In the past week, two different high school hazing incidents have been prominently reported in the news, one locally and one in Pennsylvania. Both incidents involved members of the respective schools’ football teams and are remarkably similar. The school district in Pennsylvania went so far as to cancel their entire season. I can’t say, however, that I was surprised by the stories. Despite the negative attention fraternities and various athletic teams have received in recent years, including reports of deaths and criminal charges as the result of extreme hazing rituals, the practice has simply gone underground and typically unreported. The unfortunate truth is that it is far from being eliminated.
One of the more controversial scenes in my new novel, Belfast, Ohio, involves a hazing incident perpetrated against the main character and his fellow freshmen by members of his high school crew team. Like many hazing practices, the ritual involves humiliation, violence, and strong sexual undertones. As a side note, it’s both interesting and sad how often and how much those three qualities are conflated in hazing practices, mostly by males, nor is it coincidental that the majority of brutalistic hazing rituals are the products of the hypersexualized minds of high school and college-aged boys.
I have to admit that I’ve been a bit caught off guard by the surprised reactions that have been shared with me by readers as if hazing were a past practice of more brutalistic, bygone days. The scene I share in the novel is not wholly a product of my own twisted imagination. In fact, it is closely based on an incident found in the autobiography of Lance Rentzel, the one time NFL wide receiver. In his autobiography, When All the Laughter Died in Sorrow, Rentzel describes an initiation ritual he endured while a football player at Oklahoma University in the sixties. (You’ll have to read my or his book to find out more.) Interestingly and perhaps not coincidentally, as an adult Rentzel would be arrested on indecent exposure charges. Who can say how much his suffering of sexual trauma as a teenager warped his adult sexuality?
Although I was never victimized myself, I vividly remember watching terrified as several fellow sophomores on my high school football team were brutalized by upperclassmen. Most likely, I was spared the abuse due to having a sister in the senior class who was friends with my older teammates. Piling on a kid and “dry humping” him from behind was not an uncommon occurrence nor was the infliction of extreme “wedgies,” the wrapping of genitals with athletic tape, and being pissed on in the showers. There may have been worse; these are just the ones I witnessed and remember. At the time, I’d been somehow brainwashed into classifying all of it as normal “horseplay.” It was only in retrospect that I realized the abusive, sexual, and even homoerotic nature of these hazing incidents. We all just accepted the practice as normal and took it. The thought never crossed our minds to report these assaults to coaches, school officials, or especially our parents. Of course and sadly, anyone familiar with the psychology of sexual assault victims knows that not reporting one’s violation is the norm for fear of public exposure and the additional accompanying humiliation.
What’s not surprising at all is that the guys in my class who suffered the most from these sadistic acts became the most avid practitioners of those very same behaviors when we became upperclassmen. Such is the cycle of abuse.
I know some will argue that such behavior amounts to no more than “boys being boys,” and there are those who will insist that hazing rituals are an effective means of team building. And there are still those who will insist that the punishment of those who inflict the hazing is an overreach by those in authority and that those who call for such accountability are contributing to the “wussification” of our kids, especially our young males.
I beg to differ.
There are few things I find more repulsive than deliberate cruelty. I don’t claim to have been or to be a saint. I’m sure I’ve behaved in a manner that came off as cruel to others at various points in my life. However, if I have, those incidents were the results of immaturity, ignorance, or misunderstanding, not deliberate cruelty, which is exactly and only what hazing amounts to.
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