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'School Athletics & Hazing: Why It's Still an Issue' by Gillian Spilker, Bellingham HS
 10/19/2022 12:00:00 AM

Gillian Spilker
Bellingham High School, Class of 2023

Recently, sports news in my hometown has focused on a story about hazing. Journalists have covered it on the internet, tv and the newspaper; social media fanned the gossipy side; and every local teenager has heard a version of what might have happened.

What has surprised me about this is that all the attention has focused on how bad hazing is for kids to inflict on each other, to be involved with, or be subjected to. With all the press I understand how bad hazing is. But never once in the years I’ve been a school & club athlete—essentially my whole life—have I been taught what hazing is, how it is a form of harassment, how it relates to bullying, or why I might encounter it.

In order to address hazing, it first has to be specifically defined. When the lines blur between bonding experiences and hazing, perpetrators go unchecked and cycles continue. Merriam-Webster defines it as “An initiation process involving harassment.” The NCAA links hazing to initiation in more detail, defining it as “any act committed against someone joining or becoming a member or maintaining membership in any organization that is humiliating, intimidating or demeaning, or endangers the health and safety of the person.” This NCAA definition introduces a key factor to the foundation of hazing: humiliation. The incident of hazing in my community certainly preyed upon the shame and embarrassment of underclassmen, who are already uncomfortable in a new environment—I began to understand what those freshman boys had really been put through.

As I continued to do my own research about hazing, I realized how important it is to understand its origins and fundamental objective. Hazing is so common as to be synonymous with boys’ experience in fraternities—however, a quick Google search claims that hazing dates all the way back to Plato’s Academy of ancient Greece; called “pennalism”, older students practiced in the maltreatment and torment of first-years. To be so prevalent across generations there must be a purpose, reason, or rationale. Throughout history, the world has seen obscene tragedy and pain and hardship, and repeatedly, people bond together when mutually oppressed. Hazing manufactures hardship, and creates an environment where people feel unsafe and violated—from this experience, just like throughout world history, the oppressed bind together to build connection and alliance. This is the fundamental principle behind hazing; put others down to establish trust and unity. I hear the irony as I type this, but the underlying idea is there: hazing is rooted in the intention to build a community.

In order to manufacture hardship for a group, tactics of affliction, emotional, mental, and physical, are used. This is what college hazing horror stories are made of: forcing new members to drink and drive or run naked in the street. However, these stories override the more common, less stimulating forms of hazing that take place among high schoolers who may not even be aware that their actions constitute as such. When kids make an effort to build community on a sports team, and decide to use “mild embarrassment” as an initiation tactic, they may not see this situation as hazing. Hazing is not taught—instead it is viewed through the media, movies and television, in its most extreme form, preventing youth from identifying it in its more common form in their own lives.

Throughout my middle and high school experience I have been on many sports teams and been a part of many groups. I have never been taught explicitly what hazing is, or why it is harmful. I have had lessons about bullying and consent; my school teaches a lot about inclusion; but I haven’t ever learned about group dynamics or how to help a team come together. I certainly haven’t been taught how to grow a healthy culture by boosting up teammates—that is something that is supposed to be intuitive to us. We, youth, are expected to support younger kids and build community—but not taught the right or wrong way, even if it seems innate to those who have seen the ways in which hazing negatively impacts society. I think there is a lot to learn about power dynamics and how to build cohesion in a team or group without tearing individuals down. What I’ve learned from the hazing incident in my town is that it’s what we don’t talk about—what is taboo and unspoken—that harms us the most. When hazing is not discussed, and healthy bonding methods not taught, we are all victims of hazing.

From: Patricia Nielsen 10/19/2022 5:16 PM

You are right on! What a thoughtful essay Gillian Spilker.

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October 2022

10/19/2022 'School Athletics & Hazing: Why It's Still an Issue' by Gillian Spilker, Bellingham HS

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