Hazing in Youth Sports

Joining a team can be an exciting time for a young athlete, a time where they develop their athletic skills, strengthen their sense of responsibility, and create lasting friendships. Unfortunately, in order to become part of the team, many young athletes have to take part in a practice known as hazing.

What is hazing?

Hazing is a negative type of initiation, often involving illegal or inappropriate acts. (Peluso, 2006) According to the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention, “Hazing is any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” (Prevention, n.d.) These acts can involve theft, inappropriate sexual activities, or excessive alcohol consumption.

Hazing can seem harmless at first, but the power of coercion can escalate quickly, putting athletes’ health and safety in danger. It can be hard for athletes to recognize the danger until it’s too late. (Wolverton, 2006) These athletes have few adults to turn to, as coaches, who went through hazing rituals themselves, typically look the other way. (Wolverton, 2006) (Goodale, 2012)

What the research shows

Often, coaches are aware of the rituals and sometimes even alumni are present. (Elizabeth J. Allan & Mary Maddan, 2008) With such a wide acceptance from leaders, students rarely report hazing.
Alfred University conducted a study on hazing shortly after an incident on their campus which made national headlines: “In August 1998, five freshman football players were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning after being tied together at an off-campus party and forced to drink alcohol and water until they passed out or vomited.” (Suggs, 1999) Theirs has been one of the most comprehensive studies on hazing to date.

The study divided hazing into three categories: questionable activities (humiliating or degrading), alcohol-related, or unacceptable (illegal or risky). It found that 65% had participated in questionable activities, 51% in alcohol-related activities, and 21% in unacceptable activities.
The Alfred University study was released in 1999. Since then, hazing has made more headlines and has become more dangerous in nature. Still, athletes rarely report it.

A more recent and comprehensive study (2008) by the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention shows an increase in hazing activities. This study polled over 11,000 students from across the nation. The top findings show that over half of college athletes are subject to some form of hazing and 47% had already experienced hazing before college. 95% did not report the activity to college officials.

Also reported in this survey is a trend seen across the nation; female athletes are just as prone to hazing rituals as males. Like males, participating in a drinking game was the most frequent hazing activity for females, at 23%. Other dangerous activities reported by female participants included sleep deprivation (10%), drinking alcohol to the point of sickness (9%), and getting a tattoo or piercing (5%). (Elizabeth J. Allan & Mary Maddan, 2008)

Students not only accept hazing as part of the process, but they often post pictures on photo-sharing websites, which can lead to the images being shared across social media. These images can be sexual in nature (athletes in their underwear or female athletes giving lap dances), alcohol-related (athletes passed after drinking too much), or just humiliating. This can jeopardize their future, as prospective employers can easily find incriminating photographs. (Wolverton, 2006)

What can be done?

With students accepting hazing rituals and authority figures looking the other way, what can parents and administrators do to protect young athletes who may be put into dangerous or illegal situations?

In the report Hazing in View: College Students at Risk, researchers Elizabeth J. Allan and Mary Madden offer recommendations for those working with college students who may experience hazing. Some of these recommendations include:

  • “Design hazing prevention efforts to be broad and inclusive of all students involved in campus organizations and athletic teams.
  • Make a serious commitment to educate the campus community about the dangers of hazing; send a clear message that hazing will not be tolerated and that those engaging in hazing behaviors will be held accountable.
  • Broaden the range of groups targeted for hazing prevention education to include all students, campus staff, administrators, faculty, alumni, and family members.
  • Design intervention and prevention efforts that are research-based and systematically evaluate them to assess their effectiveness.
  • Involve all students in hazing prevention efforts and introduce these early in students’ campus experience (i.e., orientation).
  • Design prevention efforts to be more comprehensive than simply one-time presentations or distribution of anti-hazing policies.” (Elizabeth J. Allan & Mary Maddan, 2008)

Hazing has been happening across cultures for centuries. With its wide acceptance in sports, it’s often the athletes who don’t realize the damage until it’s too late. With its increasing dangerous nature, young athletes can be exposed to excessive alcohol, possible ending up in the hospital, and dangerous sexual activities, which can impact their lives well into the future. An open discussion between all members of the collegiate sports community could benefit not only the athletes, but the integrity of the game.