The abominable practice of hazing

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.

I wrote back then:

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.


  1. says

    There’s hazing and there’s hazing, and you can tell the camaraderie-minded from the sadistic folks pretty easily.

    When I was in the Marines, there was a promotion tradition of punching people on the shoulder/collarbone or giving them a knee to the outside of the thigh. Usually it was OK, no big deal. Someone gives you a mild pop on the arm and then shakes your hand, and you wind up with a slightly sore pair of shoulders and feel like part of the group. And then there’s a couple of folks who take a run at you at top speed and then at the last second hit you with their elbow. And then a few more sadists, and next thing you know the meat is ripped off the bone and you’re getting a medical discharge.

    And I guess the problem is that a sadist can always find a way to turn over the most seemingly harmless hazing behavior into assault or even torture, which is why it should be banned entirely.

  2. Aaroninmelbourne says

    This reminds me also of the “prank” culture that seems particularly strong in the USA. Luckily, in Australia pranks are generally frowned upon when perpetrated against a stranger so it tends to be friend-to-friend which gives it a different dynamic. Still, when viewing the so-called “pranks” in the US, I felt very uncomfortable so decided to do a small study of the issue in terms of observation from a sociological perspective. I thought I would share these as the ‘prank’ dynamic may have parallels and comparative insights to the ‘hazing’ dynamic.

    What I found was that there are two types of prank: one which is mild, friend-to-friend, and specifically designed to gain a laugh and improve bonds. These tend to be almost like an in-joke. Such pranks can even look terrible to outsiders, such as one example of a group getting a friend drunk, then taking him to a tattoo parlour. The friendly aspect of the prank was that he was already covered in tattoos and wanted a tattoo on that particular spot anyway. They got him something that was not to his style, but that would be easily amended to what he said he was doing there. The in-joke was that the ‘prankee’ was procrastinating on getting that tattoo added in the first place. The ‘prankee’ was laughing within seconds of seeing the tattoo. Conversely, when these pranks go ‘wrong’, nobody laughs and the ‘prankster’ tends to take immediate responsibility including attempts to comfort the ‘prankee’ and making restitution (such as cleaning the mess a prank made or restoring a location ‘covered up’ for the prank).

    In most cases, however, so-called ‘pranks’ are – like the types of hazing you describe – poorly-disguised passive-aggressive acts of bullying or even violence perpetuated against someone else, either a known individual who is a social or emotional ‘threat’ to the prankster’s social standing or someone they don’t even know (which seems to be the type perpetuated by those with low self-esteem: the prank is thus a tool to make the prankster feel socially superior against someone they never have to do any real comparison with. These types tend to be accompanied by the prankster telling themselves their victim is ‘stupid’ or a ‘loser’ for ‘falling for it’). These tend to be completely different in both approach and result. The approach tends to begin with grandstanding about some supposed ‘wrong’ (often specious, such as using too much sugar or their music being too loud the night before); followed by a ‘set-up’ which is accompanied by a particular nervous laugh (it’s a similar laugh I heard on a documentary made by monkeys before they killed a weaker monkey in the clan as a form of bonding ritual); often the prank happens with noises of pseudo-disbelief (such as saying “oh my god” repetitively which seems to be an indication of knowledge that their actions are outside socially approved behaviour); and finally the acceptance of responsibility (but not always) with loud whooping noises directed at the victim. The noises throughout are telling: this is no joke, it’s not funny, it’s not fun. It’s bullying at best, outright violence at worst. The ‘humour’ is a veneer to cover the true nature of the prank: jostling for social position by causing injury to the social position of another.

    It may be that ‘hazing’ or ‘initiation ritual’ has a lot in common with ‘prank’. I found that ‘prank’ seems to be a word used almost like an attempt at a magical incantation, or at the very least, an attempt to passively-aggressively protect the aggressor from being called out on their bullying or disruptive behaviour. The word is used defensively (“Don’t try to pin this on me, it was just a prank!”) or offensively (“Urgh, it was a prank! Don’t you have any sense of humour?”). In this way, the bully prankster uses the word as weapon to deflect both blame for the social injury they cause and responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It tends to go into magical incantation territory once the consequences of their actions goes beyond minor injury, and is often brought out in this way when there is serious damage to property, someone is permanently inured, or when someone dies. At this point, it is used to protect the self-image of the bully/killer (“It was just a prank, how could I know that removing that Stop sign would result in a car running through the intersection and causing a major accident?”) or by the bully/killer’s social circle (“They’re good people, they didn’t mean it to put that person in a wheelchair by pushing them in front of an oncoming train, it was just a prank!”).

    Ultimately, whether the dynamic is called ‘prank’ or ‘hazing’ the question is not one of what the perpetuators claim (or try to spin it as) the real questions seem to be around how well they know the ‘victim’, how their victim responds and how the perpetuators monitor their victim throughout. Like the case of the student with the shoes, if the purpose is closer social ties by for example, doing something silly to gain an in-house joke or story to tell, his being upset should have been enough for the ‘hazers’ to stop that activity right there and do something else as a bonding or story-creating activity, if they were concerned for his welfare. They didn’t, meaning the purpose was to gain social standing over him. It was bullying behaviour. People need to stop apologizing on behalf of these bullies.

  3. says

    It may be that ‘hazing’ or ‘initiation ritual’ has a lot in common with ‘prank’.

    Not really; a hazing ritual is attempting to normalize the behavior by protecting it under the umbrella of tradition. A “prank” is optional – if someone plays a “prank” on you and you don’t like it, you tell them, complain, or – if it’s bad enough – complain to some authority if it’s done under their purview.

    In other words, what they don’t have in common is consent or any mechanism of restraint. Which is, pretty much, everything.

  4. anat says

    Improbable Joe, similarly in the Israeli Air Force a promotion is often followed by a ‘wash’ ritual where the newly promoted person is hosed down in their uniform. IIUC the tradition is a derivative of the tradition of spraying/hosing pilots after their first solo flight. It is especially performed when a promotion is significant for one’s duties (gets one out of unpleasant tasks). Mostly it’s in done in good spirit, and if it isn’t people feel excluded. But sometimes people get really nasty stuff dumped on them or are forced into it (or forced to continue being ‘washed’) despite protests. In my days on my base ‘washing’ with anything but water was considered cause for court martial.

    As for other forms of initiation – hazing of many forms is (was? I hope?) common in boarding schools, especially agricultural boarding schools, but apparently also other vocational schools. The school with the most (in)famous hazing tradition is Kadoorie Agricultural High School. There is a communal hazing ritual in the late part of first year that ends one’s status as ‘firstie’. Pre-hazing there are areas of the school that ‘firsties’ are not allowed in. Also a more veteran student can demand that a ‘firstie’ give them their place, or not smile without permission and so forth random displays of hierarchy. Post hazing one joins the student body, ready to haze next year’s firsties. The tradition was well-known and at least as late as the 1990s the teachers let it stand in the name of student-governance (which is a key value in Kadoorie).

  5. Mano Singham says

    If the initiation routine is limited, well-defined, well-known in advance, and if people can choose to opt out then it might pass muster.

    I recall as a boy traveling by ship from Sri Lanka to England via South Africa. This required crossing the equator and when we did so, the members of the ship’s crew who were crossing the equator for the first time were briefly lowered one by one into the ocean and then lifted out again. This apparently was a long-standing tradition, at least of that ship if not the company or the merchant navy in general. It was all done in public and seemed harmless. I assume that if any of the crew did not like the idea of being briefly dunked in the Indian Ocean, they were free to refuse.

  6. left0ver1under says

    It seems people still don’t get the message: hazing injures and kills people. It doesn’t “toughen them up”, it breaks them mentally. It’s a form of torture, used in brainwashing as in religious cults and the military. Those who encourage hazing don’t like to admit it exists and try to whitewash its history.

    The St. Louis Blues’ webpage on former player Doug Wickenheiser talks about “a serious knee injury that resulted when he was struck by a car during a team outing”. The “team outing” was a hazing incident, where he and others were abusing rookies. Wickenheiser fell off a truck and was hit by a passing car. That incident made the NHL crack down on hazing, but mostly because the Blues still had to pay Wickenheir while injured during a “team activity”. Other forms of “initiation” still go on.

    A lot of hazing goes on at amateur levels, and pro leagues claim “not to be involved”. Really? Former pro and minor league players go on to be coaches at the amateur level, and you claim not to be involved, not to be encouraging or enabling it? The US military also claimed “nobody taught Grainer and England how to abuse at Abu Ghraib”. So why was being blindfolded and tied to electrodes called “the Vietnam”?

    From 2003:

    Military abuse is the worst given the level of violence they are capable of and the silence ordered by the chain of command. The Canadian Airborne Regiment (or Stillborn, as others within the military called them) hazed recruits with torture, consumption of bodily waste, racial and other abuse. That was the same regiment which tortured and murdered a Somali teenager back in 1995. And the abuse in the Russian military is unspeakable, the “rule of the grandfather”. The video linked to is mild compared to some of the others that exist.

    Former MLB player Jeff Kent is one of the rare few who stood up as a rookie (1992) and refused to endure hazing nor participate in hazing others. He was never “accepted” by other players and was often in confrontations with teammates (most famously Barroid Bonds) throughout his career. And every “news item” that talks about the hazing incitent infers that Kent was the problem for “thowing a fit” and “not being a team player”, instead of blaming those who engaged in the abuse.

  7. anat says

    Baptism of some kind upon crossing the equator by sea for the first time – yes, that is a common tradition among sailors. My father was dipped in the ship’s swimming pool. He has a certificate to ‘prove’ it.

  8. says

    See, that’s the thing… it is easy to see both the harmless version and the horribly abusive form it could take. If I was asked to stand in a cold shower and then run a lap around the building so everyone could see me soaking wet, that would feel like a fun initiation rite where everyone hugs me and/or shakes my hand at the end of it.

    The idea of covering someone in trash and/or toxic chemicals? That’s not a fun bonding experience, that’s abusive torture, and should be seen as a corruption of the initial bonding ritual.

  9. smrnda says

    That seems like a relatively in-control ritual that seems well supervised by authorities, the spraying with a hose.

  10. left0ver1under says

    When sports teams talk about “optional practices”, they are rarely optional unless you’re a star player. Those who don’t practice don’t make the team. Current NHL goaltender Carey Price was cut from the 2006 Canadian national junior team for not attending an “optional practice”. And I’ve seen at least one report that said not attending an “optional practice” is partly why Jonathan Martin was targeted.

    Peer pressure and repercussions rarely make things “optional” in sports. It’s undoubtedly truer in military and paramilitary environments.

  11. lochaber says

    Previous USMC as well. I avoided most of the hazing, but it was still used towards certain individuals (especially if they weren’t well liked), and this was well after the supposed ‘no hazing crackdown’.

    But then, that’s the problem of trying to legislate/define this stuff… The predators, bullies, sadists, and vengeful (“X happened to me as a boot, so I’m going to X these boots”, etc.) will almost always find a way to turn a legal, acceptable, and even enjoyable activity into one of dominance, fear, and pain.

    Say someone’s having a bad day, or doesn’t like the open ocean, or just doesn’t want to get dunked – it’s not hard for me to see a situation where a couple of his ‘buddies’ grab the guy, stuff him into duffle or something, tie that to a rope, and throw it over the side at night for a few minutes. Maybe pull him up after that, maybe toss him back in for another dunk. maybe pull him out of the water, but leave him hanging over the side all night.
    -at any point, if any of these people were stopped and questioned about this (or even after), you can bet that they would claim they are doing it for the guy in the sack, cause they just can’t let him miss out on this incredibly important ritual. and, ‘sides, “we’re his buds, off course we aren’t doing anything harmful”

    Overall, hazing reminds me a lot of that aphorism (no idea on the accuracy of it…) about abusers being abused in their past. I’ve often heard the whole “It was done to me, so I’m going to do it to them” as a reason/excuse, as if that explained/helped/madeanysensewhatsoever.

    I’ve been fairly lucky to go through a couple hazing-prone environments, but I’ve managed to avoid all but the most mundane/watered down versions.

  12. Mano Singham says

    The problem, as many of the comments have pointed out, is that the whole practice, even if allowed in its mildest form, can be distorted by the sociopaths to become abuse and torture, who then excuse themselves on the grounds that it was all meant in good fun.

    As Aaroninmelbourne in comment 2 said, the people who do at least try to see it from the victim’s point of view and claim the they would have enjoyed it if it had been done on them are usually taking a very narrow view of what they would have enjoyed. Of course, the person retaliating against them is unlikely to do something that they think the victim will enjoy. The whole point is to do something that terrifies or humiliates them and unfortunately ‘buddies’ are likely to know your weak points.

    And so the cycle continues until it ends in tragedy.

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