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

March 19, 2011, 11:48 am

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.

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