Crossing the Line: Rites of Passage, Team Aspects, and Ambiguity of Hazing

By Waldron, Jennifer J.; Kowalski, Christopher L. | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Crossing the Line: Rites of Passage, Team Aspects, and Ambiguity of Hazing


Waldron, Jennifer J., Kowalski, Christopher L., Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


Framed within the psychosocial context of the sport ethic and social-approval goal orientation, 10 female and 11 male current collegiate or former high school athletes participated in individual interviews about their hazing experiences. Data analysis resulted in seven lower order themes and two higher order themes. The higher order theme of the general aspects of hazing included types of factors influencing, reasons for and the effects of hazing. The higher order theme of hazing as deviant over-conformity included rites of passage, hazing and the team, and the ambiguity of hazing. Results indicated that athletes reported engaging in risky, hazing behaviors and that both the values of sport as well as the desire to be accepted by teammates encouraged hazing.

Key words: athletics, social approval, sport ethic

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The public continually hears about hazing and initiation practices experienced by new members of a team (i.e., rookies) in the popular press. Hazing rituals include beatings or paddlings and forcing rookies to drink alcohol in excess, shave their heads, or simulate sexual acts. Hazing is defined as "any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers, regardless of a person's willingness to participate" (Hoover, 1999, p. 8) and is considered "maladaptive, destructive, and dehumanizing for all participants" (Kirby & Wintrup, 2002, p. 82). Hazing is typically a complex event and can have embarrassing, disgusting, painful, and challenging facets (Keating et al., 2005). Although hazing experiences in the military, sororities, and fraternities have been studied, research has only started to investigate hazing in sports (Allan & Madden, 2008; Hoover, 2000). Thus, our study qualitatively examined the hazing experiences of current and former athletes.

Hazing in Sports

A number of studies have examined the prevalence of hazing behaviors in athletics. Research has shown that between 17.4% and 36.2% of middle school, high school, and college athletes self-reported engaging in hazing experiences (Gershel, Katz-Sidlow, Small, & Zandieh, 2003; Hoover & Pollard, 2000; Keeler & Clement, 2006). However, the percentage of athletes reporting hazing behaviors in research studies is probably low for two reasons. First, athletes may be reluctant to report hazing for fear of retribution. Second, athletes may not perceive their initiation activities as hazing. For example, in a study of college athletes, Hoover (1999) found that only 12% reported being hazed, but 80% reported hazing behaviors as part of their initiation experiences. These data suggest that hazing is widespread in sports and may be cause for concern.

Hazing is considered part of athletes' socialization, so it is understandably included as an initiation ritual. Specific to a culture or subculture, rituals are traditional practices that initiate the young "into the next stage of their cultural, religious, academic, or athletic lives" (Trota & Johnson, 2004, p. x). Initiation rites and rituals are particularly important for men in sex-segregated environments, such as athletic teams (Sabo, 2004). In the anthropological literature, Sabo suggested that male rites serve as a means for older players to persuade younger members, often through pain infliction, to conform to the social roles and appropriate behaviors of the team.

Rituals also help create and maintain the hierarchical authority and power structure of the team where the veterans of the team are superior to the rookies (Bryshun & Young, 1999; Sabo, 2004; Trota & Johnson, 2004).

Within Western European culture, many adopt the power and performance model of sport (Coakley, 2007). This model emphasizes traditionally masculine values including strength, power, and domination. Additionally, those adopting the power and performance model of sport often consider their opponents to be their enemies. …

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