Jan 29, 2015
Cutting Through the Haze

By Abigail Funk

Due to close relationships with athletes, athletic trainers and strength coaches sometimes see and hear more of what’s going on in the locker room than sport coaches. That’s why it’s important that they keep their eyes and ears open when it comes to hazing issues. Preventative measures begin with defining and identifying what hazing is.
It’s easy to assume hazing is not an issue for your athletic department–until something happens. That was the case this winter, when an alleged hazing incident on the boys’ volleyball team at Taft High School in Los Angeles resulted in suspensions for its head coach and four players.

Incidents like the one at Taft, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. A major study, titled “Hazing in View,” from University of Maine Professors Elizabeth Allan and Mary Madden recently found that more than 70 percent of college students had been hazed in order to join or maintain their status on an athletic team or extracurricular club. And almost half of the college students surveyed first experienced hazing as a member of an athletic team in high school.

Another major finding of the study is that a majority of students do not understand exactly what constitutes hazing. When asked whether they participated in specific activities that researchers classified as hazing, about 55 percent of students answered yes to at least one. However, when asked if they had been hazed, nine out of 10 said no.

The Maine study also found a reluctance to label a behavior as hazing unless someone was physically harmed. “There was a tendency among most everyone we spoke with to see hazing on a continuum,” says Allan, an Associate Professor in Maine’s College of Education and Human Development. “They talked about low-level hazing, with students more likely to intervene or vocally oppose the hazing only when it reached a higher level.

“There needs to be more awareness about the connection between low-level hazing and the high risks associated with it,” she continues. “People ask, ‘What’s the big deal if it’s all in good fun, it’s just some antics, and everyone has a good time?’ The problem is that the low-level incidents set the stage for power dynamics to be in place and normalized as part of the group setting. It has a slippery slope effect–it’s likely the low-level behaviors will turn into high-risk activities over time.”

And low-level hazing can also be very damaging on its own. Even when there is no physical harm, some students find it extremely painful psychologically. A previous study published in 2000 by researchers at Alfred University found 13 percent of hazed students left the group because of the incident.

To combat hazing, experts says that prevention must involve a concerted, strategic plan. Creating an anti-hazing policy with tough consequences for being involved in an incident is a great start. But simply handing it out while holding a brief discussion doesn’t tend to have lasting power. Allan and Madden say a typical comment from college athletes was that they thought they signed something about hazing along with some other forms during preseason meetings, but they weren’t quite sure.

Madden, also an Associate Professor in Maine’s College of Education and Human Development, suggests a preseason coach-led team meeting that allows for discussion time. “You need to do more than give them a straight definition,” she says. “There needs to be an opportunity for an athlete to ask, ‘What about this specific type of activity? Is this hazing?'”

Along with discussion, role playing can be meaningful for student-athletes. “Have your players watch or act out scenarios demonstrating ways to intervene in a hazing incident,” Allan says. “High school students especially don’t understand the power dynamics and coercion involved in hazing. Role playing can bring that out.”

Another great prevention strategy is to schedule alternative activities for athletes to do as a team. “Things like ropes courses or other adventure activities are great options,” Allan says. “Choose things that involve risk, challenge, and bonding, which are all needs students are trying to fill through hazing activities.”

The Maine study revealed that 25 percent of coaches or student organization advisors were aware of their team’s or group’s hazing behaviors. “One longtime athlete belief is that new team members must earn their place,” says Adam Goldstein, Associate Dean of Students at Florida State University. “Coaches need to take on negative traditions like that directly, or they’re continuing to support a landscape of hazing. They can point to that tradition and say, ‘That’s not okay. The only people who determine if an athlete has a spot on this team are the coaches. That’s our job, not yours. Your job is to support each other so you can become a better team.'”

Page Cotton, Athletic Director at DePauw University, uses his own coaching experience as an example. “I didn’t address hazing for a long time when I was coaching,” says Cotton, who served as DePauw’s Head Men’s Soccer Coach for almost 40 years until 2007. “But when hazing came into the spotlight, I realized that my tradition of having the first-year players move the goals was a form of hazing. I, as the coach, was hazing our freshmen.

“So from then on, everyone helped to move the goals,” Cotton continues. “That’s a very small thing a coach can do, but addressing those little things can be helpful. Anything that singles out a group like that is hazing, and we as adults, need to get that concept through our heads.”

More information on Allan and Madden’s research can be found at: www.hazingstudy.org.

Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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