(This story was published in 2006).
For the last couple of years we have all watched hazing in sports finally come into focus. The antics that have for so long gone on behind closed doors, and that have been dismissed by most as "boys will be boys," are finally starting to get the serious attention from sports administrators and the public that it deserves and that its victims need.
What isn't being talked about much is the elephant in the room, the issue that most people are thinking about when they hear about stories of what sports teams are doing to one another usually at night behind those closed doors: Both latent homosexuality and homophobia are playing a huge role in the hazing abuse our kids are experiencing, and our societal standards that dictate what a "real man" is are to blame.
Hazing is, for practical purposes, coercing or forcing younger athletes or students to do embarrassing things for the right to be a part of the group. Hazing can range from seemingly innocuous acts like wearing a dunce cap or eating a raw egg to dangerous or life-threatening things like drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, branding, or crazy stunts that involve water, fire or oncoming traffic. Hazing is against the policy of most colleges, and anti-hazing statutes exist in 38 states.
The Web site Badjocks.com has played a huge role in forcing the public and sports teams and leagues to start having frank discussions about hazing. And while the few dozen incidents they and other media outlets have reported are an improvement over the dearth of reports just three years ago, the number of hazing incidents that has come to public light pales in comparison to the actual number that is happening at high schools, colleges and on professional teams around the country. In fact, an Alfred University study said that 80 percent of college athletes had been hazed.
Make no mistake about it – hazing is largely about sexuality, from two different angles. First is the notion of making someone submissive to prove your own masculinity. Whether it's sodomizing them or making them wear women's panties, the notion of forcing younger players to submit to team veterans comes right out of the handbook of anti-gay stereotypes.
Many of the acts that younger players are submitted to are also homoerotic or homosexual. Licking each other's bodies, simulating sex acts, forced sodomy with various objects – these acts work on two levels. First, they reinforce the notion that same-sex affection is weaker; the subjected men are rarely "hazed" with forced affection from someone of the opposite sex. Second, they serve to satisfy the latent homosexuality of many of the players involved.
While some may try to diminish the role of homosexuality in hazing, it can't be ignored. Badjocks.com says that the most common reported hazing incident among high school students is sodomy with fingers or other objects.
"As a way of welcoming you to the team, my associates and I would like to give you your first proctology exam!" Badjocks.com jokes.
I don't care how you slice it, there has to be some desire to sodomize the victim if you're willing to go that far with other people watching! Like rape (which it is), I find hazing of this kind to be not only an act of violence but a sexual act as well.
When I was a teenager, and I first started feeling a sexual attraction to other boys, I often thought that going to prison would not be such a bad thing. I had heard of the "forced" gay sex that happens in prisons, and I figured it would be the only chance I had to fulfill my growing desire to have sex with men. The forced sexual contact of hazing is certainly another way to fulfill those desires; it's no wonder that so many gay men are attracted to college fraternities, long the bastion of hazing in our culture.
It's not just the guys. In the last few months, reports of hazing on women's teams have started to capture headlines, most notably the Northwestern University's women's soccer team, which was suspended after photographs of alleged hazing surfaced.
While 10 years ago most people who reported hazing at the high school and collegiate level were considered "whistle-blowers" and threats to the performance of a team, that attitude is largely changing. Our culture seems to have started to handle hazing in two different ways, depending on who's involved.
High school and collegiate teams that coerce athletes to run around in their jockstraps are suspended and vilified in the media, some of them having their season cancelled. But when professional teams do the same exact thing, they are laughed at, as though hazing is a big joke that everyone is in on.
In 2000, various Tennessee Titans were recorded taping rookie OG Aaron Koch from Oregon State to a field goal post, pouring chocolate syrup on him, and spraying him with water. What was maybe worse was how ESPN's Sean Salisbury and NBA great Mark Malone celebrated and glorified it.
How can we celebrate hazing at the professional level, yet tell 17- and 21-year-olds that it's not OK if they do it? We can't chuckle with the Associated Press when they post pictures of rookies in training camp having to encircle the field in their underwear or sing karaoke in front of a stadium of fans, and then wonder where our kids got the crazy idea that it's alright to force new teammates to endure harassment and ridicule.
The deeper problems with hazing are the culture it breeds and the slippery slope it can lead to. The infamous 2003 hazing incident involving the Mepham High School (N.Y.) football team is a quintessential example. At a summer football camp in August 2003, team veterans sodomized younger players with broomsticks, golf balls and pinecones. It came almost 10 years after a player accused the coaching staff and several members of the same football program of a hazing attack that gave him a concussion; that case was settled out of court. After the 2003 incident, former players finally started talking about the culture of Mepham coach Kevin McElroy's football team, and how hazing had been a part of it for many years. It had likely started out "harmless" before involving physical attacks. Incoming freshman learned from the veterans that these things were part of being on the team; and when they became the veterans, the cycle continued down the slippery slope.
Experiencing the harassment and ridicule of hazing brings people closer, claim proponents of hazing (and there are many more than you could imagine), and it is argued that that bond is sacrosanct to the success of sports teams and fraternities.
This "bonding" argument has always troubled me. In a fraternity, the guys live together, shower together, eat together, study together. When one of their girlfriends breaks up with them, they're all there for him. When one of their parents passes away suddenly, they all attend the funeral. They become a family as close as they'll ever see outside the family structure they lived with for their first 18 years.
It's the same thing with athletics. A team practices together every day, eats meals together, travels together, rooms together, wins together, loses together, gets injured together, and builds a bond that each member will remember for their lifetime.
No amount of paddling, licking whipped cream off of each other, or running around in your jockstrap is going to add to the closeness of these experiences. A team is built around a common goal and the struggles that ensue from chasing that goal, not from the nonsense that surrounds it.
As long as gay people are marginalized by sports culture, and as long as being submissive to a man is considered feminine, hazing will continue, not only because it emasculates the victim, but because the perpetrator feels no other acceptable way to live out his same-sex desires.