Middlebury is distinguishing between "initiations" (which are OK?) and hazing (which is not), but being mysterious about the difference between the two, they aren't acting effectively to prevent future violations.

16 comments:

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The secrecy of college judicial boards undermines a critical function of punishment, which is to deter future behavior by making it clear to the larger community what constitutes unethical behavior and why it is unethical.

My understanding is that the reason for this confidentiality is to prevent young people's lives from being ruined by a public record of stupid shitte they do in college. Obviously, however, that needs to be balanced by the harms of confidentiality--including the one you point out--but it is important to recognize that the confidentiality is not purely institutional self-service.

RP said...

I think, Comrade, that might be the proclaimed logic of the institution, but I think this act of benevolence is more about class interest when you think about whose "lives" are being protected here. I think the point is that even a public reprimand won't ruin their lives, because the whole spectacle is occurring within a culture that is uncomfortable with condemning the behavior. And I'm sorry, but participating in peer torture should ruin your reputation (and we're talking about the perpetrators' reputations here, not "lives"--plenty of offenders in other class brackets maintain a life after public penalization).

Anonymous said...

I have an odd perspective, having been a part of a couple of varsity teams. I actually quite understand the initiation process, since it gets formerly disparate members of the group to think of themselves as a unit. Sometimes the initiations are gross or weird, because that way it creates an atmosphere where the team members are the only ones who understand, who "get it." By "gross," I can mean things as simple as farting (something my teams did and joked about quite a bit), and by "weird," I mean things like secret chants or dorky pre-game ritual.

That's, I think, the distinction between initiation and the horrific process of hazing, though people rarely elaborate on that. I think that the insular atmosphere of the team means that team members are easily resistant to speeches and lectures. College students are kids, and kids are incredibly susceptible to one another. I know that, before official lectures on things like hazing, we joked and made snide comments; we joked afterward, too. It means that no matter how serious the lecturer is, you won't remember what was said. What I think might be indicated is for coaches and team leaders to take a more active role in fostering discussion about hazing within the team. If the coaches are willing to take their teams aside and have a group discussion about what is and isn't permissible, it will make things a lot more navigable for the new members of the team.

As a side note, I was part of a team that was essentially co-ed, and an all-women's team, and the women's team was the one that verged on hazing. I think single-gender atmospheres can encourage this.

rustonite said...

Hazing and initiations are the same thing, and they're both fundamentally about a lack of trust.

In healthy relationships, trust is built over time: your teammates come to practice, do their share of the work, you spend social time together outside of practice, and gradually a bond forms so that you can rely on them on the field.

A significant number of people lack the ability to develop trust in that way. They were probably abused, although not in a way that's legally recognized as abuse- their parents were emotionally unavailable, or just plain unreliable. So instead of developing normal relationships, they have to create elaborate rituals to demonstrate that other people are trustworthy.

Hazing and initiation rituals are both manifestations of this lack of trust; hazing is just what we call it when it gets out of control. They get created when a significant part of a group lacks the ability to trust properly, and persist because of social inertia, since most young adults don't have the force of character yet to stand up to a peer group. You don't tend to see them among adults, because most adults wouldn't put up with that shit. Instead, you see individual trust rituals among adults: perhaps engaging in mildly socially unacceptable behavior together (getting drunk, going to a strip club).

You can't kill this kind of thing, because even if you clear house on one team or club, the initiation meme will spread from another. The only permanent fix would be to prevent shitty parenting, or to require all students to go to therapy. So, since initiations and hazing are going to pop up no matter what you do, it's better for the institution to embrace the mildest form possible and suppress the worst.

Anonymous said...

At my initiation (women's varsity sport at a very-Zenith-like-institution), I drank a dangerous amount, but I was not forced to. I was encouraged to, and I wanted to impress my new teammates, but another freshman who did not drink was not forced to (and was in fact, encouraged not to go against her self-imposed restrictions). I think this has more to do with the culture of binge drinking that pervades college campuses than it does with hazing.

We also played silly and embarrassing games, but it was by no means torture.

I could see, however, if the team culture were a bit less nurturing and the captains a bit less mature, it could have veered into a problematic situation (and I would have willingly participated).

I think there is a difference between hazing and initiation, though it might be one of degree. I think rustonite is right that they are about trust, but that's the thing about teams--they're essentially arbitrary groups. The sort of natural coalescing that rustonite recommends (and bizarrely thinks only happens between the well-adjusted-- who are these people, I wonder?) takes a lot more time than teams generally have to start functioning well together.

The nature of teams, with people coming and going all the time (on academic teams, at annual intervals at least), makes a desire for a kickstart to recreating the in-group understandable. I think more effective, and clear leadership by the university, athletic department, and coaches could help a lot.

Part of the problem, I think, is that all of these actions are banned, and so there's no way to tell a team that they should have their 18-year-olds take only 10 not 30 shots, or that they should perhaps require them to act out funny plays, but not require them to submit to unwanted lap dances.

Young people in groups make poor decisions. That's neither new nor eradicable, so it seems that finding effective ways to mitigate that might be the way to go.

Clearly, simple hazing prohibitions don't really work, neither does the current boilerplate lecture that all NCAA teams get. I would recommend, perhaps, that all team captains be required to attend some sort of relatively intensive workshop that covers the legal consequences of hazing, examples of non-hazing team-building practices, and basic alcohol safety.

Tenured Radical said...

Good comment but -- t-t-t-t-ten shots? How about three?

Shelly said...

At my initiation (swim team, Zenith-like school), we drank a little (and that was by choice -- there were people my year who didn't drink and that was fine) and then were sent on a scavenger hunt wearing old, torn swimsuits over our clothes (which we thought was funny, I guess it could have been embarrassing but we were walking in a group and it didn't faze us. We had to do things like get condoms from the health center and check out a certain book at the library. I remember it being fun bonding, and see that as the difference between "initiation" and "hazing." The former is fun and establishes genial camraderie. The latter is mean or has the potential to hurt people (physically or emotionally).

Anonymous said...

I was in a varsity sport and a sorority at an ivy league and although there were several initiation type activities, I don't ever remember being uncomfortable or being asked to do something that I would not have done sober, or that I couldn't tell my parents about. Those that didn't want to drink, did not have to. In addition, my sport (the same sport that you advise TR) was dry from January to June and the captains took that very seriously- if you were caught drinking you were off the team.

On another note, I have felt uncomfortable at an initiation for first-year professors this past year. It was not dangerous, and it was meant to be funny and a bonding experience, but I was not amused.

Tenured Radical said...

I am still curious about the assumption that new team members require initiation, or that some kind of special bonding is required. I played two varsity sports in college, and granted, this was immediately after Title IX implementation, but if anything other than practice made us a unit, it was the sense that being a woman athlete was something special that we shared. Having a successful season should drive a sense of common goal. Being part of a team *is* a privilege, but that privilege is earned through achievement, and I suppose if I were a coach I would see this other stuff as a distraction.

And why the need to embarrass newcomers or make them feel shame? It just seems dumb and not very grown up.

But if student athletes think they need these rituals, it does seem like there are some meaningful distinctions between the attitudes a team takes towards them. I am also seeing that there might be something called a team ethic that is created over time & that determines whether the rituals go in a good or a bad direction. Theoretically a good team ethic could be reinforced by a welcoming ritual. Myself? I would make them run stairs, but that's just me.

Re. new faculty orientations: ugh. Did you have to stand around and watch the administrators do shots? No seriously -- what's weird about these things is that we have now created a university where people no longer have the time or the leisure to join the enterprise & make friends in the ways that are right for them.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

On another note, I have felt uncomfortable at an initiation for first-year professors this past year. It was not dangerous, and it was meant to be funny and a bonding experience, but I was not amused.

What the fucke kind of professor initiation did you have??? I've never heard of such a thing.

jim said...

I wonder if the first case you mentioned had to do with homophobia. We're all hetgirls here; no lesbians on this team.

Shelly said...

I don't have a definitive answer on the need for initiation, but some thoughts:
--depending on the sport, college practices can be very different than high school/club ones. in this sense, initiation is about contact outside of practice that creates a bond that helps newcomers adjust to new practices.

--depending on the size of the team (12 bball players is different than 35 swimmers), it's a way to get to know people that you might not practice with (e.g., in swimming -- different strokes, distances, and speeds often train more or less together)

--it's about developing some common experience/lingo/memories outside of the sport itself which may lend itself to friendship in ways merely practicing will not.

--what strikes me about the midd incident is the timing: at my school, initiation occurred in the fall, way before the season started. this also lends itself to an explanation: b/c we only had "captains' practices" before nov 1, initiation was a way to gather the team together and bond before official, mandatory practices began. most people went to captains' practices anyways, but it wasn't "as real" as practicing with a coach. initiation was a way to transition into the real (if I recall correctly, our scavenger hunt was late september/early october).

just some thoughts off the top of my head. again, my experience was that initiation was a fun bonding experience -- akin to a short camping trip or a freshmen hall activity -- not a risky/hard/mean/demeaning hazing incident. I really do think the content and context matter as to what counts as hazing and what counts as initiation. I think they may start from the same impulse but actually occur and exist quite differently.

Tenured Radical said...

Could have. But my guess is that it was a drinking thing that became dangerous, since most of these initiations seem to involve booze. And whether it is consensual drinking or not, when the actual activity being consented to is drinking -- and we know that drinking diminishes the capacity to consent -- the people running the initiation have to put strict limits on the drinking and remain sober so that they can enforce them.

Anonymous said...

1:44pm here,
I only said 10 not 3 because three shots isn't really a realistic number for drunken college kids. It is my general experience that many young people don't know the difference between getting really drunk and drinking to the point of alcohol poisoning.
I don't really see *not getting really drunk* as a realistic option in this culture, at least not for some students, so finding the line between unreasonable and unsafe is important, I think.

I think your point about having certain people stay sober and and in charge is an important one, and one that probably wouldn't be all that hard to enforce.

Every team I've ever been on that had an honor code had at least a fair percentage of people who adhered to that honor code. If I had been asked to pledge that at every team party I attended had a designated 'responsible adult,' I would have made sure that this happened and if no one else stepped up, I would either have assumed the role or not attended the party.

Anonymous said...

Just stopping by to say it's refreshing to read such thoughtful discussion of hazing/initiations and the purposes they do and don't serve. As an introvert who's not particular skilled at or fond of sports (solo walking is about my max speed for physical activity -- but I can go a good long way at that), I've always found many "team-building" exercises, and team language in general, off-putting. But I thought it was "just me." It's a relief to see someone with actual sports/team ability and experience saying "I don't see why that's useful/necessary" to some of the same things that strike me that way.

And I will send my 15-year-old niece -- a swimmer -- over here to read if she ever considers Middlebury (or Zenith). I'm half-tempted to do so now, but one chooses one's uncool messages very carefully with 15-year-old relatives, and I don't think this one is urgent (yet). But I could be wrong about that, which worries me. She's already big into group identity as far as her school goes; I hope that doesn't make her too vulnerable to team-identity-building exercises. But I don't know how you check for this sort of thing during college visits, since I'm sure that all colleges assure prospective students and parents that they forbid hazing.

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