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U of T expert on why hazing happens and how to stop it

Ending hazing "must start with a zero-tolerance and no-negotiation philosophy and approach," says Professor Michael Atkinson of U of T's Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (photo via iStock)

News of a hazing incident at St. Michael’s College School, a prestigious private school, has shocked Toronto with the brutality of the allegations. Six boys, all young teens, have been charged with gang sexual assault and two other counts. And since the arrests, it has emerged that police are investigating six separate incidents of hazing at the school.

Professor Michael Atkinson of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education specializes in violence, suffering and pain in sport and investigates the relationship between masculinity and health. He spoke to Jelena Damjanovic about why hazing takes place and how schools and teams can break the cruel ritual.


What is hazing exactly?

Hazing manifests in many forms and varieties. Colloquially referred to as initiation rituals or “team bonding” exercises, hazing is a set of ceremonies, practices or customs engaged by a particular group of people to confer membership status on new recruits or rookies. Basically, you have to pass a series of gruelling ordeals to show your commitment to the team. Hazing centrally involves publicly degrading, shaming or abusing young people and may involve them being required to drink copious amounts of alcohol, engage in sexual acts or generally embarrass themselves in front of many others.

It is a physical, psychological and emotional gauntlet new members of the group must endure to be respected as legitimate insiders. 

What effect does it have on the perpetrators and the victims?

Basically, hazing rituals require the rookies to give their bodies and selves over to the team and serve to debase the person at the hands of the group. Hazing therefore reinforces the power of predatory senior members over junior members who have far less power and agency to say no. Hazing targets a person’s core personal vulnerabilities – their safety, self-integrity, sexual, gender, or racial identities – and exploits them for the purposes of group entertainment. 

Why do incidents of this kind seem to involve members of sport teams, particularly boys, more than other populations? Is that even a fair assumption? 

Hazing has deep roots in organized sport, yes, but also in other hyper-male social institutions such as the military and in the Greek fraternity system in colleges and universities. I would be cautious to assert that, however, hazing is a dominantly male activity. Hazing rituals are common practice among women’s sports teams and sororities. They equally involve sexual activities or the simulation of sex, heavy drinking and the humiliation and abuse of others. Speaking generally, though, men’s hazing tends to carry the rituals to the proverbial next level and escalate the risks involved. Boys and men also tend to take more risks when doing the hazing with respect to the public location of the acts, the number of people involved and, as evidenced in the St. Michael’s case, by documenting the rituals for online distribution. 

What perpetuates this kind of behaviour?

These are markers of a group of people with incredible hubris and collective feelings of immunity to organizational prosecution and sanction. These elevated risk-taking activities of power are also easily reconciled with archaic constructions of the dominating male in sport and elsewhere, so there is tremendous subcultural buy-in from athletes. Therefore, we see far more vicious hazing rituals by boys and men with tragically dehumanizing and horrific outcomes at times.  
 
How do we put an end to it?

With respect to controlling hazing, it must start with a zero-tolerance and no-negotiation philosophy and approach. Changing cultural mindsets inside sport is arduous at best and before we can expect athletes to engage in self-restraint and respect for others through initiation rituals, the institutional culture must become far less neglectful and forgiving toward them. This involves banning guilty athletes forever, terminating a team’s season or even closing an entire sport program down permanently within a school.

Perhaps most significantly, institutional and societal perception must change to viewing these acts as, at times, the crimes they are in practice.