Thursday, November 14, 2013

Good Little Soldiers: Hazing, the NFL, and Adult Bullies

I've been following the story of the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal with some fascination since it broke last week. What interests me is not so much the peculiar dynamics of the NFL locker room, but the way in which I see a similar kind of bullying playing out in other contexts.

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
If football has become more war-like, the accouterments of football have become more football-like. Hazing has become a major problem for marching bands on a national scale. A few weeks ago in Texas, thirteen members of the marching band drum line turned themselves in after a hazing incident in which rookie members were made to “drink alcohol till they vomited” and were “allegedly instructed to ‘get on their hands and knees’ and position their faces in front of the older students' groins.” The freshmen felt they had to cooperate with the incident so that they could “be part of the group,” according to a university spokeswoman. At Florida A&M, drum major Robert Champion was beaten to death on a bus by other marching-band members during what was considered a perfectly normal hazing ritual, one many other band members had lived through. Nobody thought to question this ritual, to stop it, because that's how hazing works. You close ranks; you protect the abusers and you make sacred the abuse itself.

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 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.


  1. The thing I found most interesting about this story was how invested the players and coaches are in preserving their hazing and bullying culture.

    1. Yes. They certainly circled the wagons there, didn't they? It reminds me of domestic abuse, but on an institutional scale. And I see that same wagon-circling in many other contexts, too: people who speak up against these abusive practices are frozen out. Or worse.

  2. I find all this so appalling. I don't remember anything like this from my high school days. And I think it's a reflection of society in general. Can anyone say 'politics'? I've certainly been hazed or bullied by someone who doesn't agree with the way I think.

    1. Maybe it is a reflection of the nastiness of our culture generally, as seen in political battles. It seems something more primitive than that though, almost Spartan. As if people think the next generation needs to be prepared for actual battle, as if we're heading into a world of bunkers and sandbags and bare-bones survival. Making children work in the heat or cold till they collapse, for an activity that will not even be part of their adulthood. It's so odd.

      Although I guess in football, one motivation is very clear: Richie Incognito makes $4 million dollars a year. I looked it up.

  3. I have to apologize to those who love professional sports, because I just don't get it. The amount of money they get paid is obscene, but then they're allowed to beat up indefinitely on the little guy just because? Anything that requires hazing for you to be a participant isn't worth your time. I cringe every time I see a coach yelling at a kid, or even their crazed parents who push the kids to limits they are to young to be pushing. I knew a family in high school who pushed and pushed their daughter to be the best basketball star she could possibly be. When she was only a freshman, she blew out both her knees with serious injuries. There went her awesome college career. No amount of bullying or hazing should be allowed by team members, coaches, or even parents from the sidelines. It's very sad. Thanks for highlighting this issue, Stephanie!

    1. Both knees: oh my gosh, I felt that. I imagine some of this pressure comes from the desire to get athletic scholarships to pay for college, which is increasingly hard to afford for so many families. One article I read said that the number of sports injuries is increasing dramatically for teens, who now focus intensively on one sport practically from toddlerhood in order to get scholarship-worthy ... and then break themselves, like your basketball star.

  4. There are shades of "A Few Good Men" in all of this. I can just see Jack Nicholson: "You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!"

    The more sadistic aspects of our ritualized culture are pretty scary. I'm pleased to say I've managed to avoid them thus far and it's a little sickening to be reminded they actually exist.

    1. "A Few Good Men" is a great example. Another one is "Full Metal Jacket." I was going to quote a bit from that 'un but really ... it's none of it repeatable, is it? Only Sergeant Hartman gets to be Sergeant Hartman. No coach or player or parent should mistake himself for Sergeant Hartman.

      "The more sadistic aspects of our ritualized culture are pretty scary." When I told some of these stories to a relative of mine who lived in the Cameroon, she said it reminded her of the puberty rites from some of those tribes. Which are pretty sadistic. And those traditions have been around for millennia. The more things change ...

      What kind of world do people think they are preparing the next generation for? I'm raising two kids who want to be engineers: change the world for the better, make a good living while they're at it. I'm not interested in raising cannon fodder, myself.

  5. Great post, Stephanie.

    It's horrifying, but some people are so desperate to belong to and meet the approval of a particular group, they allow themselves to be demeaned, bullied and brutalized just so they'll be accepted. Look at the proliferation of street gangs. Kids who don't find a sense of belonging within a loving family seek it elsewhere, and are willing to do all kinds of unspeakable things to gain the gang's acceptance.

    The question is: why isn't there more outrage from society? Just because it's "the norm" to haze and bully doesn't make it RIGHT.

  6. People like you make a difference for the better, dear friend.


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