Let’s try to be honest here. Hazing has been a part of sports teams and general culture for much longer than I have been alive. I’m 31 years old and I’ve never known a day or time when hazing wasn’t at least a small part of my life’s general experiences. From ribbing the new kid at school to giving the new guy the dirty work, hazing is part of our lives. That doesn’t make it right, but it is important to note its relevance right at the beginning because I believe we often forget just how pervasive hazing can be in our society, and how hard it can be to root out.
I bring this topic up because of the recent death of a student at Florida A&M, which may be linked to a band hazing incident on a team bus, and because lacrosse season is just around the corner. If there is a time to talk about hazing it is always, so now is as good a time as any.
I’ve met hundreds or thousands of lacrosse players over the years, and while I haven’t discussed hazing with all of them, the topic has come up a number of times. I’ve heard stories that were clearly hazing and others that I’m still not so sure on. The range of tales is quite large and varies from the unspeakable to simply making freshman carry the ball buckets. I’m not going to get into a lot of specifics here, but in every single case, I don’t think it actually helped a team succeed. In fact, I can’t think of a single hazing ritual that would truly make a team better. Maybe the team would be easier to manage at some level, but that doesn’t always translate to greater success.
There are really a number of reasons and cases against hazing. Let’s dig in.
The first case against hazing is the most simple, and factually undeniable. Someone could be seriously hurt, or even worse, die. Hazing involving physical abuse, alcohol, drugs, dangerous tasks, etc. all bear immediate safety risks. You don’t want someone’s injury or death on your hands for the sake of “team building”, do you? That was a rhetorical question. You don’t. But the risk doesn’t end there, because hazing of the mental sort can be dangerous too. Driving a teammate to tears isn’t fun or “paying dues”, it’s mean, and it could lead to a dangerous reaction, possibly even suicide. We need to be looking after our teammates, not hurting them. Hard to argue with that.
The second major case against hazing is equally simple. Even if no one gets hurt, if you get caught hazing kids on your team, you will be in some sort of trouble… probably big trouble. Many schools will flat out cancel a team’s season and suspend people if hazing is going down, and I think that is the right decision. The schools face a ton of liability if they do nothing, and kids simply need to learn that if they break the rules, they will have to face the consequences. There are always those kids on the team that weren’t involved who suffer from the cancellation of an entire season, but it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure a “team” is functioning correctly, so sitting back and doing nothing about ongoing hazing simply isn’t enough.
After hearing case 1 and case 2, case 3 probably isn’t required, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway.
Hazing won’t make you a better team.
It just won’t. I know kids who went along with hazing, but for the most part, they weren’t happy about it. I got my head shaved as a freshman and I went along with it willingly. I let it happen, and was sure I wouldn’t think twice about it after the fact. Boy, was I wrong. Up until that time, I had been feeling like a member of the team more and more. I was loving lacrosse, and I was loving life. But then I had to shave my head. A haircut wasn’t the problem. I’d had short hair for years and might have shaved my head anyway… but it wasn’t my choice to do so, and I realized it simply had nothing to do with lacrosse.
I didn’t mind carrying ball buckets. That was part of the deal at practice. I worked my ass off because I liked it. And I didn’t talk back or act like I deserved a spot. So why did I need to be given a haircut? The incident was so minor that I didn’t even think about it as it happened… but deep down, it pissed me off a little bit. It was older guys picking on younger guys because they were younger, and it made me less of a believer. It made me less willing to listen to the captains and older players. It made me care just a little less.
The scent was unmistakable: It was bull shit.
A couple of years later some other kids, smarter than me, just said “Um, no, you’re not shaving our heads. Period”. And that was that. Probably the best thing that ever happened…
Now not everyone I’ve talked to shares my feelings. Some of the guys buy in, and say it’s no big deal, and all part of the game. But it simply doesn’t have to be. Do you have some loudmouth freshman on the team who thinks he’s too cool for school? Well, guess what? It’s the coaches’ job to reign him in, not the older players. If there were a senior loudmouth, would the sophomores and juniors tie him down and shave his head? NO. So it definitely doesn’t work the other way where older players prey on younger players. And that’s really kind of creepy when you think about it. I haze you because I care about the team. That’s a Sandusky-esque piece of logic.
I’ve also heard from a number of people that hazing is important because it creates a top down chain of command and respect, but as I illustrated in my story above about seemingly innocuous head shaving, it simply doesn’t. It creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation at some level, and this can breed mistrust and resentment. There are probably the last feelings you want players to feel.
If discipline and teamwork are what’s needed to be successful, hazing is used to cut corners in trying to achieve this. It is rationalized that since it has been going on for so long, it must be effective, or at least acceptable, at some level, but I would argue that we’ve just been doing it wrong for too long to know another way. True cultural change within a team probably has to start at the top, with the coach. I say this because captains and players change every year, but coaches stay more constant. Plus they are the only ones who can be fired. Since the coach is the one leading the team, he should also be the one to lead against hazing, especially since it’s so counter-productive, and seems to work in contrast to any coach’s goals.
If the coach sets out the expectation that hazing won’t be tolerated, it’s a start. But the coaches must also take their preaching to heart, and practice it. For example, freshman shouldn’t be required to carry the ball buckets out to the field, it should be the first people out to the field. You going out early? Be a good guy and bring the ball buckets with you. It’s the end of practice and time to round up the balls? The whole team does it. Want to shave heads to start the season or get ready for playoffs? Well, everyone does it then, and not just the freshman. That is what a team is about. It is simple stuff like that which can show players the right path and enable a coach to truly lead by example. Team building is good, team power brokering is not.
Now I know that there are probably still some people out there saying to themselves, “CW just doesn’t get it” or “hazing creates a good team dynamic and keeps egos in check” or “CW is soft”, or even “back in my day…” but let me tell you, a victory through hazing is a hollow one, and it will come back to bite you in the end. It’s intrinsically faulty and counter-productive, and if you rely on it, you’ve already admitted defeat.
Hazing is used by people who lack confidence and the ability to lead and inspire. It is used as a basis for fear and subjugation and will never reap the full potential of any individual or team. I’ve had a lot of bosses and coaches in my day, and the ones who inspired and led by example were usually the most successful. Those that relied on fear or intimidation were usually middle management, wildly inefficient, or if they were coaches, they didn’t last long in their positions, or see much success on the field.
Lacrosse leads the way in college graduation rates and a number of other positive categories, and I think it’s high time we add hazing to our focus, and start the sports revolution ourselves, one more time.