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Rights v. rites on hazing Add to ...

If recent allegations prove true, sexual hazing has been a barbaric ritual of choice for McGill University's football team. However, despite increasing media attention since the early 1980s, few educational institutions have faced the sordid reality that males sometimes assault or sodomize other males while hazing.

The dark truth is that some athletes, even some coaches, feel they have the right to certain excesses. Hazing is one of those excesses.

Most hazing is non-criminal. Indeed, many sports programs have positive initiations or no initiations at all -- or, albeit foolishly, confine hazing to rookies wearing silly clothing or doing acts of servitude. However, about 20 per cent of all athletes endure acts that fall into the category of severe, even criminal, physical or mental abuse, according to a 1999 U.S survey.

These incidents are disturbing. Recent sexual-hazing cases involving U.S. athletes have seen rookies sodomized with pinecones, fingers, pencils and broom handles -- even to the point of rectal tearing. Female sexual hazing and simulations are rarer but do occur. Fraternity and sorority hazing has seen at least one death every year in the past 35 years.

Some educators put on hazing-prevention forums for athletes, fraternities and general student populations across North America. Fraternities, suffering way more deaths than do sororities and athletic teams, have educated new members for years, although sometimes all the efforts go to waste when undergraduates and alumni haze behind house doors.

Silent until recently, the collegiate athletic powers that have been mobilized to stave off the alcohol-fuelled parties, partial nudity and assaults linked to hazing. In September, the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association finally addressed hazing in its national newsletter. Last June, the U.S. National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics attacked hazing in its general session.

Yet while anti-hazing activists and campus watchdogs urge coaches to keep an eye out for hazing in locker rooms, team buses and training camps, many coaches say policing is impossible.

When a McGill athletics director told The Globe and Mail, "You can't follow them around with handcuffs, watching what they're doing every minute," his view generally reflects, rightly or probably wrongly, what is said in coaching offices.

History shows us that only widespread student disgust at hazing, when student leaders with perceived status suddenly find hazing uncool, can make any real difference. Before 1930, deaths of U.S. collegiate freshmen and sophomores during college orientation initiations were more common than initiations deaths in fraternities. But when high-status students in the 1920s protested against hazing, the intensity greatly diminished and only one death has occurred outside a fraternity since.

Can there ever be an end to hazing, which was once a shameful Canadian staple in junior hockey and collegiate orientation? Having written about hazing since the mid-1970s, I see the following as essential to curtail hazing:

Annual surveys by colleges to assess the scope and range of hazing by high-risk groups on campus.

Zero tolerance, expulsions and charges for criminal hazing involving nudity, alcohol or sexual abuse.

Educational programs teaching bystanders on campus how to confront and intervene when a dangerous hazing is in progress.

A means for students and faculty to report hazing anonymously.

Banishment of alumni, including former athletes, who encourage players to maintain hazing.

A change in attitude to see those who report hazing as heroes, not primarily victims.

Public condemnation of faculty members who have abdicated their responsibility to oversee the social activities of undergraduates.

The firing of athletic directors, coaches, campus police, faculty and college presidents proved to have known about criminal hazing without taking steps to punish it.

McGill's won't be the last blue-chip program to have a hazing scandal.

A respect for human rights must replace human rites.

Hank Nuwer, a professor of journalism at Franklin College in Indiana, is the author of four books on hazing and a contributor to Making the Team: Inside the World of Sport Initiations and Hazing by Jay Johnson and Margery Holman.

 

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