Recent events have sparked the debate among coaches, fans, media, the NFL, and the entire sports world whether hazing in athletics is an unhealthy culture among players. Although it is difficult to determine the exact percentage of athletes that have encountered hazing, an Alfred University study found that 80% of college athletes had been hazed. However, the distinction between what is hazing and what is not is unclear. First, the sport world would have to define the word “hazing.” It must be understood how far a “harmless” prank can be taken before it is considered hazing—which may never be absolute. Are all jokes intended at a player or group of players hazing? Is the tough-skin attitude coaches strive for just part of the game? Though some may disagree with the label “hazing,” there have been many reported instances within sports that players are seriously harmed due to foul horseplay.
Just a few weeks ago, a story about the hazing of Jonathan Martin, a Miami Dolphins rookie player, became public. The Chicago Tribune reported that Martin received a voice mail from fellow teammate, Richie Incognito, attacking him with racial slurs and threats, along with other allegations. In October 2013, Martin walked out on the Dolphins claiming emotional distress. He reported to have been continuously hazed by his teammates, specifically Incognito. After much discussion, some NFL players felt that Martin was weak and selfish for leaving the team, while others felt Martin was smart to leave the team (Huffington Post). The line between what is considered hazing, and what is considered part of the sport is very controversial. After receiving negative attention from the public, the Dolphins suspended Incognito indefinitely. When Brett Farve first heard of the situation in Miami he said to NBC, “My initial reaction was, You’ve got to be kidding me. What? Pro football bullying? We’re playing the toughest sport, most violent, not to mention you’re men, some older than others, so it’s not like a little 12-year-old on the playground.” It’s important to recognize that people react to teasing differently, and although Incognito may have truly believed he was just being funny, Martin took it very seriously. “It is part of the locker room,” Favre said, “There’s a lot of guys getting picked on, some handle it well some don’t handle it well. I’m not saying it’s right. And from a locker room sense, from a team sense, I’m not saying it’s wrong. It’s just the way it is” (NBC Sports). Even though pranks may be common in the NFL locker room, the intention of the player’s action needs to be clear.
Brendon Ayanbadejo, a former Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens player and 10-year veteran to the NFL, also dealt with hazing. He described how a good-natured situation could get out of hand quickly. In Ayanbadejo’s experience, once when a player showed resistance to the rookie hazing, he was wrapped in plastic wrap like a mummy and thrown in an ice water. The same process would occur for a player’s birthday, but the rookies would be wrapped upside down on the goal post and dunked in water. While this occurred the players would gather around and laugh. Ayanbadejo soon realized the line had been crossed. He writes, “It started to become a mob mentality” (Fox Sports). Nevertheless, it didn’t stop him from taking part in future hazing; he now knows not to go too far into someone else’s boundaries (Fox Sports). What some athletes fail to realize is how fast a prank intended to be minor prank can develop into a situation where people feel victimized.
Not only is hazing seen in football, but other professional sports like hockey. The Washington Capitals have not seen anything as major as the Miami Dolphins situation, however the team has rookie traditions that could be considered hazing. The team has a traditional rookie dinner, in which the rookies split the tab of a nice meal for the team. Joel Ward, right wing for the Caps, said that his rookie year he had to pick up a bill of an estimated $8,000. However, it was stated that his teammates did not go out of their way to make the bill expensive; there is a cap to what they can spend. Additionally, the players who make more money on the team will sometimes chip in to help. The “donkey work” continues on the rink as well; the rookies are responsible to pick up the pucks after practice. The veterans in the organization do not see these types of activities as a problem; they say that everyone goes through them once and then get the benefits of them for the next years. Lurch said, “You just take your lumps and then you’re done with it” (CBS DC). Although the situation with the Capitals is not physical abuse, a group of people is being alienated and subjected to something, which some may argue could be considered hazing.
Hazing in professional sports sets a poor example for lower level athletics, including college sports. Colligate level hazing rituals are not uncommon. In October this year, two Nichols College freshman rugby players were hospitalized due to hazing. The new members of the team were forced to consume large amounts of alcohol by veteran members. The upperclassmen leading the hazing called this an “initiation.” Originally the freshman said they were told they would not be accepted on to the team if they did not drink the liquor. Later, they said that they chose to drink. Either way, it seems clear that the freshman were targeted for an unsafe initiation to the team. Some men on the team, including freshmen, believed that their treatment towards the new players was acceptable. One player said, "Rookies no matter what grade do this drinking day as a tradition. We all play games and sing team songs. This is what makes us different” (Telegram & Gazette). This man fails to realize that labeling something as a “tradition,” does not make it appropriate to repeat. It’s these sorts of traditions that can easily get out of control and endanger the lives of players. According to a study by Alfred University, 39% of athletes, or 126,256 athletes, nationally were victims of hazing involving alcohol. In a 2008 study, 74% of college varsity athletes reported being hazed in their sport (U.S. News). These percentages make it clear that hazing has become somewhat of a norm in athletics. There must be action taken to rid people of this belief and lower the percentage of sufferers.
The hazing trend continues to spread to younger and younger age athletes, as it is also a huge issue in high school teams across the nation. A vast number of high school students have been arrested and injured due to sport related hazing. Just last month, two upperclassmen were arrested on the Hutchinson High School football team for acts involving burning four freshman on the varsity team with heated coat hangers (The Wichita Eagle). Athletes are learning at a young age that they can pick on less experienced kids without having to put up a fight. Experienced kids have turned the desire to be accepted into a weakness that they can abuse. In most cases, athletes get away with the hazing and there are no consequences. Some of the victims develop the idea that hazing is to be expected from the veterans, and eventually they, the victim, will get to be the hazer on the other side of the situation. Subsequently, an unhealthy cycle has been created, that clearly does not stop as the players mature. If older athletes were to take at stand and publicize that hazing is not acceptable, it is possible that hazing, especially at the lower levels of sports, would decrease.
Hazing within athletics can take serious mental, physical, and emotional tolls on players. Seemingly innocent pranks and words have put athletes health in jeopardy. All people have different experiences and tolerance levels; what could seem harmless to one person could be seriously crippling to another. Hazing, as innocent as paying for dinner, promotes the idea that isolation is acceptable. And, although there are a great deal of arrests each year, the amount of hazing that takes place in sports has yet to drastically decline. In order for this unacceptable trend to end, the sports world needs to publicize exactly what “hazing” means, along with a well-defined anti-hazing policy. The differences between appropriate treatment and hazing need to be common knowledge. Rather than bully the less experienced, the veterans should use their power to become role models, giving the rookies a goal to strive for. Although the athletes live in a world where strength is “taking it like a man,” the athletes need to know these activities are not to be expected or tolerated. Still, should these disgraceful events occur, the policy must be strictly enforced.