The hazing dilemma

match point

Last week’s scandal involving the McGill Redmen football team has once again brought the controversial issue of sports initiations into the spotlight. As details and interviews surface, the issue will garner ever more scrutiny, and no doubt some observers will call for an end to all hazing rituals in university athletics.

We feel we’re in a position to address this issue, having played varsity football and hockey respectively at Queen’s and had an opportunity to see our university’s rookie initiations up close. And make no mistake—after what happened at McGill recently, this issue does need addressing.

The incident at McGill involved an 18-year-old—whose name has not yet been released—who recently spoke out against the hazing practices, to which he was subjected as a rookie on the McGill football team. According to an article in the McGill Tribune, the player alleges that, among other things, he had a chew-toy shoved into his mouth, was forced—despite his objections—to remove his pants, and then was prodded on his buttocks and rectum with a broom handle. The young man said this treatment followed repeated threats of “Dr. Broom,” and was part of a systematic campaign of humiliation and threats by some of the veteran players.

The practices that allegedly occurred in the McGill case are completely unacceptable. Such treatment of players cannot be condoned. This case does, however, provide an interesting lens through which to look at the practice—and continued value—of team initiations.

According to the Canadian Oxford dictionary, “hazing” means “to abuse or to ridicule.” Abuse can never be conditioned but sometimes a bit of ridicule helps create a team-oriented atmosphere, which strengthens relationships and enforces the bonds required to be successful.

The McGill player complained of being made to sing songs and tell jokes at team meals earlier in camp. We don’t see anything wrong with this. Jokes can be kept reasonably clean and are a good way of lightening the mood during the grind of a two-week training camp. Singing songs, while mildly embarrassing for some, is hardly traumatic. Instead, singing “I’m a Little Tea Cup” in a dining hall—as we did during our own training camp—makes players take themselves less seriously. It gives them a chance to let their collective guard down and break the ice in a tense and intimidating atmosphere.

There also seems to be a “just go with it and get through it” attitude toward hazing. It is interesting that only one McGill player has come forward to speak out against the football team’s ritual. It is reasonable to assume that at least the majority of the team’s rookies simply went along with the process.

Why they would remain when the events became so unreasonable is most likely linked to a desire to fit in and a fear of the perceived consequences of bowing out. We acknowledge that there is a large amount of peer pressure involved, which would make it difficult to stand out against the veterans, as the young man from McGill has.

The issue of hazing also raises the issue of trust, whereby players involved in these ceremonies need to be assured that their teammates will not cross the line in their treatment of them. For the McGill players, this trust would have been misplaced, but it is important not to paint all inter-university teams with the same brush.

The issue of hazing therefore comes down to two considerations: where to draw the line of acceptability, and how make sure that line isn’t crossed. Those concerned by the events at McGill should focus on these things, rather than try to abolish initiations altogether. When carried out in the correct spirit, hazing can be an invaluable team-bonding ritual. It creates trust and interaction between players. It can also be fun.

Where the line should be drawn is fairly clear. Overly sexual rituals are bound to make people uncomfortable. While many rookies may take such things in jest, there is bound to be someone who does not, and who feels seriously violated. Forcing players to do unpleasant things seems to have little merit as well.

Activities such as skits, singing, creative scavenger hunts, costumes, and drinking within reasonable limits should not be outlawed, provided it is understood that players are not obligated to comply if they object.

Coaches should also assume some responsibility for their team’s initiation rituals and make the effort to tell rookies that they can report mistreatment confidentially and without fear of a backlash.

Most of all, however, veteran players must be sensible. They must remember what it felt like to be one of the rookies, and they must not use their position of leadership as an opportunity to act out their misguided desires to humiliate the insecure. Veterans must understand that the purpose of such parties is not to torment other players, but to make them feel welcome, and to create a level of comfort that can’t be found just by interaction at practices and meetings.

The McGill player has said he intends to leave the school because he has been made so uncomfortable that he does not feel he can continue there. What was supposed to be a team-building ritual has created lasting, scarring results. This is a disturbing tragedy, and the members of the McGill football team responsible for the ordeal should be heavily punished.

However, it is worth remembering that hazing is not always an ugly monster. Initiations have pulled many teams together and cemented a lot of friendships when carried out appropriately.

Coaches and athletes alike need to step back and evaluate what their initiation rituals are really accomplishing. It’s important to make rookies feel that they are part of the team, not like outsiders. Making new athletes feel somehow inferior to veteran players through degrading and sexualized activity may hurt the team’s performance in the long run. What’s more, it’s ethically unacceptable.

It’s imperative that varsity teams make sure they don’t chase anyone from Queen’s athletics—or from Queen’s for that matter—because they forget the importance and the spirit of building a cohesive team.

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