Solution to hazing is elusive

Ingrained: The price of initiation rites runs from pain to tragedy, and public censure has been frequent, but there's no end in sight in our schools.

September 17, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

When two Centennial High School junior varsity soccer players were injured in an Aug. 31 hazing incident, the school acted quickly to suspend the 14 varsity players involved and send a clear message that athletic hazing is out of bounds.

If only it were that simple.

Initiation rites have been around as long as human beings have been forming hierarchies, and hazing long ago found a comfortable home in scholastic athletics. Though it has been criticized in recent years, it apparently has not decreased in popularity among young athletes.

Alfred University released a survey two weeks ago that indicated more than 75 percent of the 325,000 NCAA athletes who participated in intercollegiate sports during the 1998-99 school year had to undergo some form of hazing to join a college athletic team, and one in five of the athletes surveyed reported being subjected to hazing that crossed the line between harmless hi-jinks and potentially dangerous or illegal activity.

No recent study has gauged the frequency of hazing at the high school level, but there have been enough publicized incidents over the past few years to indicate that it is a nationwide problem.

The Centennial soccer incident is the second hazing controversy to make headlines in the Baltimore area this decade, though it pales next to the ugly 1994 incident in which a baseball player at McDonogh High allegedly poured urine on the head of an underclassman, then was viciously attacked by the victim's brother.

Military academies routinely encourage hazing to toughen up young cadets, a practice that is believed to enhance group unity and morale, but similar practices that were once condoned in the athletic arena have fallen victim to a decided shift in societal attitudes toward discipline in the second half of the 20th century.

"There is no gray area between tradition and hazing," said former Centennial soccer coach Bill Stara, who left Centennial four years ago to coach at River Hill High in Howard County. "Tradition is building a program. Hazing is trying to intimidate a group of people.

"I don't believe in it. I never have, and it will never happen on a team I'm coaching. Building a program means that the older players look out for the younger ones, not terrorize them. If you've trained the older players well, you don't have problems."

Second-year Dulaney soccer coach Steve Shaw agrees.

"I'd rather not have guys singling out younger players and making them feel like others on the team are against them," Shaw said. "Does tearing guys down for the sake of the team make the group come together better? I don't buy into that."

Though rough practice methods remain common in high school and college football, coaches are quick to delineate the harsh regimen that builds aggressiveness and endurance from unsupervised attempts to intimidate or humiliate teammates.

"I always said that if I thought hazing would help us beat Loyola or Calvert Hall or Gilman, I'd be the first in line," said retired football coach Augie Waibel, "but we know that hazing doesn't help you win football games.

`Lack of discipline'

"This [incident] will squash things for a while, but it [hazing] will rear its head again. In today's society, there's such a lack of discipline that every once in a while schools must remind players of what is acceptable behavior."

Maryland is one of the 34 states that has an anti-hazing law. The Maryland statute states: "A person who hazes a student so as to cause serious bodily injury to the student at any school, college or university is guilty of a misdemeanor and, on conviction, is subject to a fine of not more than $500, or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both."

No charges were filed after the incident at Centennial High, in which 12 junior varsity players were forced to bend over while teammates punted soccer balls at them.

The "butts up" soccer ritual that led to the mass suspension has been a common practice on prep and youth soccer teams for years, though the Aug. 31 incident apparently was performed in an unusually aggressive manner -- with the upperclassmen punting the balls from close range instead of kicking the balls off the ground from farther away.

One player suffered a concussion when he was hit in the face and another suffered a hand injury, but both are back practicing with the junior varsity team.

"In the old days, you'd see bottoms-up as part of a competitive practice," said former Liberty High varsity boys soccer coach Lee Kestler, who now coaches the junior varsity.

"Losers would line up on the [goal] line and shots would be taken from far away. In most cases, the shooters were so bad the balls would end up in the right corner, instead. But it's gone away up here. We got a complaint about it being a humiliating experience, so we knocked it off."

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