Queen’s Athletics reacts to hazing

McGill’s stadium sits empty after football season cancellation.
McGill’s stadium sits empty after football season cancellation.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of the McGill Tribune / Vladimir Emerin

“Team and club socials that degrade the individual, have forced participation, have alcohol or narcotic consumption, require nudity, place a person in a compromised position/situation, or involve general hooliganism, are not acceptable.”

—Queen’s Athletics Policy on Hazing

In the last two months the often-controversial issues of athletic hazing and “rite-of-passage” initiations have been dragged into the public spotlight and condemned by the media. As a result, athletic traditions and initiations across the nation have been placed under scrutiny and are up for debate.

In September, the respected reputation of McGill University was tarnished by allegations the university’s football team had subjected its rookies to hazing practices that degraded and demoralized the first-year players. One of the McGill rookies spoke out against the practices—after being told to strip, having a chew toy shoved in his mouth, and being threatened with sodomy—and a national scandal ensued.

As the dust of McGill football’s disgrace began to settle, hazing was again thrust into the national spotlight as two players from the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires pummelled each other during a practice—an incident videotaped by the local media.

Allegations quickly emerged that the fight was the result of the aftermath of another team hazing incident. According to a statement released by the OHL, Windsor rookie Akim Aliu had refused to take part in an initiation ritual known as the “sweat-box” in which team rookies are told to strip naked and pile into the washroom of a coach bus. He was ostracized by his teammates for not participating and the tension allegedly boiled over during the practice when team veteran Steve Downie and Aliu got into the fight.

In both instances, authorities reacted strongly. After an in-depth investigation into the football hazing allegations, McGill University attempted to distance itself from the scandal, officially cancelling its football season on Oct. 18.

“Hazing is based on humiliation and degradation,” McGill’s Interim Provost Dr. Anthony Masi said in a statement. “It has no place at McGill. It will not be tolerated in any form. No excuses.

No exceptions.”

However, some players from the McGill football team have reacted differently. Quarterback Matt Connell told the Montreal Gazette that the media has blown the incident out of proportion and that the team has been wronged.

“Obviously something went wrong with this one individual,” he said. “He took something the wrong way and, to this day, we don’t know why or what. Something obviously is wrong if he’s the only person who’s ever had a problem. I went through initiation ... it was along the same lines.”

McGill’s reaction to the hazing incidents was echoed by the OHL’s reaction to the scandal in Windsor. After investigating the incident, OHL commissioner David Branch suspended Windsor’s general manager and head coach Moe Mantha for one year as GM and 25 games as coach. Windsor was also fined $25,000 for the hazing incidents and another $10,000 for the fights during practice.

In a statement, Branch condemned the lack of leadership shown by Mantha, who was on the team bus when the hazing incident occurred.

“The OHL has a zero tolerance policy against hazing,” Branch said. “Our member teams know that, and that is why it is imperative that the league make a strong statement against it.”

The McGill and Windsor incidents raise the question of who is responsible for an inappropriate initiation ritual.

In the case of Windsor and Mantha, the OHL’s sanctions made clear their feeling that the coach has a responsibility to govern the conduct of his team.

In the McGill situation the entire team was punished for the actions of a few veteran—albeit irresponsible—players.

Where should the responsibility for hazing actually fall?

John McFarlane, chair of Queen’s Athletics and Recreation, said that at Queens, all participants bear some responsibility for ensuring hazing doesn’t happen. He said at the beginning of each Queen’s athletic session all interuniversity athletes must agree to Queen’s Student-Athlete Conduct Guidelines at the compulsory Eligibility and Drug Education session.

“At Queen’s we take a proactive, educational approach through our administrative and coaching leaders with team captains and varsity athletes to promote positive team-building activities,” McFarlane said. “Our Student-Athlete Conduct-Welcoming Party Guidelines [state] the types of activities that are not acceptable and the sanctions that will be applied if adherence to these guidelines is not followed.”

McFarlane said these guidelines are also presented in writing to all Gaels coaching staff and are the fundamental premise of participation for all team captains and coaches, who must sign off on the guidelines.

The policy states that Queen’s athletic teams may have “team socials in relation to the formation of their team,” but that they must be “performed in a manner that respects an individual’s human rights and integrity and in no way can be perceived as demeaning by the individuals involved.

“The common message is that personal choice must be respected at all times, with no repercussions for individuals who decline to participate in any event activity,” said McFarlane. “Personal safety of participants must be maintained at all times.”

Football head coach Pat Sheahan spoke with the Journal regarding hazing in university sports.

“What has transpired at McGill should put programs across the country—not just football, but all sports—on standby,” he said. “I think a lot of coaches are feeling a little bit uneasy right now.”

Sheahan said that the unsupervised nature of initiation practices complicates the issue.

“The administrations and coaches want no part of [initiations],” he said. “They don’t want to sanction them, so the reaction is to prohibit them. They’re not supervised, so they go on in an underground fashion. There’s the potential for a few guys to get too liquored up and take things too far.”

Sheahan acknowledged that this is the situation at Queen’s as well.

“In our case, it’s a non-sanctioned event because we don’t want to be responsible for what goes on, even though we’re responsible if something happens,” he said. “With no coaches there to supervise the event, there’s no way to know when the line is crossed. [McGill football coach] Chuck McMann is a good-living man—he’s a Christian athlete. There’s no way he stands for abusing anyone.”

Sheahan said issues have arisen from initiation practices at Queen’s in the past, but declined to say when or what team was involved.

“There have been some problems in the past,” he said.

Sheahan also speculated on why initiations continue to happen, and said that he thinks most initiations fall short of being harmful.

“I think they’re maintained out of a sense of tradition,” he said. “It’s the idea of seeing if the individual’s skin is thick enough—if he’s fit to wear the jersey. I think the vast majority of initiations are tomfoolery—

they’re non-destructive and, I’d say, nonsensical.”

However, Sheahan added the effects on any individual player are unpredictable.

“There’s not enough sensitivity—I don’t think in today’s society you can assume much,” he said. “You don’t know what has transpired in their lives.”

Gaels football star linebacker Ian Hazlett also spoke to the Journal regarding hazing.

“Our stance is there’s no hazing allowed,” he said. “The definition of hazing is that it’s degrading, and we don’t do that. We do some very minor stuff—tell a joke, sing a song, that sort of thing.”

Hazlett added that while he hasn’t heard the whole story about McGill, he thinks that hazing has to be punished in order to be prevented.

“I don’t know the details of the McGill situation, but I guess the University felt that they needed to take strong action,” he said. “If that’s what they felt was needed to prevent that sort of thing from happening, that’s what you have to do.”

Men’s hockey head coach Kirk Muller said he has witnessed and participated in his share of initiations. After playing in the NHL for 19 years, the six-time all-star said that he understands the purpose of initiations but does not condone forceful or degrading activity.

“I think you call a spade a spade. I’ve seen and been a part of things that have happened,” he said. “There’s a different standard of what’s expected than before. Initiation is fun for any team, but there are boundaries for what’s accepted today.”

Women’s hockey head coach Harold Parsons said initiations have no place on his team.

“I don’t personally see any reason for any type of initiation on a hockey team,” he said. “For us, when the team is selected, that’s the team. It’s not something you turn a blind eye to—you don’t embarrass or humiliate a player.”

Andrea Leblanc, a second-year forward on the women’s hockey team, echoed her coach’s sentiments.

“We don’t focus on making rookies a part of the team through that kind of thing,” she said. “Once they’re on the team, they’re on the team.”

Clinton McCullough, a rookie on the men’s hockey team, said he is not bothered by the initiations that most first-year players undergo on hockey teams.

“Basically we have to do a little grunt work,” he said, describing how hockey rookies often have to perform small tasks such as picking up pucks at the end of practice. “The older guys have gone through it—it’s my turn. I have no issue with it—I have never been humiliated to a large extent.”

McCullough added that he sees the value that rookie initiations can have, and is not worried about anything degrading happening to him.

“I feel like we have a good bond,” he said of his new team. “We all have respect for each other.”

Gaels hockey veteran Brian Moore told the Journal he thought the incident at McGill was disturbing, adding that it is not indicative of most team initiations.

“What we do [on this team] is not even in the same spectrum,” he said. “We just have a different level of respect. We won’t make anyone do something they don’t want to do.”

Jamie Brock, also of the men’s hockey team, said he thinks the mentality behind initiations has changed a lot in the last decade.

“It used to be that anything went,” he said. “We’re more respectful now. No one on our team is ever forced to do anything.”

Queen’s Code of Conduct for varsity athletes and coaches leaves potential ramifications for infractions vague.

The policy states that “when individuals, student athletes/staff or teams have failed to conduct themselves in accordance with this code of conduct, or when individuals or teams have committed an act which is considered to be a breach of the code, the University has the right and obligation to take the necessary disciplinary measures as may be appropriate in the circumstances.”

According to the policy, it is up to the chair of Athletics and Recreation to determine what disciplinary measures are deemed appropriate for each individual allegation of hazing.

The recent scandals at McGill and Windsor suggest that hazing and initiations continue to be an issue in competitive athletics.

Sheahan said that although he’s unaware of initiation practices on his team, he suspects that they are widespread.

“I think if one were to scratch below the surface, there would be some stories, and not all of them would be pretty.”

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