Drum major Robert Champion of the Florida A & M band of “hemorrhagic shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage, due to blunt force trauma.” The injuries probably happened from running a gauntlet of the other band members in a hazing ritual. The university and administrators across the country have taken up, again, the endless and largely ineffectual call to end hazing. Initiation rites and hazing won’t end; they will hide underground, and it is important to think about why.
I do not want to deny the harm and ugliness for the individuals who have died or been demeaned or hurt by hazing in American colleges. I have no answers for how to end it or lessen it. I do want to think about why hazing exists, will continue and migrates underground and remains important to the young men and women who participate in it.
The Florida A & M band stood as a proud elite institution of highly trained and disciplined individuals committed to a common cause. They made grand music amid intricate and dazzling maneuvers on the field. My dad used to choreograph band movements, and I was mesmerized by their mastery.
To enter such a high performing team, a person must prove their competence. Any group worth its salt will test for skill when enrolling new members. But most groups, especially elite groups, require bonds of trust and will test further. Such groups build a culture and will create traditions of initiation rites. These rites will establish:
1) Whether an individual deeply wants to join the group.
2) Whether an individual will emotionally commit to the group and its cause.
3) Whether an individual will be loyal to the group above other commitments.
4) Whether this desire manifests in emotional and physical strength to suffer to gain membership.
5) Whether the person can hold the secret with other group members.
6) Whether an individual will respect a hierarchy of the elders.
Groups that celebrate their special status will strive to achieve all the above.
They will create tests of membership and I do mean tests. A test means that the person must prepare, endure and prove him or herself. A person can fail the test and fail to exhibit the emotional or physical strength to earn privileged membership. This failure is not about skill but commitment to the group as a group.
Hazing evolves naturally from this. Hazing involves the infliction of potential harm or suffering on the initiate. It creates a barrier that must be surmounted to prove worthiness. It usually requires a form of humbling to prove the group is more important than the individual. Conquering the suffering and humiliation earns acceptance. Many rites can be silly or stunts. They can be easy, hard, ritualistic, demanding or soft symbolic actions. It once looked like a gendered male phenomenon, but sororities and women's teams and groups have demonstrated their own competence at devising rituals and hazing on their own terms.
A person proves him or herself and becomes “one of us.” Passing the test proves their worthiness and trustworthiness—they enter the group in a deeper way beyond competence. The harder the test, as the Marines or Special Forces prove, the more abiding the loyalty. The challenges or tasks often establish a hierarchy to remind new entrants that they are entering at the lowest level and offer obeisance or “pay their dues” to gain higher levels. Ideally this should really occur on the field in competition or task performance. Over time it does; on good teams people earn their spurs by reliable and trusted showing up that the others can rely upon.
But the deeper more atavistic belonging demands the initiation. For many athletic teams and organizations these rites drift off campus and out of sight of coaches or authorities. These are non-sanctioned informal initiations that the students have created and kept alive over time, not the inventions of transient coaches or authorities.
Their hidden and illicit nature make them all the more valuable. These tests of the young by the young degenerate easily into hazing. Peer pressure and the desire to be acknowledged drive people join in stupid, demeaning or dangerous behavior that the entrants would not indulge on their own. They can involve tests that may make sense to a nineteen year old—chugging a bottle of vodka—flashing a random group—running a gauntlet. Often they may feel funny to the perpetrators but feel humiliating or demeaning to those experiencing them.
If the hazing is done in secret, team members share a secret. Secret sharing seals them tighter and obligates them to not tell. Secret hazing cements their membership. Its very danger generates pride at having succeeded at something hard. It also means that next year they can impose the same hazing.
Hazing, initiating, rites of passage speak deeply to sealing membership and consecrating belonging with value beyond technocratic proof of competence and skill. It gives shared pride in passing a test, being worthy. Sharing suffering and sharing a secret bond them as much as the rite does.
The obvious problem with hazing is that groups can create rites that demean, wound or physically hurt members. Too often young unmanaged college students lose perspective or judgment or just get carried away with horrendous results. It is one thing for the special services to provide very hard tests of endurance that match the skill and character needed, and another for a sports team to create tests of rigor. But few student organizations have any justification for harsh actions so they invent other dangerous forms of bonding and subordination. But running gauntlets, a harsh punishment created in the thirty years war for traitors, or drinking to poison someone have little sense beyond stupidity. But then that may be enough for initiation into a 20 year old world.
Athletic teams all build rituals. They need stability and predictability that weave into daily life rituals to integrate but also address hierarchy. The team works at its culture and often initiation rites spur that identity. Small rituals from carrying bags to cleaning up locker rooms make sense. Other rituals make sense in a different way. But rituals that go secret are seductive and powerful and for that reason invite abuse. The very thing that makes them attractive makes them dangerous when not tempered by any maturity or sense of purpose.
Modern coaches largely and ineffectually disavow hazing. They distance themselves for liability purposes but also because it really exceeds the limits of their own authority. In sports at least, they must move beyond don’t ask, don’t’ tell and create real costs to hazing. But the best thing they can do is to cultivate and support strong informal and formal leaders on the team. Beyond the bounds of rules and enforcement, these student leaders will draw the lines between initiation and hazing.