Through the Liminal: A Comparative Analysis of Communitas and Rites of Passage in Sport Hazing and Initiations

By Johnson, Jay | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Through the Liminal: A Comparative Analysis of Communitas and Rites of Passage in Sport Hazing and Initiations


Johnson, Jay, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Canadian and US athletic hazing has recently received high profile media, public, and institutional attention. Culturally over the last decade we have witnessed a paradigmatic shift of meaning, purpose, scrutiny, and criminalization relating to hazing in general and more specifically in sports. As defined by Hoover (1999:8), hazing is "any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of the person's willingness to participate." Examples of typical hazing practices include: personal servitude; sleep deprivation and restrictions on personal hygiene; yelling, swearing, and insulting new members/rookies; being forced to wear embarrassing or humiliating attire in public; consumption of vile substances or smearing of such on one's skin; brandings; physical beatings; binge drinking and drinking games; sexual simulation; sexual assault or death (Crow and Rosner 2002; Hoover 1999; Srabstein 2008).

Several universities, including Vermont and McGill, have cancelled their men's hockey and football seasons respectively in light of hazing incidents. Many institutions have implemented antihazing policies and most states criminalize hazing. Previously many acts of hazing were not prosecuted; it has only been in the last 10 years that more convictions for sexual assaults, assaults, forcible confinement, and manslaughter have resulted from hazing cases (Crow and Macintosh 2009). Recent examples include: Anthony Clarke, a wide receiver for the Boise State football team and four others who were charged (December 2010) with forcible sexual penetration, battery, and false imprisonment of fellow athletes in Blackfoot, Idaho. Three former Carmel Indiana senior basketball players pled guilty in early January 2011 to assaulting two freshman players on a school bus as a part of their team hazing while returning from an away game (Nuwer, n.d.).

Cultural rites of passage have been examined globally and socio-anthropologically. Examinations of contemporary sport underline the propensity for teams to confer membership on newcomers (also known as "rookies," first years, initiates, recruits, pledges, neophytes, or novitiates) defined as uninitiated members in their first year on the team, through mandatory, formalized rite of passages, generally called initiations or hazing. While sport initiations differ in some ways from historical or cultural rites, a shared characteristic of such rites is the "perceived" development of communitas. Victor Turner (1986:44) defines communitas as relationships among people, "jointly undergoing ritual transition" through which they can experience an intense sense of intimacy and equality which can be spontaneous, immediate, and concrete.

Many rationales exist for communities to maintain and construct entry rituals including the formation of communitas, identity, cohesion, status, and belonging, yet it is the articulated desire for membership that is the paramount tenet for both teams and traditional cultures (Cohen 1964; Johnson 2000). However, "membership" also represents the chasm, which divides the basic structure of both of cultural and sporting communities. For example, consider Australian Aborigines or the Ndembu where negotiating the rite of passage confers a permanent change of status from that of boy to man in contrast to the more transient membership of sport initiations where an athlete's career may span multiple sport teams or "communities."

This paper examines the function and practice of ritual sports hazing described by participants interviewed. Analytically I employ the three phases of transitional rites of passage as detailed by Van Gennep (1960) comparing the initiation rites of traditional, (primarily) all-male subcultures and sport initiation ceremonies. I argue that varsity sport initiation ceremonies and the initiation rituals of other, more ancient cultures are constructed and function in similar ways and articulate the goal of communitas as defined by Turner. …

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