How New Jersey football hazing scandal points to deeper 'rape culture'

Sexual hazing in high school sports, including new allegations against seven football players in Sayreville, N.J., points to underlying issues about how 'manhood' is seen by society, experts say.

Julio Cortez/AP
Banners for state championships for the Sayreville War Memorial High School football team are lined up on a sign along Main Street in Sayreville, N.J., Saturday. Seven students were charged with sex crimes in connection with a series of assaults amid an investigation into hazing by the high school football team.

When a Sports Illustrated reporter recently visited Sayreville, N.J., to report on unfolding allegations of hazing on the local high school's football team, not everyone took kindly to his presence.

"Stop interviewing!" one student yelled at a student and the reporter, Greg Hanlon.

Another student, a senior on the football team, said of the hazing: “It happens at all the schools, it’s just that it happened to leak out. Why don’t you go to the next town over where the same thing’s happening?”

The allegations have shocked many in the town, where the football team is a point of pride. One freshman player has said that a group of seniors on the team would routinely turn off the lights, pin down a freshman, and then haze him by violating him with a finger. Some freshmen have corroborated the allegations, according to reports, while others have said they were unaware of such practices.

The superintendent of the school district has forfeited the rest of Sayreville's season. Seven members of the team have been arrested, with three charged with sexual assault.

To experts, the incident points both to progress in exposing and rooting out sexual hazing, but also to the need to address a broader "rape culture" that fuels such acts in part because they are seen as normal and happen at "all the schools."

"We need to take a hard look at the way we acculturate young boys, the way in which we teach them about kindness and compassion and create a construct of manhood," said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, speaking on WBUR's "Radio Boston" last year after two local incidents of sexual hazing in high school sports.

To Mr. Lebowitz, it is reactions like the ones by the Sayreville students to Sports Illustrated that highlight the problem. In sports and in society, the power dynamic that gives rise to hazing is accepted or even encouraged.

"The present construct of manhood is, 'Can I dominate you,' " he said, elaborating on what he called a "rape culture."

That equation needs to be flipped, he adds. Such behavior needs to be seen as so abhorrent that bystanders naturally say, "This is socially unacceptable" and speak up.

There are signs of a nascent shift. In a speech that received a standing ovation at the United Nations, "Harry Potter" star Emma Watson spoke of the need to reconsider stereotyped gender roles in the context of women's rights.

"We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that that they are, and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence," she said. "If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled."

The decision by Superintendent Richard Labbe to forfeit the season is the sort of radical move that could change perceptions of hazing – sending a clear message, says Stuart Green, founder of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention.

Moreover, many in the community are hailing the freshman for coming forward. There was some anger expressed at a meeting where the school board voted unanimously to support Mr. Labbe's decision to forfeit the football season. But the allegations were not fully known to the public at that time.

"This was way more than just 'bullying,' and I think if parents would have been told that, their attitude would have changed," Jeanne Mankowski, the mother of a player, told Sports Illustrated.

Parents and coaches are crucial to changing society's acceptance of hazing and sexual crimes, anti-bullying activist Mr. Green says. "These problems primarily arise because of the behaviors of the adults and leaders who manage these environments."

A vigil will be held for the victims Sunday evening.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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