Two venerable Canadian institutions -- Montreal's McGill University and the Ontario Hockey League -- have responded with speed and force to hazing episodes among their athletes, sending a strong message that such behaviour has no place in contemporary sport.
McGill has cancelled its football program for the rest of the season and is taking disciplinary action against students and staff after a rookie on the McGill Redmen football team complained about an initiation ritual in August that involved nudity and prodding with a broomstick. Redmen players and staff members have been ordered by the university to perform two years of community service.
Meanwhile, the OHL has suspended the coach/general manager of the Windsor Spitfires and fined the team $35,000 after a September incident in which 16-year-old rookie Akim Aliu refused to pile into the stifling washroom of the team bus with other naked players. Two weeks later in practice, veteran player Steve Downie cross-checked Mr. Aliu in the jaw, knocking loose four of his teeth. Mr. Aliu later returned to the ice and fought with Mr. Downie, earning both of them suspensions and anger-management training.
For all that nostalgic apologists claim that hazing rituals are good clean fun and sniffling perpetrators whine that they never intended any harm, this is behaviour that purposely humiliates its targets. McGill has denied that the rookies were sodomized, but that is certainly the violent threat implied by demanding that a naked man bend over and submit to prodding in the posterior with a broomstick. The complainant, who refused to take off his shorts during the hazing, has now left the team and the university, his football dream destroyed. And in Windsor, an unhappy Mr. Aliu has found his ordeal may not be over yet. He is still ostracized by his teammates, while the team's owner, who was on the bus during the initial hazing, is still in place.
There should be no equivocation here. At its mildest, hazing is a form of harassment. At its worst, it is a form of psychological and physical abuse. Like sexual abuse, hazing thrives in a climate of secrecy; like child molesters, its perpetrators use their superior status to intimidate victims into silence, here grotesquely justified as loyalty to the team and its traditions. Like child abuse, hazing creates a cycle of violence, because it teaches the weak that when they win power they too will earn the right to abuse it. To argue that such activities are necessary to build the team's cohesion and the rookie's resilience is nonsense; appropriate physical training and normal organized socializing are the correct tools to accomplish those goals.
If there is a lesson for victims here, sadly it is that they will have to possess the personal courage necessary to go all the way to the top to get justice. In Montreal and in Windsor, authorities well above the level of coach were forced to step in. But once they get there, the victims can increasingly be assured that hazing will not be shrugged off. Perhaps officials at McGill and the OHL have noted the public-relations fiasco visited on private schools that have dragged their heels on allegations of sexual abuse. Their swift and very public response to hazing is the right one.