Northwestern University is facing multiple lawsuits after allegations that the football program had a hazing problem for years, including “forced participation, nudity and sexualized acts of a degrading nature.”
The scandal at the Big Ten school, which led to the firing of longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald, centers on a problem that extends far beyond sports, even if it is sports that often gets the headlines.
Studies have found that 48% high school students report being subjected to some form of hazing. An Alfred University study from 1999 also found that 79% of NCAA athletes reported being hazed in high school and their recruiting trips were not always about a positive experience: “One in five was subjected to unacceptable and potentially illegal hazing. They were kidnapped, beaten or tied up and abandoned. They were also forced to commit crimes – destroying property, making prank phone calls or harassing others,” the study found.
Experts say more, updated research is also needed.
Experts say hazing is about an individual or group exerting power and control over others.
“If you understand hazing as a form of an abuse of power, then you can see how in those environments or group situations where people are jockeying for power or trying to enforce some kind of hierarchies, hazing is an easy way to kind of make clear who’s got the power,” said Elizabeth Allan, a professor at the University of Main who has studied hazing.
Acts of hazing are frequently sexualized or can be classified as sexual assault. Allan said in a hyper-masculine situation that sexualized acts are often the most powerful ways for an individual or group to dominate others.
Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and researcher who studies hazing, said of sexualized hazing that it is “the quickest way to humiliate someone and to make them powerless.”
Lipkins said that while more research would be beneficial, she believes hazing incidents are becoming more frequent, severe and sexualized.
It is cyclical
Hazing newcomers to a team or group can became so ritualistic and traditional that it seems normal to those in the group.
Some of the former Northwestern players who spoke out this week talked about the hazing they were subjected to early in their careers, and thinking that maybe this was just part of playing big-time college football.
“(T)he culture was so strong that we felt we had to go with it,” former player Lloyd Yates said. “There was a code of silence that felt insurmountable to break.”
“The abusive culture was especially devastating for many players of color,” Yates added. Many of them were the first in their family to attend college and football was their “ticket to a better life.”
“They had so much at stake and no voice or power to stop the abuse,” he said.
Those who have been hazed often want to carry on the tradition and do the hazing when they are in a position of power. As Allan put it: “This happened to me, therefore, that’s what we’re supposed to do and we’re not thinking beyond it.”
Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea said he doesn’t directly address hazing, but tries to create an environment where players trust coaches enough to come to them if they are having issues with the behavior of teammates.
“There’s no brotherhood that I know that starts with a level of abuse in the locker room,” Lea said.
What is hazing?
Even in professional sports there is a tradition of putting the rookies in their place. A younger player might carry the equipment of an older player or be forced to pick up a big tab at dinner. Baseball has a tradition of rookies being forced to wear silly costumes on road trips late in the season.
Alone, these acts seem harmless because usually no one gets hurt and rarely is physical or psychological intimidation involved. Experts warn they still set a bad precedent.
“They send a message and create a dynamic where there are these expectations that some people have to do the grunt work, so to speak,” Allan said.
Can hazing be prevented?
Countless attemps have been made to stop hazing, from specific rules in schools and prep athletics to laws in 44 states that carry different forms of punishment. The NCAA provides specific guidance to stop hazing, though it leaves anti-hazing rules and punishments to its member schools and the federal Clery Act does not require colleges to report hazing incidents.
Former college football coach Gerry DiNardo, who led Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana from the mid-1990s to early 2000s, said he actively discouraged hazing. DiNardo said he went so far as to make a team rule against joining fraternities that hazed their pledges.
Experts say that would be the most effective approach. Don’t avoid specific discussins about hazing.
“We need to have visible messaging around expectations for behavior, and that includes what we do not tolerate,” Allan said.
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