What has emerged from the story of Richie Incognito of the Miami Dolphins tormenting fellow teammate and rookie Jonathan Martin so much that the latter left the team is that there is a vicious culture of hazing in the NFL (see here and here) that has come to be accepted as normal.
But it is not only football. It seems to be a feature of many cultures where there is a strong divide between insiders and outsiders and where a sense of belonging is seen as a reward by insiders that is bestowed on the initiates. Recall the case where a member of college marching band died two years ago as a result of a hazing ritual. And we can be sure that such disgraceful practices are going on in many other venues.
I hate the practice of hazing and went on a rant against it back in 2006 when the massive torture abuses by the US that were emerging at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were dismissed by apologists as mere pranks akin to hazing. I said that when hazing is accepted as the norm, it inevitably leads to greater and greater abuses because it accepts the dangerous principle that one person has the right to force another to submit to their will and that their immediate community condones and even supports that practice.
In Sri Lankan universities, hazing of incoming first year students has long been a serious problem, sometimes going so far as to cause deaths, either by “accidents” such as alcohol poisoning due to new students being forced to drink excessively, or suicides when they could not take the degradation anymore.
As a student and later as a faculty member, I personally hated the practice of hazing and would speak out against it, with the result that a pro-hazing leader once threatened to assault me. Those in favor of it said that it formed bonds of camaraderie. I found this to be a specious argument since it is unlikely that a good friendship can be built on an initial humiliating experience for one person at the hands of another. I have always suspected that hazing was a means for emotionally insecure people to find an outlet for their sadistic impulses, and that the people who enjoyed being hazed and subsequently became friends with those who hazed them had to have at least a streak of power-worshiping masochism.
When I was a faculty member in the university in Sri Lanka, I once came across a group of senior students hazing a first year student at the beginning of the academic year. They had forced him to put on a pair of shoes on his hands and run around on all fours like a dog. Since I was opposed to hazing on principle (and it was against university policy anyway), I stopped it and took the student to my office to get him away from the others. Although what he had experienced would be considered very mild by anyone reading the above description, the student was shaking with fear and crying. I think the fact that he was at the mercy of other people who seemingly had the power to humiliate him and make do anything they wished to him was what was terrifying, more than any single thing that they made him do.
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report all covered the Incognito story and although they got laughs out of it, they also revealed, for those who did not know it, the very dark underside of the football culture.
(These clips aired on November 7, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.