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Hazing steps out of the shadows Add to ...

There won't be many tears shed this week at the news that the practice of hazing in sports is slowly being driven to extinction.

Perhaps there are those who think fondly back to their youth, to the intoxicating camaraderie of being part of a team, to successes on the field or in the rink that would have seemed impossible without those strong emotional bonds -- and credit a ritual involving abuse, humiliation and broomsticks with helping create that special chemistry.

But it's all over now, or at least it will be soon enough. The secret is out. Players who don't want to play along know now that they can come forward and not be ignored.

That's good news, a step forward. What's also encouraging is the way the Ontario Hockey League and, to a lesser degree, McGill University, chose to handle separate hazing scandals.

Instead of simply disciplining the players involved, singling out a few individuals while letting those in charge walk away unscathed, they made it absolutely clear where the buck stops.

McGill shut down its entire football program for the remaining two games of the season, which at least suggests shared responsibility for what took place. (Though assurances that the coach's job is secure for next season certainly muddied the waters).

And more pointedly, David Branch, the commissioner of the OHL, though he knew through investigation exactly which players were the ringleaders in the incidents involving the Windsor Spitfires, chose to lay full blame and responsibility at the feet of coach and general manager Moe Mantha.

In both cases, young athletes made very bad decisions, and behaved cruelly toward vulnerable teammates -- justifying that because it was the way things had always been done, because they had been treated the same way themselves. That's obviously inexcusable.

The message delivered in the punishment, though, was that they wouldn't have done it unless a culture had been created that fostered that kind of behaviour.

It's a question of leadership, and of responsibility. Mantha told Branch that he was on the bus when six Spitfires were forced into its tiny washroom and told to disrobe, but didn't hear or see a thing. Even if that could possibly be true, the players wouldn't have gone ahead with the hazing if they thought for a second that he disapproved, that it would hurt their own standing on the team, or that it was out of bounds.

Now imagine for a moment if that kind of disciplinary philosophy was extended to some of the other situations in which athletes cross the lines of acceptable behaviour.

Apply it to the most notorious case in recent memory, Todd Bertuzzi's assault on Steve Moore, which will be top-of-mind again this Saturday when the Avalanche and Canucks renew hostilities with Bertuzzi back in the Vancouver lineup.

Forget for a moment the debate about the length of Bertuzzi's suspension, whether the locked-out season ought to have been factored in, and all the rest. That's water under the bridge.

But what about the culture that made Bertuzzi think it was just fine to exact vengeance on a player for a perceived violation of the Code by attacking him from behind and ultimately breaking his neck? What about the discussions that must have taken place in the Vancouver dressing room before the assault? What about the guy behind the bench, or the guy in the general manager's office, who put Bertuzzi on the ice in that charged situation, watched events predictably unfold, and afterward defended Bertuzzi to the hilt?

Like the hazing incidents, the outside world looks on and is appalled by acts that would never be tolerated on the street. Like the hazing incidents, Bertuzzi looks around at those nodding in approval and doesn't think he did anything wrong, because that's the way it's always been done, because that's the kind of thing that could certainly have been done to him in other circumstances.

The difference is, in the National Hockey League, the buck stopped with Bertuzzi.

Why? Because if they had widened the net, if they had identified those who tacitly or explicitly encouraged extracurricular violence and used it to help sell tickets, the search wouldn't have ended in Vancouver, but at the league's head office in New York.

Until/if Moore finally receives his day in court, it will be forever thus.

 

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