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Off the board: Changing the conversation on athletic hazing

a/Off the Board/Opinion by

Recent events surrounding the McGill Redmen football team have prompted a renewed conversation about the values, rules, and processes that govern athletics at this school.
Much of the focus has been on athletes’ interactions with those outside of the locker room—rightly so, considering the nature of the two cases currently being investigated—but what has been ignored is what occurs within the team. It was nine years ago that McGill cancelled the football team’s season due to a rookie-hazing incident involving the sexual assault of an 18-year-old rookie player.

“It has no place at McGill. It will not be tolerated in any form,” then Interim Provost Dr. Anthony Masi told the CBC at the time.

Player initiation is common among teams at all levels, including in professional sports teams. Many athletes see it—for better or worse—as a rite of passage. While it can take many forms, some positive and useful for teammates trying to build relationships, it can also slip into questionable territory quite easily, involving homophobic, sexist, or racist elements. At the collegiate and university level, alcohol is often a factor, and participation extends beyond the team, affecting other individuals in public.

There is no administration in this country that condones hazing. At McGill, teams are told specifically that there is zero tolerance when it comes to this issue. This principle makes sense  because if a school condoned hazing it would result in a public relations, and legal nightmare. So what happens in practice at many schools is something akin to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; rookie hazing is not an issue until it is. That is to say, some schools will punish teams that have problems related to hazing that surface, but turn a blind eye to those teams that manage to keep a lid on their practices.

The trouble here is not that administrative policy is inappropriate—McGill’s football team deserved the punishment it received in 2005—it is that it is ineffective. Rookie hazing still exists, with teams at schools all over Canada and the US taking part each year, and it will continue to exist moving forward regardless of any suspensions or punishments handed out. It is a part of athletic culture, not university culture—one that can often be harmful—and attempting to eliminate it completely will almost certainly be a fruitless endeavour.

What needs to take place is a shift in attitude from administrators. Rather than punish and hope there are no further incidents, universities need to understand that “rookie nights” do take place. Instead, schools should craft policies to ensure that it is done in a safe and appropriate manner. Punishment may send a message, but it does not resolve the issue at hand. Rookie initiation ceremonies are not inherently harmful—when done right it is a constructive night where rookies are welcomed into a new ‘family’—but it certainly can be when rookies are being hurt or humiliated.

With the forthcoming review of the rules and regulations surrounding varsity sports, McGill has an opportunity to change the conversation surrounding the treatment of rookies. It can ensure that rookie nights become a celebration of the new players, rather than a cruel coming of age. Refusing to acknowledge this problem does not make it go away. Discussing it openly, however, will make McGill a safer place, not just for athletes, but for all students.

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