Why hazing continues despite physical and mental health consequences

A practice with deep historical roots, hazing has led to physical, sexual and emotional abuse — and even deaths — yet still continues in Canada and the U.S.

The more elite the group, the greater the risk of extreme forms of hazing, expert says

Allegations of sexual assault at St. Michael's College School in Toronto that came to light in November have generated conversations about acts of abuse, bullying and hazing in schools and on sports teams. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

It's been called a rite of passage, a bonding ritual, a way to initiate novice members into a fraternity, elite sports team or military unit through physical and mental challenges — with the aim of individuals becoming cemented into the whole.

But hazing can have a sinister side involving physical or sexual abuse and emotional trauma that, for some, can leave deep psychological scars. It's also led to hundreds of deaths when typically alcohol-fuelled indoctrinating pranks go unexpectedly and horribly wrong.

So how did the practice begin and why does it continue, despite a burgeoning number of anti-hazing policies put in place by universities and colleges, within the military and among sports organizations? And how can it be stopped?

Experts say hazing is as old as antiquity, reportedly practised in the time of Plato, referred to by St. Augustine in his Confessions, and promoted by Martin Luther as a means of preparing students for the vicissitudes of life.

"Hazing in many ways is not one behaviour, it's a set of interrelated behaviours," explained Michael Atkinson, a professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, who trained as a sociologist.

Besides requiring newbies to prove their worth for group membership with feats of physical endurance, for instance, hazing rituals also have strong psychosocial components, he said.

"It's psychological in the sense that it's meant to intimidate, degrade people in some way, shame them, embarrass them in front of others. It's social in the sense that it clearly establishes power in hierarchies in a group, and it establishes a place for people within the group."

And the more esoteric the group — an elite junior hockey team, for instance, or a high-status Greek-letter fraternity or sorority — "the greater the risk of an extreme form of hazing that will result," Atkinson said.

That appeared to be the case at St. Michael's College School, a private boys school in Toronto, where six students were charged last month with assault, gang assault and sexual assault with a weapon. The charges followed an incident in which some members of the school's football team allegedly sodomized another student with a broom handle.

Just over a week later, four 15-year-old Maryland high school students were charged as adults with first-degree rape in a locker room attack, and now face life in prison if convicted. A fifth teen was charged as a juvenile with second-degree rape. The charges relate to an October incident in which four 14-year-olds had their pants pulled down and were allegedly assaulted with a broom stick.

The parents of a freshman who died of alcohol poisoning last year after an alleged pledge-related fraternity hazing are suing Louisiana State University, the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and four students facing criminal charges in the 18-year-old's death.

A 19-year-old Penn State fraternity pledge also died last year after consuming a dangerous amount of alcohol and falling during an acceptance-bid party at the now-closed Beta Theta Pi house.

In this May 5, 2017 file photo, Jim and Evelyn Piazza stand by as prosecutors discuss an investigation into the death of their son Timothy Piazza, seen in the photo at the right. He died after drinking heavily as part of a fraternity hazing ritual at Penn State University. (Abby Drey /Centre Daily Times/Associated Press)

Those deaths are just two among about 200 hazing-related fatalities in males that have occurred in North America alone since the first half of the 19th century, said Hank Nuwer, a professor of journalism at Franklin College, Ind., who has written extensively about the practice.

"If we count Canada, there's been a death every year in either the U.S., Mexico or Canada from 1959 to 2018," he said, noting that the first recorded hazing fatality within a U.S. fraternity took place at Cornell University in 1873.

"It's all about status and power," said Nuwer, whose latest book on the subject is entitled Hazing: Destroying Young Lives.

"A big part of it simply is imitation. It's what they see in Hollywood movies, what they see on YouTube initiations, and it's really consistently a bad practice."

'I jeopardize everything if I say no'

But why in the #MeToo era do those who are targets of hazing put up with being abused?

"It fits in with the idea of power, it's what makes it so insidious," said Atkinson.

"It's the idea that 'I jeopardize everything if I say no,"' he said, adding that acceptance on a sports team or into a post-secondary fraternity or sorority can provide lifelong benefits in the form of social and career connections.

"If I say no, I'm done. They'll ostracize me. I might be included because the coach says I have to be included, but I will be a pariah on the team."

And many of those who submit to hazing believe that no one in authority would do anything to stop the practice, he said.

That notion was borne out recently by former NHLer Daniel Carcillo, who experienced hazing with other rookie members of the OHL's Sarnia Sting 15 years ago. He recalled a teammate being stripped naked and whipped with his own belt by two veteran players. The teen's screams brought the coach out of his office, who gave the tied-down rookie a slap of his own.

"The mentality always is, especially in sport, that it's only sport," said Atkinson. "That's how it's reproduced over the course of time."

For Carcillo and others who endured hazings, hearing reports about what occurred at St. Michael's College School and elsewhere can reopen psychological wounds from the past, said Nuwer, who cited the case of a South Dakota man, whose high school sports team had forced him to parade around with a jockstrap over his head as part of his inauguration.

The man, who was now in his 70s, tracked down his prime abuser and shot him point-blank when he opened the door, he said.

"So there was a homicide."

While some initiation rituals may be relatively mild, those that involve physical or sexual abuse take hazing to a entirely different level.

"They now have started looking at it for what it is — it's a criminal act," said Atkinson.

Stopping hazing — and the cultures that support it — means enacting zero-tolerance policies on campuses, within sports teams, the military and for any other group that views membership as a hard-won prize open only to a select few.

That means monitoring by parents, coaches, school administrators and those who oversee fraternities and sororities across campuses.

"If it means shutting down programs as examples, then so be it," he said.

Bonding doesn't have to mean reinforcing potentially dangerous hierarchies of power; close-knit camaraderie can ensue by creating conditions of similarity among group members, suggested Atkinson.

"You go on retreats, you do community-based activities," he said. "There's a million ways in which you could get a group of young men and young women together as a way of solidifying their collective identity.

"It doesn't have to be 'I'm going to force you to drink until you pass out and I'm going to dump you somewhere to see if you can get home."'