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Hazing: When a rite-of-passage is wrong

Researcher Jay Johnson is set to lead the country’s first intensive study into the deep-rooted culture of hazing in sport

October 29, 2014 — 

The truck driver who called into the radio show had some terse words for his teammates of decades ago, the ones who put him through hazing hell.

He said if he could meet up with those guys again, he’d do them physical harm.

Jay Johnson

Jay Johnson

University of Manitoba researcher Jay Johnson listened closely as this man, now in his 50s, tapped into emotions still strong so many years later.

“It’s so real and so raw … And that’s not an isolated story,” says Johnson. “I’ve talked to athletes who remember what happened vividly 20 or 30 years later. They remember what happened and they still feel quite emotional about being forced to do things.”

Johnson is one of only a handful of researchers across the country who investigate the culture of hazing, a notorious rite of passage in sports that has endured for generations. The secrecy that once shrouded hazing began to lift with the advent of Facebook and social media, Johnson notes. And the growing number of images of humiliating initiations of rookie players that have surfaced online have the media and the public taking note.

The details of these ceremonies, done under the guise of team building, can be vulgar. Senior players have forced rookies to take part in drinking games until they throw up, eat pizza topped with bodily fluids like semen, run through a line-up of their teammates—known as the gauntlet—while being pelted by kicks and punches, and  parade stark naked though public spaces.

Johnson himself was not immune. At 16, he joined his high school wrestling team and as an initiation had to run nude in front of his schoolmates, making the long trek from the gymnasium changeroom to the cafeteria and return with two lunch trays. Years later, as a master’s student, he channelled his feelings from the ordeal into his research. He set out to determine what function hazing truly served.

Views on hazing vary among athletes who have gone through it. Some describe it as fun. Others say it was nothing more than uncomfortable. Yet research done in the United States show that of the roughly 80 per cent of athletes who have been hazed, only 20 percent say it was a positive experience.

Johnson, an associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management, is leading the first national study on hazing at universities in Canada; he’ll connect with athletes of both sexes, coaches and university administrators country-wide over the next three years. His goal? To better understand the prevalence and extent of hazing in university athletics, and help “create a more positive and lasting transitional experience for new members onto their respective teams.”

He sees hazing as a human rights issue and a legal issue that has yet to be officially and clearly categorized.

“It may be easy for outsiders to label hazing as abusive but it’s not as clear cut for those deeply entrenched….”

“That’s what universities, sports organizations and institutions are trying to define. They’re trying to make a gray area black and white, and define it. That’s one of the challenges: defining what hazing is in a legal sense. We have codes and laws that deal specifically with emotional, physical abuse, sexual harassment. And, broadly speaking, a lot of those incidents do fit under those legal umbrellas, but there is an added level of coercion and choosing to be a part of this. Adults are choosing to be a part of this and for the most part, are not seeing or defining it as abusive.”

The factors at play need to be explored more deeply, and an effort to do so might face reluctance from the teams involved, Johnson says. His earlier research, which sampled athletes at select Canadian universities, revealed most teams don’t see hazing as problematic.

“It may be easy for outsiders to label hazing as abusive but it’s not as clear cut for those deeply entrenched. It becomes muddied when you’re in that culture to see it as a problem or something that should be dealt with,” Johnson explains. “Cultural change is difficult and involves a lot of commitment, education and buy in. You’re not only changing practice, but perspectives, ideals and mindsets.”

Johnson’s PhD research looked at team-building activities that could replace hazing, like going on a canoe trip, volunteering as a group, rock-climbing, or navigating a high-ropes climbing course. (He’d like to build the latter on the Fort Garry campus and open the structure up to community groups and teams to use.) It’s time that senior athletes look to orientations that nurture team cohesion without the degradation component that’s been prevalent since its beginnings, Johnson says.

Hazing dates back to the 13th century. It unfolded first in universities—with the hazing of professors—before it entered the sports realm, Johnson notes. (In the last decade, he’s noticed an increase in hazing among female athletes with rituals similar to those of their male counterparts.) These days hazing is also being addressed in the military, the navy, fraternities and sororities.

In Manitoba, three years ago, the province’s junior hockey league made headlines when a complaint surfaced from the parents of a teenage player of the Neepawa Natives; they alleged their son was forced to drag around water bottles tied to his genitals.

Transforming such deep-rooted tradition is tough. Johnson worked with 700 varsity athletes across Canada over two years, introducing them to alternatives to hazing and gathering their feedback about what they thought. Overwhelmingly, they approved. But there is a four-year turnover in varsity teams and always a chance that hazing will rear its head, says Johnson. He believes ongoing education is a big part of the solution.

“All it takes is for someone to come in, whose experiences is hazing, and says ‘Let’s do this’.”

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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