Humiliation, pain are its only products

September 17, 1999|By John Eisenberg

If you could push a button and make hazing in high school sports disappear -- the idea of it, the many ways it is carried out, everything about it -- the world would be a better place.

There's nothing wrong with trying to build a brotherhood among teammates, but there's everything wrong with doing it through humiliation, bullyish behavior and even cruelty.

What is the redeeming value in a practice consisting of juniors and seniors embarrassing and intimidating freshmen, just because they can?

Oh, sure, sometimes it's fine. Hazing can be harmless and even fun when deployed with good humor and kind spirits, as it occasionally is. It can even prove valuable, helping older athletes establish their leadership and younger ones become more confident.

But way too often, it's practiced darkly, with no humor, mean spirits and malicious intent.

Way too often, it's hurtful, painful and even dangerous.

And let's face it, if the best thing you can say about hazing in high school sports is that it's occasionally harmless, it's a custom that deserves to go the way of the eight-track tape player.

If you find that button that'd make it go away, do everyone a favor and push it. The world could use one fewer stupid idea.

But there is no button, of course. And hazing is such a tradition that it's certain to continue.

Incidents such as the one that made headlines this week, in which 14 varsity soccer players at Centennial High School were suspended for hazing the JV -- giving one JV player a concussion in the process -- succeed in demonstrating how pointless and dangerous it is. You'd like to think others would be discouraged from following suit.

But the story also generated sighs of relief at the many places where similar incidents of hazing occur every year without being reported or resulting in discipline. Many coaches, players and officials reacted this way: "Whew, at least we didn't caught."

The reality is it's naive to think hazing won't continue, even though there are laws forbidding it in Maryland, because it's as ingrained in sports at all levels as, say, keeping score.

It's pretty harmless in the pros, where it consists primarily of making rookies sing funny songs before the season, carry veterans' bags on the road and occasionally find their clothes torn apart after a game.

Earlier this season, the Orioles' Jerry Hairston returned to the clubhouse after a tough loss at Yankee Stadium and found his clothes gone, replaced by a full Ravens uniform.

Former Oriole Armando Benitez blew up and almost asked for a trade when his clothes disappeared a few years ago, but Hairston just smiled at the prank, put on his shoulder pads, helmet and uniform and took the team bus back to the hotel. No problem.

Come to think of it, given the inflated sense of self-importance so many of today's pro athletes develop, it'd be nice to see hazing make a comeback at that level. Some of those guys could stand a little humiliation.

Another type of hazing is, of course, the kind that's part of college fraternity and sorority initiations, tending to revolve around heavy drinking, vomiting, then more heavy drinking.

Button, please.

If we made that kind of hazing also disappear, the few students who die every year would still be alive.

Alas, it's a tradition that's going to continue, as is hazing in high school sports. It's just a fact that older athletes are going to dominate younger ones, or, at least, try to dominate. And given the age and maturity of all involved, that domination is going to get out of hand at times.

There's nothing wrong with asking a young player to take on an extra load in practice or learn the ropes in a way designed to toughen. But paddling, beating, kicking and throwing things at them is ridiculous.

Not that the younger player has to sit and take it. Those days are over. Just as some college basketball players no longer want to play for Bob Knight and get cursed for four years, some high school athletes don't want to get hazed.

By anyone. Call it political correctness if you want, but if you don't want to stand there and have a teammate three years older than you kick soccer balls at your rear, you don't have to take it.

What can you do? Complain. Tell your coach. Tell your teachers. Tell your parents. The law is on your side. Enough deaths and injuries have resulted from hazing that it's no longer tolerated in extreme forms.

Taking that stand is difficult, of course, at an age when peer pressure is so powerful. But it's the only way to wage war. It's the only way to make hazing less prevalent.

We can't push a button and make it disappear, as much as that would make the world a better place.

But after incidents such as the one at Centennial, we can applaud the young athletes who stood up and said they'd had enough. They did their best to chip away at an outdated, mean-spirited custom that deserves to die.

Pub Date: 9/17/99

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