Why Deadly Hazings Could Be About to Get Worse in US Sports

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Nolte McElroy, a 19-year-old player for the University of Texas football team, died from electric shock when he crawled through mattresses charged with electric current during a fraternity initiation ritual in 1928. Nearly 100 years later, hazing is still a pervasive and sometimes deadly element of college and high school culture.

Though usually linked in popular imagination to drunken stunts in fraternity and sorority houses, new research indicates that hazing is most likely to occur in a sports context. And some experts fear that after a year of remote learning, limited contact from mentors and an urge to cut loose as restrictions end, 2021 will see a surge in cases as players make up for lost time amid a leadership vacuum.

In effect, says Hank Nuwer, a leading hazing researcher and author, “in many cases you’ve got two freshman classes – the freshmen who were here the last year and couldn’t go to school, and the incoming freshmen. And so these freshmen who are now actually sophomores haven’t had these education programs, they haven’t had the coaches talking to them and have gotten the prohibitions. And that’s what’s worrisome, what these sophomores might do to the incoming class.”

David Kerschner and Elizabeth Allan of the University of Maine surveyed students in five colleges and found that overall 40.9% of athletes experienced hazing, compared to 24.8% of non-athletes. Drinking games were the most common form of hazing, followed by ridicule at “roast”-style events. “Athletes were statistically significantly more likely to experience harassment hazing than their peers in fraternities and sororities and other group organizations,” Kerschner said.

Athletes were also more likely than non-athletes to be supportive of hazing – defined in a major 2008 study as “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.” Though older research has found that male teams were more likely to take part in hazing than female teams, Kerschner said that recent studies indicate a more even split.

In one notorious recent incident, five football players at Wheaton College, a private evangelical Christian university in suburban Chicago, were criminally charged after being accused of the late-night abduction and beating of a freshman player in 2016. They allegedly bound him with duct tape, put a pillowcase over his head, partially stripped him, threatened to rape him, and dumped him in a baseball field, leaving him with shoulder injuries that required surgery. All were convicted of misdemeanors.

The victim withdrew from the college and said the assault “has had a devastating effect on my life”. He filed a lawsuit that alleged the football team had a long tradition of kidnapping new players as part of hazing rituals that another player said were designed “out of love” and helped build team chemistry.

Several hazing reports have emerged this spring as sports resume. A police investigation began in April after a video surfaced of a teammate telling a black football player at a high school in Illinois to sit in a locker full of banana peels “or I’ll break both your knees”. Humboldt State University, in California, is investigating alleged incidents involving its softball and men’s and women’s rugby teams.

All but six US states have anti-hazing laws. Three baseball players from Francis Marion University in South Carolina were arrested in March, accused of misdemeanor hazing after, police said, an alcohol-fuelled initiation ceremony turned violent.

Nuwer’s research has traced hazing deaths from schools, clubs and organizations in the US as far back as 1838, with at least one fatality reported each year from 1959 to 2019. A trend he has noted is a rise in sexually abusive hazings since the late 70s.

The Canadian Hockey League is facing a lawsuit from former junior players who allege they endured grotesque treatment including anal and genital penetration with hockey sticks and toothpicks coated with warming muscle rub, shaving of pubic hair and forcing rookies to have sex with prostitutes. Allegations of sexual assaults of student-athletes during initiation rituals at a small-town Texas high school led to 13 arrests in 2017. Three basketball players at a Tennessee high school were accused of raping a teammate in 2015 with a pool cue, resulting in injuries so severe they required emergency surgery.

Given locker-room codes of silence and victims’ fear of being ostracised, Nuwer says that cases often only become apparent when parents complain or there is physical injury. Incidents are also difficult and time-consuming to prosecute. “A lot of the cases that we’re seeing, we get the details only if there’s a civil suit. And the parents have that video or a prosecutor has the video. They’ve got evidence,” Nuwer says. “Investigating a hazing takes an enormous amount of time, plus some training. It’s not that easy.”

Cases are also hard for the media to cover in-depth, given that minors are frequently involved and schools are often opaque, citing privacy laws. Another barrier is a false perception that hazing is generally positive: team bonding exercises that are traditions passed down through generations. Many coaches and assistants are former players who have taken part in similar rituals themselves and may only act to halt the most extreme behaviors.

“In the instant no one wants to be mishandled, but later it makes you closer to your teammates,” a teenager told a Toronto court in February during a sexual assault trial stemming from allegations of hazing with a broom handle in the locker-room of a high school football team.

That attitude is misguided, says Elliot Hopkins, director of sports, sanctioning and student services at the National Federation of State High School Associations, which writes playing rules for high school sports. “It definitely doesn’t create a bond, it does the complete opposite. It breeds distrust and it fractures a team because if you hurt me I will never trust you and I will probably not want to play with you,” he says.

Still, hazing can appear to offer rewards as a rite-of-passage: short-term suffering for long-term, The victim becomes a trusted teammate who will be the perpetrator, rather than the abused, next season – or so the theory goes. And for those who are financially dependent on athletics scholarships, remaining at university might depend on preserving a place in the squad.

“Fitting in and belonging on that team is really important,” Kerschner says. “The vast majority, at least in our survey research, seem to indicate that they don’t [recognize hazing]. But even those that do that are hazed might say: ‘well ultimately no one was hurt, I chose to participate’. Or ‘it might have been hazing but I really think of it more as pranks and antics’.”

Kerschner played basketball at university. “I can remember a player on another team at my undergrad institution coming in and he had all these certificates, I was like, ‘what are you doing?’ He had these fake awards that he was going to give out to everyone on the team. They were insult-based awards and I just remember at the time being, ‘Oh that’s kind of funny’ and moving on,” he says.

In hindsight, Kerschner now realizes they were vicious enough to have crossed a line: “I’m wondering, are there other instances that I forgot that were just very normalized to me that I didn’t recognize as hazing at the time?”

Campus-wide awareness campaigns emphasizing that hazing is outside social norms are among possible prevention strategies. Hopkins believes that with hazing becoming “more sexual in nature and it’s starting to filter down into younger ages, junior high, middle school,” it is especially important for school district leaders “to have some very hard discussions with their principals and athletic directors about what the expectation is to keep children safe on the team.” Sometimes, he added, “coaches are the most stable adults in young people’s lives. So they have a tremendous amount of influence.”

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