Hazing in College Sports
Hazing is typically an initiation ritual using deliberate intimidation and often involves harmful and violent behaviors such as forced drinking and assault. Unfortunately, hazing in college sports has become a pervasive problem on campuses around the U.S. Hazing can have a severe physical and emotional impact on student-athletes. Helping Survivors is a valuable resource for helping and aiding victims of hazing to take legal action.
Hazing can involve intimidation, humiliation, and sometimes violence. It happens in a group context and occurs whether or not a person willingly participates. Unfortunately, hazing in college sports has become a pervasive problem on campuses around the U.S.
Recently, there have been several high-profile headlines about hazing on college sports teams, including cases on Northwestern University’s football and New Mexico State’s basketball teams.
Hazing is a form of abuse that is illegal in almost every state, and it can cause severe physical and emotional effects on student-athletes. To prevent hazing in college sports, schools, coaches, and athletes can all take steps to create a more positive team culture.
Understanding Hazing in College Sports
The NCAA defines hazing as a behavior that “creates an environment/climate in which dignity and respect are absent.” The most common form of hazing in college sports is participation in drinking games, but hazing can take many other forms, such as:
- Sleep deprivation
- Sexual simulation
- Acts of violence, such as beating or paddling
Often, hazing is justified as a team-building exercise to develop a sense of belonging. Far from being a healthy bonding activity, it can actually make members trust each other less.
Hazing is serious and possibly rampant in some college communities, as revealed in recent examples of hazing in college sports.
In June 2023, two New Mexico State basketball players settled a hazing lawsuit after three team members sexually assaulted them. Coaches knew of the abuse but did nothing to stop it. The settlement included the players who committed the assaults, the coaches who knew about the assaults, and the school’s board of regents.
Meanwhile, Northwestern University is also dealing with a hazing scandal involving conduct by the school’s football team members. Lawyers recently announced that they would file a lawsuit on behalf of student-athletes from Northwestern’s other sports programs in which hazing may have also occurred.
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Impact of Hazing on Student-Athletes
Hazing and bullying are related, but there are some notable differences. The University of Maryland says that although both bullying and hazing can cause harm, bullying generally excludes someone from a group, while hazing is used as a tool of inclusion.
Hazing has undeniable physical and emotional impacts, including:
- Physical, emotional, or mental instability
- Decline in grades or coursework
- Loss of sleep
- Loss of sense of control
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Decline in family and friend relationships
- Loss of trust
- Illness or hospitalization
As harmful as hazing is, it is far too common in college sports organizations. According to the NCAA, 74 percent of student-athletes experience hazing in college. The most common form of hazing was participation in drinking games at 47 percent.
This kind of abusive behavior does not help teams bond. According to the NCAA, 69 percent of student-athletes disagreed that hazing made them feel part of the group. For example, one of the New Mexico State players told the Associated Press how the ordeal had impacted their mental health, specifically when it comes to trusting others.
Hazing doesn’t just affect the victims. It can also severely impact perpetrators. They may experience shame, guilt, and their own trauma, and their long-term college and career aspirations may be affected.
Signs That a Friend or Family Member Is a Victim of Hazing
College athletes must put significant time and commitment into their schoolwork and sports. Hazing will make their situation even more stressful. An athlete who is a victim of hazing will often show specific signs. They might:
- Communicate or behave differently after joining the team
- Show signs of depression, such as sadness or loss of interest in activities
- Show changes in grades or school performance
- Have different eating habits
- Start associating with certain people while ignoring others
- Have a loss of excitement in the game
Preventing and Reducing Hazing in College Sports
Recognizing that hazing is a problem is just the first step in improving athletes’ lives. It’s also critical to take concrete steps to prevent and reduce hazing.
The NCAA promotes a comprehensive approach. They recommend that teams and schools implement the following:
- Anti-hazing policies: Teams and schools should have these policies and regularly educate students, coaches, and administrators about them.
- Positive recruitment practices: Team values and goals should become part of the recruitment process. New team members should be on board with the policy that the school or the team does not tolerate hazing.
- Hazing education: Student-athletes, coaches, and administrators should know what hazing is and how to prevent it. They should learn healthy team-bonding activities such as recreational outings, community service, or games focusing on positive feedback and support. Hazing should also be part of alcohol education programs at the team or student level.
- Training: Student-athletes, coaches, and administrators should learn how to intervene effectively when they witness hazing.
- Accountability: Students, coaches, and administrators should report hazing. Those who participate in hazing should be held accountable.
Creating a Positive Team Culture
Sports teams are more likely to haze players when other team-bonding activities are not offered. Some examples of positive team bonding include:
- Volunteering at a local service organization such as a shelter, food bank, or community clean-up
- Preparing and eating a communal meal
- Developing a mentor program between senior and new players to promote team values
Other initiatives, such as focusing on positive team culture in the recruitment process, can help to create a more fulfilling student-athlete environment. Coaches should emphasize to new players that hazing will not be tolerated and they are joining a supportive team.
How To Report Hazing and Where To Seek Help
Every college athlete should know how to report hazing if they witness it. A school’s athletic program should have reporting options available. Northwestern University, for example, has an online “report a concern” form as part of its Hazing Prevention program. You can make this report confidentially.
You can also take the following steps:
- Call 9-1-1 immediately if someone is in danger or suffering from mental or physical distress.
- If it is not an emergency, and you cannot find a reporting option through your school, contact your coach, the Dean of Students, Student Health, or Campus Security.
In states where hazing is a criminal offense, you should be able to make an anonymous, confidential report to the police. You can confirm with the police that your identity will be protected if that is important to you. If you have been a victim of hazing, you are also entitled to take action and file a lawsuit.