First, what do we call this phenomenon? “Hazing” is not quite the right word for what happened to Jonathan Martin, as hazing is something you go through once: you survive the ritual, you are in. “Bullying” applies, but is too broad. We need a term that reflects ongoing hazing, torment that doesn't stop at rookies. Unlike the lone schoolyard bully, this ongoing hazing is institutional, supported by the powers that be: Richie Incognito and his plethora of defenders say he was ordered by superiors to “toughen Martin up.” So what do we call this? “Hazing Plus?” “Macho Culture?” “Manning-Up?” The purpose of it seems to be to create good little soldiers: people-like units who are simultaneously tough and obedient. Good little soldiers take abuse ... and take it, and take it again. Good little soldiers do not question this treatment. Good little soldiers never say "enough."
By most accounts, there was nothing unusual in what happened to Martin, who played offensive tackle for the Dolphins until last week. He was taunted, threatened, and socially ostracized: par for the course, according to his teammates. What was unusual is that he broke ranks. He chose to walk away, and to break the code of complicit silence that allows this sort of institutional bullying to continue. Jonathan Martin was not a good little soldier.
Hazing* is the first step to breaking and molding your soldiers. Most people who go through a painful initiation process into some sort of tribe will look back fondly on the process. Some hate it at first, but many love it, perhaps feeling for the first time they belong to an elite club, that they've earned their way to respectability. Initiated members naturally insist the tradition continue; if you had to provide blood, sweat, and tears in order to be A Chosen One, you can bet your manly britches everyone else had better pay the same price. No pansies allowed, right?
To me, hazing only makes the slightest bit of sense in the military—where it is also the most rampant. Literal survival is at stake here: hazing, at least theoretically, weeds out the weak and toughens up the strong. It forms intense bonds of brotherhood between those who go through it, in the same way surviving an actual battle will bond soldiers in a platoon together. But a football team? This is a game. Or it's supposed to be a game. It has turned into something else.
|Robert Champion, hazed to death in 2011|
Colleges are notoriously rife with hazing, too. Earlier this week at Wilmington College in Ohio, three fraternity pledges were taken to the basement of the frat house and subjected to a variety of humiliations. One student ended up in the hospital after being hit in the groin: he later lost a testicle. Stories of pledges dying from alcohol poisoning are not uncommon. Such stories have become so commonplace we don’t bat an eye at them anymore: we even laugh. Ha. Ha. Those crazy kids.
But on college campuses, hazing generally stops after rush is over. In athletics, as in the military, that initial rite of passage isn’t enough: “hazing” becomes perpetual. Players bully each other, coaches bully players. Athletes are made to endure unnecessary physical hardships, such as practicing in the heat with no water. You prove yourself by not asking for a break, not complaining, ignoring your racing heart and swelling tongue, and being the last one to pass out. Team-sanctioned sadism (and the masochism that accompanies it) particularly happens when there is a breakdown in true leadership: it's not a coincidence that the coach of the Miami Dolphins himself is a rookie; he only the took the reins last year. Weak leadership allows bullying behavior to flourish.
The worst aspect of Good Little Soldier culture is when it reaches down to children. Adults are not only allowed to bully children, they are encouraged to. While my son's soccer team is affiliated with the American Youth Soccer Organization, which has an excellent track record for positive coaching, I've seen many other coaches become unhinged during soccer games, hurling spittle-laced abuse at the players on the field. The parents, rather than protecting their children, seem to encourage it. “My son needs some toughening up,” is a common reaction. “It's a hard world out there.” Really. And why is that, I wonder? When I brought this up in a discussion, many of the men in the room reminisced fondly about the abusive coaches of their youth. “When I look back on it, I can't believe some of the things he said to us,” said one. “I would freak out if anyone treated my kids that way. And yet, he did bring out the best in me.” What does that say about your best, I wanted to ask, that only abuse can release it?
As with any other institution that has a Good Little Soldier culture, anyone who complains about these conditions—whether it is a player, an employee, a parent, or a student—will face repercussions. The ranks close; you will be punished. Everyone from the top down is deeply invested in protecting the poisonous rituals.
Have you experienced this culture? Why does it persist in a supposedly civilized society? Are there benefits that outweigh the pitfalls? If not, is there a way to break the cycle without becoming a pariah?
*From stophazing.org: “Hazing refers to any activity expected of someone joining a group (or to maintain full status in a group) that humiliates, degrades or risks emotional and/or physical harm, regardless of the person's willingness to participate. ... Hazing is not about harmless traditions or silly antics—hazing is about abuse of power and violation of human dignity.”