Online photos put hazing in the spotlight again

The photos are not something that any parent or school official wants to see: college athletes in apparent initiation scenes involving degrading costumes, excessive drinking, sexually suggestive poses with strippers and fellow athletes, and a blindfolded woman with her hands tied behind her back being led down a staircase.

Posted in recent months on Internet sites such as Facebook and, the photos from more than a dozen colleges are bringing another flurry of attention to hazing rituals. Investigations and disciplinary actions are under way against teams ranging from men's baseball at Elon University in Elon, N.C., to women's soccer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

The stir is also prompting plans for more-concerted educational initiatives on campuses. The primary goal is to better communicate the dangers of hazing. But it's also another "teachable moment" for students who seem unaware of the damage such online photos can cause to their teams, their schools, and their own future careers.

Despite policies on many campuses and laws in 44 states, antihazing advocates say there hasn't been enough awareness or enforcement. "The prevailing attitude is that hazing has occurred forever, and many coaches, administrators, and even legislators have been hazed and have hazed others, and didn't feel it was such a big deal," says Susan Lipkins, a psychologist in Port Washington, N.Y., and author of the forthcoming book, "Preventing Hazing." In college athletics, she says, the photo postings "really did wake the sleeping giant."

A hazing discussion was added to a meeting of the Pacific-10 Conference in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, for instance. "Our institutions have a zero-tolerance policy ... but the recent incidents just reinforce that you need to stay on top of it," says Jim Muldoon, associate commissioner of the Pac-10, whose member schools were not tied to the photos. A committee will consider changing its handbook to address hazing specifically.

"It is a problem that deserves attention and should not be taken lightly," writes Anna Chappell, a star basketball player at the University of Arizona in Tucson and vice chair of the Division I NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, in an e-mail interview. "I think at times those who are involved with hazing may find it hard to recognize when they might be crossing the line between what is fun and what is dangerous."

Definitions of hazing vary, but generally refer to conduct that is a condition of being in a group and that can cause physical or psychological harm. Many laws and policies say an activity can be deemed hazing even if the subjects give consent.

"The kids call it a head game, and it is – it's about power," Ms. Lipkins says. Older students, who themselves probably underwent initiation, decide it's their turn to take charge, and "they want kids to be blindly obedient and give up their individuality and follow the group."

People who want to stop hazing are up against those who see it as harmless fun or a form of character-building. Among the open-ended comments in a survey of college athletes: "Hazing is a common occurrence that brings a team closer together"; "If no one is hurt to the point that they need medical attention, just leave it alone."

That national benchmark survey, conducted among NCAA athletes in 1998-99 by Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., found that 79 percent experienced some form of hazing to join a college team. Of those, half said the hazing involved alcohol; two-thirds were subject to humiliation such as being yelled at or forced to wear embarrassing clothes; 1 out of 5 was forced to commit a crime or was subjected to a potentially criminal act such as being kidnapped or tied up and abandoned.

Some schools responded to the recent incidents by prohibiting athletes from participating on photo-sharing Internet sites, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Others are beefing up orientation to stress to students how to use the sites responsibly.

That has to go hand in hand with asking, "What's going on in the pictures and what can we do to prevent it? Those are the more difficult questions," says Don McPherson, executive director of the Sports Leadership Institute at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. This fall his institute is sponsoring what he says is the first national conference on high school hazing prevention.

At the University of Iowa, a photo of freshmen baseball players surfaced on Facebook, showing them singing at a party in the nude, with baseball caps for fig leaves.

The university concluded that hazing had not taken place. But the photo sparked intense discussions among players, coaches, and faculty. "I can envision scenarios where it could have been hazing, which is why we took it so seriously," says Prof. Elizabeth Altmaier, one of the investigators and a faculty representative to the NCAA.

In separate meetings with freshmen and upperclassmen on the team, they probed to find out whether there was any implication that freshmen were expected to do this to be socially accepted. A group of freshmen chose to do this while others sat out, and several left the party to go to church, with no repercussions, Ms. Altmaier says. She adds that officials clearly conveyed to students that the behavior, including some underage drinking at the party, was unacceptable.

"We're not happy about it, but it could become one of the best educational things for all the student athletes," says the baseball coach, Jack Dahm. Participants felt remorse for making bad choices and attracting negative publicity, he adds. (The photo wasn't posted by a team member.)

Even though this instance wasn't judged to be hazing, Altmaier says, "we have a deep commitment to push back on this topic.... There probably are [hazing] rituals that coaches are unaware of."

Lipkins was disappointed with Iowa's ruling. Even "mild" traditions involving voluntary activities that could be deemed embarrassing fit the school's own definition of hazing, she says. The ruling suggests college officials "don't understand the nature of hazing," she says.

Not cracking down can perpetuate a pattern that becomes more severe, but many people don't take the issue seriously until a hazing victim is seriously harmed or dies, antihazing advocates say.

In California, several former fraternity members who served jail time for their role in the death of a pledge, Matthew Carrington, have cooperated in the antihazing work of his mother, Debbie Smith.

"Some of us will go out together and speak – there isn't anything more powerful than that," Ms. Smith says. The young men talk about how close one of them came to calling 911 when it was clear Matt was endangered by being forced to exercise excessively and drink gallons of water. He didn't call because he was discouraged by another fraternity member, Smith says. An hour later when they finally did call, it was too late. "It's like they're brainwashed, and until people understand that's what's happening to our children, it's just going to keep happening," Smith says.

A bill known as "Matt's Law" passed the California Senate and is now moving through the Assembly. It would make hazing a felony if it results in death or serious physical or psychological injury.

Antihazing resources was formed by concerned students and college administrators. With the goal of stopping hazing through education, it provides a wide range of information as well as a discussion forum. focuses on the psychological aspects of hazing. It is run by psychologist and author Susan Lipkins. is a blog that tracks hazing news and statistics. It's run by Hank Nuwer, a journalist and author. is run by Cornell University faculty, staff, and student leaders to "examine [hazing] practices explicitly in an attempt to overcome the secrecy that perpetuates them."

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