Monday begins the high school sports calendar anew, the first day of football conditioning for many schools across Connecticut. The rest follow Friday, and other sports will be back to work for real next week.
For all of those teams, a new class moves up to take leadership roles from those who’ve graduated or departed, and a group of newcomers arrives. The new kids will all be welcomed somehow. Educators here, as pretty much everywhere, want to make sure that initiation doesn’t include hazing.
“If you’re an upperclassman, and you want to bring a team together, you want to make the young kids feel welcome, there are so many positive activities teams can do,” said Dave Johnson, commissioner of the SWC and a former coach and athletic director at Bunnell.
“Community service. Volunteering. Pasta nights. There are so many positive things to do to build that unity.”
Hazing still happens. Just this past week four players in a Cleveland suburb were charged with rape, sexual battery and hazing, among other counts for incidents which took place at a college football camp in June, according the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Stories pop up around the state as well. If it perhaps wasn’t hazing itself, a 2015 incident at Seymour, in which a former student was arrested on several charges, led to administrative leave for coach Tom Lennon (since reinstated as a teacher, though no longer coaching the Wildcats) and turmoil for the rest of the coaching staff.
And while issues like addressing the pitfalls of social media and maintaining standards of sportsmanship in the student sections might draw administrators’ attention, and while bullying seems to be a major school-office concern, preventing hazing remains a goal everywhere.
The handbook of the CIAC, the state’s governing body for high school sports, takes a stance against hazing, defining it as “any activity that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers a person’s physical or emotional health for the purpose of initiation or membership in or affiliation with any organization, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.” The organization leaves policy and enforcement, though, up to individual schools.
“As a league, before each season, we hold Captains Council events,” said Al Carbone, the SCC’s commissioner. “The topic is there every season, the impacts of hazing. … We try to ask questions, potential scenarios.”
Addressing the issue with athletes lets administrators bring up some of the hazing that goes on in professional sports, like making rookies dress up in potentially embarrassing outfits for a road trip, or dying their hair.
On ESPN’s “Speak For Yourself,” the topic came up last month after New England Patriots first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry learned that he might be subject to a “terrible haircut.”
A panel that included a veteran sports journalist, a former college football player and three former pro athletes talked over hazing, discussing a range of activities, “mama jokes,” forcing freshmen to sing the fight song, where to draw the line.
There was also, former NFL defensive lineman Marcellus Wiley who said, “the whole duct tape, butt-naked with the baby powder on the goal post, that was, like, the standard in Buffalo when we were there.”
And then there was sticking Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson with a $32,000 rookie-dinner bill in San Diego. “Now that’s hazing,” the panel seemed to agree.
That was something, for sure, unlikely to come up at quite that scale in high school. Most of the rest of it, though, are things that school hazing policies frown upon.
“ ‘See something, say something’ has become the call to action before something happens,” Carbone said. “God forbid you’re dealing with something that happened and no one did anything about it.”
If anyone is uncomfortable, Carbone noted, “there might be a problem here.”
Still, it can be hard to report, whether from peer pressure or internal pressure. A player being hazed still wants to be part of the team. If she does come forward, she knows there will be repercussions for some or all of those who were there.
Preventing it from happening in the first place is the better option.
Johnson said hazing is addressed in preseason sports meetings among coaches, administrators, parents and athletes at Bunnell. He figured that’s pretty standard.
“Per the code of conduct, consequences include dismissal from the team, and if there’s an injury, criminal charges,” Johnson said.
“In the preseason meeting, we get the word out that it’s not going to be tolerated.”
A search of local high schools’ websites, trying to see if a hazing policy for athletes was easy to find online, found that most did have some sort of handbook, for students or athletes, in an intuitive spot.
The explicit policies within them varied. Some had extensive definitions. Others included “hazing” as a one-word item in a long list of prohibited activity.
Trumbull, two decades removed from the revelation of hazing on its wrestling team, had the most-prominent link, bringing up the town board of education’s three-page policy, complete with a student signature form for teams, groups and clubs to confirm that the policy had been explained fully.
“I remember reading the entire report and just being stunned at the volume of hazing going on in fraternities, sororities, college sports, high school sports,” Johnson said.
“I kind of used it as a guide: I know it’s going on out there, and I don’t want it happening, not at any school but certainly not on my watch.”
In the high school study, which was released in 2000, 48 percent of students said they’d been hazed in some form, half of those in athletics. Of the 48 percent, 43 percent were humiliated, 23 percent subject to some kind of substance abuse, 29 percent doing something possibly illegal.
As a result, 71 percent of those students who reported they’d been hazed reported that they’d suffered some sort of negative consequence. Nearly a quarter were injured. Almost as many missed school or another commitment. A fifth of them hurt someone else.
It’s interesting that some students said they had some sort of good feeling afterward. “One student said, ‘It was fun, but I was angry because there’s no choice,’” the report noted.
The survey makes a clear distinction between hazing and positive initiations: team trips, ropes courses, team banquets, team roasts or skit nights. But even some of those seem like they might approach a line for some teenagers.
“I believe very strongly there is a line, something as innocent as a team saying ‘freshmen, you have to carry all the equipment,’” Johnson said. “Is that hazing? No. Is it the type of behavior you want on a team? Absolutely not.”
When Johnson was coaching cross country, he said, he divided the team into groups of four, with the groups made up of one runner from each class. At the first meet, Group A loaded and unloaded the bus. Group B did it in the next time.
“To me, the best captain in the world — you’ve seen a senior captain at the end of the game turn around and yell ‘freshmen, you’ve got the equipment.’ You’ve also got a senior captain who says, ‘freshmen, come with me.’ Underclassmen see a senior picking up the field and getting water on the bus.
“It’s a little thing,” Johnson added, “but it’s huge.”