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Why is hazing still happening? They do it because they can

Margery Holman is Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Windsor and author of Making the Team: Inside the World of Sport Initiations and Hazing

When a McGill University student recently revealed he had been the subject of the school's basketball hazing initiation in 2015, I was disappointed, but not surprised. The institution has a storied history with hazing, and said for the last decade, that it is committed to ending the process. Yet, now we have this 19-year-old who said he was left violently ill after he was forced to drink multiple shots of liquor with a pillowcase over his head, ordered to strip down to his underwear, and had vodka forced down his throat.

My ongoing research, along with Dr. Jay Johnson at the University of Manitoba, reveals that a majority of athletes in Canadian universities have experienced hazing. We found that, not only were coaches often aware of hazing behaviours but, in some instances, were present while these behaviours occurred.

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We also found that few athletes expressed concern for having been subjected to hazing activities; they accepted it as a term of membership on their team. Why is this tolerated behaviour? One of the most persistent reasons this practice continues is that it is perceived to serve as a means of bonding the team, leading to loyalties necessary for success in the face of intense competition. Another is that it is a tradition. Some argue that it is a chance to get even, doing to others what was done to them. And another reason is that those involved just follow the leaders without giving any thought to potential consequences. It is also silently tolerated by sport leaders.

Read more: McGill hazing incident reveals university ban's shortcomings

But following complaints, trauma and even deaths associated with hazing practices, administrators and researchers have begun to recognize that the risk of harm to individuals and institutions outweighs respect for such practices.

Governing bodies, including individual institutions, have policies that ban hazing. Clearly, they do not work. Why? In part, because some of our sport leaders, coaches and administrators alike, don't believe in them. In some cases, policies are there to protect the institution from liability, not to curb the actual behaviour. They may not believe that the athletes need to be protected. Most have gone through the same system and not only survived, but succeeded.

While we don't know what has gone on at McGill over the past 10 years or so following a serious hazing case with its football team in 2005, the problem obviously persists. And let's not fool ourselves to think that this is just occurring at McGill.

There are other instances that we know about in both Canada and the United States. I expect there are many about which we are unaware. It is a caustic component of a sport culture that needs to change.

Universities need to learn from the experiences of others – there are institutions that are providing promising practices to address this issue.

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Let's replicate what seems to be working. My home institution, the University of Windsor is pro-active. First, it has recognized and stated that it does not want hazing to be part of its program. And then it has followed up. It held a workshop in 2016 – with participation by administrators, coaches, athletic trainers, support staff and athletes – to heighten awareness about the elements of university hazing.

Participants learned of replacement activities to preserve the positive aspects of hazing in a respectful way. Later this month, there is a second workshop scheduled to train in-house leaders to replicate what they have learned from the facilitators so that it can be shared on an annual basis facilitated by peers. The University of Windsor has made a commitment to provide a positive sport culture for its student athletes. It is expected that it will contribute to high performance and strong alumni. It does not guarantee that it will eliminate adverse hazing behaviours, but we are optimistic that it will minimize the probability. University athletic programs must make a commitment which initially will require a line budget item. They have done it for doping control – it can be done for social issues as well. After all, we are in the business of education, not sport.

So why is hazing happening? It's simple, really. Hazers do it because they can. The current message is weak and non-committal. School leadership needs to do more than a "no-tolerance" policy: This is a serious, potentially fatal issue that requires immediate action.

The presence of a policy to protect institutional liability without proper communication of it, educational measures about the issue of hazing, its risks, development of alternative activities that serve the same purpose, and meaningful sanctions is not enough. There is a long history of hazing – it will take a generation of conscious effort to embed the change we hope to achieve.

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