By Jacob Hancock
The putrid stench of sweaty bodies cramped together in the hottest room in the entire school, the whip of towels, the maniacal laughter of upperclassmen and the shrill of freshmen – it’s all a bit intimidating when you first walk into a varsity boys’ locker room. It’s a hazing culture and it happens in every sport.
You’re getting ready for football practice in the middle of the season. Normally, you run straight to the locker room after the school bell rings, but today you had to stay a few minutes after class to talk to your teacher. You walk in to the locker room and all of the seniors immediately stare you down – it’s open season. You do your best to change quickly, but it’s too late. They start grabbing you, pinching your nipples and yanking at your boxer shorts. They pin you to the ground and the fat guy (you know which one I’m talking about: the big hairy one who could pass for a middle-aged man) sits on your face. Everyone is laughing at you. You’re completely humiliated.
But it’s all perfectly natural.
Ask almost any guy who played a varsity sport in high school and they’ll tell you that something like this went on in their locker room. Some of them will even admit to partaking in hazing freshmen. Most would write it off as “typical locker-room behavior” or “boys will be boys.”
In what other setting is this kind of behavior tolerable – let alone expected? According to a study conducted by Alfred University, 79% of NCAA athletes admitted to being hazed in high school. Why is hazing in varsity boys’ locker rooms so commonplace? Is it even a real problem? If it is, how can we fix it?
Is it natural?
Gaston Sanders, a 6-foot-6-inch, 220-pound sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, played soccer and baseball in high school and graduated at the top of his class. The son of a strict teacher and regular church-goer, Gaston never thought of hazing anyone when he was an upperclassman. While he didn’t get picked on much when he was an underclassman (he was bigger than most of the seniors), he admitted that some of his peers were harassed, often in very odd ways.
“I always thought it was a little weird,” Gaston said. “Overly-masculine guys that throw around homophobic slurs as insults during the school day are suddenly grabbing at a dude’s junk, sticking their thumb up their butt and dry-humping each other in the locker room before practice. It doesn’t make much sense when you think about it.”
But not everyone thinks it’s weird. Jace Lawrence, a junior at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, says that the football locker room helped make him the confident young man he is today.
“Yeah, I got hazed,” Jace said. “But I wasn’t a little bitch about it. That kind of stuff happens everywhere. That’s life.”
Jace grew up with three rowdy older brothers and a big sister with a mean right hook (she played basketball at Meredith College as a center). When his siblings picked on him, he couldn’t count on his parents to make them stop. Tough love is the only kind of love he knows. When he first stepped into that locker room as a freshman, he wasn’t intimidated – he was prepared.
“Locker rooms are the first time you really see the world. You are stripped of everything in addition to what you’re wearing. You’re thrown in with a bunch of savages, and you either sink, or you swim.”
It certainly seems like Jace was able to swim. But what about those who may be sinking?
Is it harmful?
Sammy Eubank, a junior at Appalachian State University, was a varsity soccer player and wrestler all four years in high school. He finished his senior year as the school’s third all-time leader in wins in wrestling and was an integral part of the school’s first ever soccer conference championship team. He had friends in every part of town, he got invited to all the big parties, everyone knew his name and at one point or another he had probably made every single one of his classmates laugh.
The early years of high school weren’t so great for Sammy. As a freshman, he stood at 5’6” and weighed 115 pounds. His bright red hair was messy, his shorts never matched his shirt, and his pallid complexion was covered in blemishes. He wasn’t the most popular kid, especially in the locker room.
“Some days were rough,” Sammy said. “I seemed to get picked on a little bit more than everyone else. I usually just tried to laugh it off, but it wasn’t always easy. I seriously thought about quitting.”
Sammy was lucky to be able to get past the bullying. He was brave enough to speak up and tell someone what was going on.
“Eventually I felt like I had to say something to the coaches,” Sammy said. “I asked them to keep me anonymous, and they held a team meeting and told the guys that some people were starting to feel singled out. Things started to get better after that and I was able to move on from it.”
Things turned out well for Sammy, but there are many kids who experience similar bullying who aren’t so fortunate.
“I was lucky that my coaches were willing to step in, but I don’t know what would have happened to me if things had kept going the way they were. It could have ended badly,” Sammy said.
A literature review by Vanderbilt University Medical Center revealed that suicide is the third-leading killer of student athletes. Student athletes are also more likely to have mental health problems. Often, this is explained by the stress of balancing school and sports. It can also be caused by hazing.
Many athletes who were hazed don’t actually think of it as hazing, but rather as a sort of bonding moment, according to the review.
Jack Amoroso, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, played baseball in high school and said that he thought the locker room behavior was perfectly healthy.
“I feel like for the most part guys are just kind of joking around with each other,” Jack said. “Yeah, we messed around with each other, but I don’t think anyone was traumatized or anything.”
In some cases, maybe nobody gets hurt. But that certainly isn’t the case in all locker rooms across the country. And if we wouldn’t let kids behave this way in a classroom, why would we let them do it in a locker room?
What should be done about it?
Kids that experience hazing are often encouraged by their parents to “tough it out” and “pay their dues.” Parents want their kids to be accepted by their peers, and fear that taking action will turn them into outcasts. Some kids even beg their parents not to get involved because they don’t want to be embarrassed.
What’s even more troubling is that many coaches and school officials don’t take hazing incidents seriously. A lawsuit was filed Wednesday against Lake Zurich High School in northern Illinois. The suit alleges that both coaches and school officials, including the principal, were complicit in allowing athletes in multiple sports to commit acts of hazing involving sexual assault.
The lawsuit came about after reports of an incident in which a student on the football team was forced to strip naked and stand in the shower while teammates peed on him.
Chad Beaver, an assistant coach and dean of students at the time, told the student’s parents that what happened to their child was “no big deal.”
Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana and author of multiple books on hazing over the last couple of decades, said in an interview with Al Jazeera America that hazing incidents today are more brutal than years ago.
Many people will tell you that sports teach kids toughness, and help them learn to overcome obstacles. They’ll also say that playing sports develops good character. But is a bully someone with good character?
Charles “Donnell” Johnson, a junior at UNCW, played basketball in high school. He is named after his father – a retired member of the U.S. Army – and he certainly takes after him. Donnell is about as clean-cut as it gets – never a hair out of line. He’s a straight-A student and the last person you would expect to get into any trouble. He wasn’t the most talented basketball player in high school, but he definitely worked the hardest, and he demanded that his teammates do the same. And he wasn’t going to put up with any crap – especially hazing.
“I know that on some teams that stuff probably went on,” Donnell said. “But that kind of stuff didn’t fly with us. We were a team, and we all had the same goal. If you weren’t focused on winning, then you got the hell out. We didn’t put up with bullies looking to make someone feel bad. It’s called being a good teammate.”
That’s what people don’t realize: sports don’t teach us anything if we allow kids to be bad teammates. Allowing hazing to happen in varsity locker rooms doesn’t help kids form healthy bonds, and it’s not a healthy way to develop toughness. Some kids may be able to shake it off, but others may develop mental health problems that can persist throughout the rest of their lives and even drive them to suicide.
Taking a stand against hazing isn’t being “a little bitch” – it’s being a good teammate. Sports are supposed to teach kids to be good teammates, not bullies.
If parents and administrators want to create a safe environment for children to grow and develop, they need to take hazing more seriously.
Edited by Jordan Thomas Wilkie