Athletic Hazing: Schools Need to Put Athlete Wellness Over Winning at Any Cost

The revelation this week of a six-month-long investigation at Northwestern University into allegations of hazing and sexual abuse within the football program is troubling and sadly not a surprise. The dynamics of this type of aggression and hazing veiled as “tradition” has been prevalent in sports programs for many years and persists despite growing public awareness and pressure to end it. Despite this advocacy, these practices survive because the pressure to win at all costs for sports programs is greater than their attention to the student-athletes’ wellbeing.

Our law firm has had the honor of representing student-athletes who have experienced hazing and sexual abuse at a variety of schools as they seek justice and change. We’ve unfortunately seen this behavior take root in high schools, where the victims are often freshmen who are young teenagers and deeply harmed by this experience, potentially changing the trajectory of their athletic careers and lives. Maine West, Lake Zurich, and Plainfield Central high schools in Illinois are some of the cases that we have litigated for survivors.

The main driver of hazing is the belief that the culture of “manhood” leads to better results on the field. Hazing is not just constrained to male athletes but appears far more common in boys’ locker rooms than with girls.

Hazing, which often includes a sexual abuse component, harms athletes emotionally and physically. In the short term, student-athletes who experience hazing and sexual abuse in the locker room or elsewhere are afraid, they lose friends, might transfer schools, develop serious psychological issues, have outbursts and need therapy. I am tired of hearing defenses of hazing that say, “This is a child’s game” and “Boys will be boys.” This causes serious harm. We don’t know what the long-term ramifications are for the victims because survivors are, in my experience with these cases, typically uncomfortable discussing the experience.

The proverbial buck stops at the coaches. Period. Coaches are charged with complete control over an athletic team and their athletes. There is a direct line between the athletes and their coaches, with coaches wanting and needing to know what those athletes eat, how they train, how their grades are and what their home and social lives are like, not to mention the intricacies of their athletic performance, so I refuse to believe for a second that coaches are unaware of what is happening in their own locker rooms and how their players interact with each other off the field. But coaches hide behind plausible deniability and claim blissful ignorance. It is impossible to believe coaches are not aware of systemic and repeated hazing and team rituals they or others believe increase team bonding, providing that extra “edge” over other teams.

We need strict standards in place to break this misguided cycle of machismo. The focus should solely be on athletes’ skills, performance, mental health and wellness to get to their optimal performance, both on and off the field.

The best way to uncover where hazing is taking place is to encourage open and honest communication without shame or judgment. The best system of reporting is a strong family or support group. The whistleblowers are often too embarrassed to tell fellow students or school officials, but a parent or other trusted adult who has open communication or a strong sense of what’s happening with their student-athlete can make all the difference. I encourage parents and other adults to stay close to these kids, to listen to what they’re saying - what they’re not saying – to sense their emotional distress or injuries.

After hazing is made known at a school, there is a crackdown, perhaps a turnover of coaches and administrators and then a period of compliance, followed by complacency where anti-hazing programs are relaxed and the problem surfaces again. The irony is that when this behavior finally comes to light, coaches, administrators and schools are also harmed, meaning everyone loses. The only way forward is to focus fully on student-athlete well-being. Support must be based on helping student-athletes do the best they can in their lives, and athletics can be a positive building block in their growth and development into healthy adults.



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