National Survey of Sports Teams
What are Initiation Rites and Hazing?

Across societies and time, people have initiated new members into groups, through ceremonies and rituals designed to foster a feeling of belonging. Yet sometimes those rites or activities cross the line into hazing - behavior that is humiliating, dangerous or even illegal. Because people's perceptions of hazing vary, it is difficult to delineate positive or acceptable initiation rites from questionable or unacceptable ones.

We defined hazing as "any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of the person's willingness to participate. This does not include activities such as rookies carrying the balls, team parties with community games, or going out with your teammates, unless an atmosphere of humiliation, degradation, abuse or danger arises." (2) This definition was printed clearly at the beginning of our survey forms.

Under this definition, 45 percent of the respondents reported that they knew of, had heard of, or suspected hazing on their campuses. Only 12 percent reported being hazed for athletics. Eighty percent, however, reported being subjected to one or more typical hazing behaviors as part of their team initiations. So, while students would acknowledge a wide range of hazing-type behaviors, they most often were reluctant to label them "hazing." This reluctance is understandable, particularly considering that hazing is a crime in 41 states.

The following tables display the athletes' reports of initiation behaviors, divided into four mutually exclusive categories:

  • acceptable behaviors (only positive activities).
  • questionable behaviors (humiliating or degrading activities, but no dangerous or potentially illegal, activities).
  • alcohol-related activities (drinking contests, exclusive of other dangerous or potentially illegal activities).
  • unacceptable and potentially illegal behaviors (activities that carry a high probability of danger or injury, or could result in criminal charges).
The prevalence of hazing became far clearer when we looked at component behaviors. One hundred percent of athletes responding to the survey were involved in some form of initiation onto their athletic teams. Nearly all were expected to participate in acceptablebehaviors. However, 80 percent were also subjected to other forms of initiation that arequestionable, alcohol-related, and unacceptable.

Twenty percent reported being involved in ONLY acceptable initiation activities. Even though athletes must perform to specific standards (skill level, performance in a sport or maintaining a specific GPA) in order to qualify for a team, the prevalence of hazing behaviors suggests that such acceptable activities are not enough. Athletes seem to need activities specifically designed for initiation, and if those are not provided, they will create their own.

Percentage of Athletes Participating in Acceptable Initiation Activities

Acceptable Initiation Activities Male 877 (n) Female 1142 (n) Total 2027 (n)
Attending pre-season training 89% 728 89% 983 88% 1716
Testing for skill, endurance, or performance in a sport 78% 678 78% 859 79% 1540
Keeping a specific grade point average 72% 612 78% 861 75% 1478
Dressing up for team functions (besides uniforms) 69% 591 75% 843 73% 1438
Attending a skit night or team roast 54% 457 57% 632 55% 1092
Doing volunteer community service 45% 383 54% 601 50% 987
Taking an oath or signing a contract of standards 44% 380 54% 602 50% 985
Completing a ropes course or team trip 29% 252 43% 475 37% 729
Total of athletes involved in at least one acceptable activity 96% 838 97% 1102 96% 1945

Female athletes were significantly more likely to be involved exclusively in acceptable initiation activities and male athletes were significantly more likely to be involved in hazing behaviors. Still, as the tables below show, hazing was nearly as common among women as men.

Percentage of Athletes Participating in Questionable Initiation Activities

Questionable Initiation Activities Male (n) Female (n) Total (n)
Being yelled, cursed, or sworn at 38% 326 25% 286 31% 614
Being forced to wear embarrassing clothing 22% 194 33% 373 29% 571
Tattooing, piercing, head shaving, or branding 32% 278 24% 272 28% 552
Participating in calisthenics not related to a sport 14% 125 11% 127 13% 253
Associating with specific people, not others 12% 101 11% 124 11% 226
Acting as personal servant to players off the field, court 10% 85> 8% 95 9% 181>
Being forced to deprive oneself of food, sleep, or hygiene 7% 56 8% 85 7% 141
Consuming extremely spicy/disgusting concoctions 8% 69 5% 60 6% 129
Total involved in at least one questionable activity 68% 594 63% 719 65% 1318

The odds are high that a team that engages in questionable initiation activities will also engage in unacceptable activities. Although seemingly harmless,questionable activities are often a warning sign of more dangerous and destructive behavior. Over 80 percent of the athletes who were subjected to questionableinitiation activities were also subjected tounacceptable activities. Dismissing questionable initiation activities as harmless is a common response, but by doing so, we may be ignoring more serious problems.

Percentage of Athletes Engaged in Questionable Activities Who Participated in At Least One Unacceptable Act

Questionable Activities %
Being yelled, cursed, or sworn at 81%
Tattooing, piercing, head shaving, or branding 81%
Being forced to wear embarrassing clothing 85%
Participating in calisthenics not related to a sport 98%
Associating with specific people, not others 98%
Being forced to deprive oneself of food, sleep, or hygiene 99%
Acting as personal servant to players off the field, court 100%
Consuming extremely spicy/disgusting concoctions 100%

We know that many hazing deaths involve alcohol, either because students' judgment is impaired and they take risks they would not otherwise take, or because they overdose on alcohol. Respondents confirm that alcohol plays a major role in hazing to join athletic teams, with more than half of the athletes saying they were involved in alcohol-related initiation activities.

Percentage of Athletes Participating in Alcohol-Related
Initiation Activities (3)

Alcohol-related Initiation Activities Male (n) Female (n) Total (n)
Consuming alcohol on recruitment visits 42% 364 39% 442 42% 809
Participating in a drinking contest 35% 302 34% 387 35% 693
Total involved in any alcohol-related activity 52% 456 51% 582 51% 1042

One out of every five athletes (27 percent of men, 16 percent of women) participated in one or more unacceptable initiation rites, those that carry a high probability of danger or injury, or could result in criminal charges.

Percentage of Athletes Participating in Unacceptable Initiation Activities

Other Unacceptable Initiation Activities

Male (n) Female (n) Total (n)
Making prank calls or harassing others 12% 105 8% 91 10% 197
Destroying or stealing property 11% 91 5% 59 7% 50
Engaging in or simulating sexual acts 7% 64 5% 52 6% 116
Being tied up, taped, or confined in small spaces 8% 65 3% 29 5% 94
Being paddled, whipped, beaten, kicked; beating others 5% 42 1% 13 3% 55
Being kidnapped or transported and abandoned 4% 33 2% 19 3% 52
Total involved in any one unacceptable activity 27% 234 16% 183 21% 418

For 17 percent of the respondents, however, initiation goes beyond a single infraction. These athletes - overwhelmingly men - found themselves deeply immersed in a culture of hazing. They participated in or were subjected to five or more hazing behaviors. Factor analysis reported six distinct clusters of related behaviors. Further study into this clustering phenomenon, in which subcultures of hazing behavior seem to emerge, may offer insights into detection and prevention strategies.

(2) Many of the 41 states with anti-hazing laws limit their definition of hazing, often eliminating humiliation as an element. Many of the laws are specifically targeted to fraternity hazing, and do not cover athletic or high school hazing. State laws also vary on whether or not consent of the person hazed is included in the definition of hazing. (Source: Hank Nuwer)

(3) It should be noted that many athletes participating in alcohol-related initiation activities are under the legal drinking age of 21. In such instances, alcohol-related initiation rites are illegal.


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