Stripping fraternity pledges naked and beating them with paddles? Clearly that's dangerous hazing. Forcing them to drink alcohol (or even water) until they vomit or pass out? Ditto.
But what about rousting the new team members out of bed at 3 a.m. to make them do push-ups? Or making initiates clean the chapter house? Or having rookie football players carry veteran teammates' equipment or requiring high school freshmen to stand on tables and sing their school song? Those kinds of activities are hazing as well. But are they harmful?
Americans are all over the map when it comes to such questions. Many scoff at the notion that making someone perform minor chores constitutes hazing. Others concede that such activities may be mild forms of hazing but insist that they're not harmful. Still others argue that while such activities may not be hazing per se, they should nevertheless be banned because they are — or have the potential to be — psychologically damaging.
“I don't think that making the rookies carry the equipment is hazing,” says Elizabeth Allan, an anti-hazing activist and a professor of education at the University of Maine. “However, it sets up a dynamic in which people who have less power are made to do different things than other people, which can open the door to other, more emotionally and physically harmful activities.”
The transformation from “silly, little harmless pranks” to dangerous hazing rituals can occur quickly, she says, especially when alcohol is introduced into the mix. But more typically the transformation is a slower, more incremental process that “creeps up” on people, she says.
“It starts out with just name-calling, and the next week it's personal servitude and by the end, [the hazers] are asking you to do things that you know aren't right,” Allan says. “But you keep going because you feel you've come too far and invested too much to quit.”
Allan points out that while many hazing victims never suffer psychological problems as a result of their experiences, others do. “You can't predict how people are going to react to different things,” says Allan, who once counseled a sorority pledge who was traumatized after she was made to simulate oral sex with a banana. “I've known many students who leave school after being hazed. It can radically alter people's lives, not only in terms of physical injuries, but also psychologically.”
Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists, agrees. “Hazing can cause serious psychological-adjustment problems, similar to students who are bullied,” he says. Many of the students who opened fire on fellow students in the infamous school shooting incidents of the late 1990s may have been abused and traumatized in a hazing-like manner, he says. “Then there are kids who internalize their feelings and engage in self-destructive behaviors, including committing suicide. So hazing is not a playful, developmental rite of passage for everyone.”
But hazing still has its supporters. Sports Illustrated writer Richard Hoffer wrote in 1999 that some forms of athletic hazing — forced drinking, ritualistic paddling and activities that cause “bloodshed” — were wrong, but the sports world could benefit from more “wholesome” hazing, he says, because it breaks down players' egos and fosters teamwork.
“Athletics, which increasingly elevates the individual far above the team, needs more hazing,” Hoffer wrote. “What's wrong with making a freshman carry a senior's suitcase?”
Frequently, hazing victims themselves do not object to being mildly humiliated. Will Gordon, a sophomore at Glencliff High School in Nashville, Tenn., was tied to a chair and had his head and eyebrows shaved when he was a freshman going out for the football team. “It was all in fun,” Gordon said. “We didn't necessarily see it as violence. It was like bonding.”
Head shaving, equipment toting and other such activities probably would not constitute hazing under most of the 43 state anti-hazing laws. Maryland's law, for example, prohibits only activities that subject students “to the risk of serious bodily injury.” Pennsylvania's statute goes further, banning activities that cause “extreme mental stress” or physical harm.
“Most of the state laws focus on behavior that threatens to cause severe physical or psychological injury,” says Douglas E. Fierberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in hazing law. “Making someone carry a bucket of water doesn't do that, and making someone sing a fight song at a training table doesn't do that. These things are essentially initiation rituals.”