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Rutgers Is Not Alone: The Culture of Hazing in Sports


hazing in sports

I write this not knowing whether my Michigan Wolverines managed to beat Louisville for its first NCAA basketball championship since 1989. So I’ll say “Go Blue! I can’t believe we did it!” and “Damn…great season. Looking forward to next year!” just to cover myself. Check out my Twitter handle: @iamjoesargent to see if I am crying tears of joy or in a glass case of emotion.

On to the topic at hand. In the wake of the scandal at Rutgers University, I was struck by a few things. Like everyone else, I believed Mike Rice and Jimmy Martelli deserved to lose their jobs. I also felt the Athletic Director should have resigned for failing to protect his athletes from an abusive coach.

Watching the videos of each coach prompted another thought: this is happening all over the place (and will continue); it’s hazing in basketball shorts.

While illegal in all but four states (Seriously? Four states holding out?), hazing now occurs unregulated behind closed doors across the country. Every once in a while, something goes awry and we hear about the tragic death of college students in a hazing-related accident. The national conversation afterwards is always the same: hazing should stop, young people shouldn’t subject themselves to it, and those in charge are animals for treating their peers that way. All of these are accurate and sensible arguments.

And yet, hazing persists. Why?

The answer is multi-layered, but largely universal. While these conditions for hazing exist, things won’t change. Here’s why I know Mike Rice wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last coach to act this way:

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The feeling of dependency –

Lots of people asked why the Rutgers players didn’t just quit. Seems reasonable. The coach is abusive, the team is bad, so why stick around?

Mike-Rice-11[1] The NCAA system is set up to make players feel the sense of need that keeps them committed. First, scholarship athletes have their classes, housing, books, and many meals paid for. Simply walking away from that means a huge bill going forward. Players could transfer, but they’d have to sit out a year before playing for their new team. For a player with professional aspirations, that’s a huge risk for their future. Even for those who don’t dream of playing beyond college, there’s an investment (friends, academic progress, playing time, etc.) to consider. As bad as Coach Rice was, there are, potentially, a lot of positives in the situation as well. No situation is 100% bad, right?

For non-athletes, the dependency is just as real, though sometimes less tangible. Many attempting to join fraternities crave a feeling of belonging, and buy into the social currency that membership gives them. That sounds ridiculous to many as they age, but that’s SUPER important to an 18 year old. This bleeds into the second condition…

One of US

The sense of brother/sisterhood is extremely powerful. Identification with a group is the basis of sports fandom. Most of the time, this is as innocent as buying a jersey to represent your favorite player or team. Sometimes the consequences are much more severe.

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For players under Rice, that feeling is very real. No one wants to feel like a quitter. Walking away from Rice won’t change him. Instead, it would label that player as weak and mean worse treatment for those who remained on the team. Mike-Rice-Rutgers-coach[1]

The same feeling exists for those in fraternity/sorority situations. Plus, those initiated together develop a natural kinship. Banding together to accomplish a shared goal (joining an organization) fosters teamwork, sacrifice, and empathy. It also protects those doing the hazing. Instead of an outward focus on your condition, you take your treatment for granted and live to protect those in your situation; understanding that they will do the same for you.

To quit in either situation means walking away from your friends and painting yourself as an individual above the team.

Protection of Silence –

Since hazing is illegal, it’s done in secret with an understanding (tacit or stated) that reporting it could mean jail for everyone involved. Largely because of the two reasons stated above, most people are inclined to cope with hazing silently or amongst a small group of confidants. Speaking out about hazing will label them a snitch (in addition to a quitter); something most people try to avoid their entire lives.

The same situation existed for Rice’s players. The sports culture has no tolerance for a snitch or quitter. Look at how offended Jeremy Shockey was at being named the whitstleblower in the Saints’ BountyGate situation. Jose Canseco was labeled an opportunist (Article title NSFW) despite being proven right in most of his performance-enhancing-drug allegations. Example after example shows that, in sports, there is a code of silence that you should not cross if you don’t want to be shamed.

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If a player had quit the Rutgers team, or retaliated against Rice, would he have been hailed a hero or characterized like the 2013 Latrell Sprewell? The third auto-fill on Sprewell is still about his choking incident. That was 16 years ago.

Ultimately, justice was served in this case. Mike Rice, and a couple of those who enabled him, are out of jobs now. The players who suffered Rice’s perverted view of “coaching” suffered no lasting harm. Greg Winslow, the swimming coach at the University of Utah, is accused of similar antics. He’s been suspended, and the university is surely looking at this situation in a new light in the wake of the Rice/Rutgers scandal. The conditions that created Rice and Winslow still exist, though, which is why I’m pessimistic that this will change anything in the long term.

What’s your view? Have college coaches and administrators across the country been scared straight amidst the Rutgers situation? Let me know what you think below!


  1. Good article.

    When some ppl on twitter were discussing this issue , I heard a lot of “couldn’t be me ” and ” I would have went ham on the coach ” yea right. People willingly get hazed to be part of organizations in school that don’t pay for tuition , room, board and future career opportunities . So what makes you think if were a student athlete you wouldn’t just ignore your coach in order to maintain the Bigger picture for yourself.

    You wouldn’t hit or fight your coach neither because it would be your word against coach and you could face suspension or be expelled from school if worse comes to worse.

    Yea maybe you could report your coach to the athletic director. But you may risk being ignored, playing time and being under more scrutiny . You could transfer but rumors spread , so not only would you sit a yr out but your reputation for not being able to handle coach , could follow you too.

    I also think we teach our men to be tough and not let words get to them. While I have no problem with tough coaching , yelling even, there is a line.

    1. Definitely agree. There were sooooooo many people being tough on Twitter, lol. Ray Allen had a good take I though. He basically said "We can all say we wouldn't take it…as adults. It's a lot different in the situation."

      I think anyone who spoke out would have been ostracized as you laid out. It's really the perfect situation for the coach. He can do what he wants without any risk of being outed by the players. Thankfully they had video.

  2. What this coach did was absolutely reprehensible in my mind, and as an athlete (although not a team sport) and now a volunteer coach for an age group track team, I cannot fathom my coach having spoken to me in that manner, nor can I imagine saying ANYTHING like that to my athletes. I may pinch (lol) and yell at kids from time to time, but I do it in front of their parents and their parents know we as coaches have an absolute love for their children and we balance our toughness with hugs and high fives. I dont' expect a college coach to hug his athletes, but based on his on court persona and this put together clip, I dont' see that either.

    I think one thing that's sort of missing from this is that, yes, in college you are an adult, but when you are an athlete there is a specific amount of trust that is implicit in the agreement between coach, parent and student athlete. I know part of my decision when going to school was that I felt the coach would look out for me, help make me into the best runner I can be, and I knew that in all circumstances (which when I nearly fought the mens' coach for him getting in my face similarly to how the Rutgers coach did his boys), she had my back. My parents knew this and it was a part of the reason my parents were so comfortable in allowing me to go there.

    What this man did is an absolute violation of that trust, from both an athlete's perspective and a parent (I would think, since I'm nobody's mom) perspective.

    I also understand, there's an aspect of masculinity in here. They're men… They can take it. If they can't, they're soft… but dang it… Athletes are people too! Male athletes also have feelings, lol. They are worthy of respect… ESPECIALLY considering all of these athletes make their schools gozillions of dollars, INCLUDING their coaches million dollar salaries… But I won't go there for this part.

    Also this article: http://espn.go.com/blog/truehoop/post/_/id/56446/… puts some other things into light. Coaches (in many sports) get a pass for horrible behavior… But let this have been, oh… An English professor making his student write 20 page essays 5 times over at 5 in the morning all the while throwing pens and pencils at the student… THIS WOULD NEVER FLY!

    I could ramble about this for hours, but overall, the coach was in the wrong… He needed to be fired. Hopefully, the NCAA will bring forth a ruling to change the culture of hazing in sports by coaches unto athletes… But until the NCAA REALLY cares about it's student athletes instead of making them cash cows… That won't change either.
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    1. Speficically referencing the part about the coach gaining the trust of parents, I wonder what the hell Rice was saying in the players' living rooms as he recruited them. Beyond that, when the recruits visited campus, what were they being told by the current players? Since he won't be coaching for a while, I think Rice has a future in used car sales. He's obviously a master salesman.

      That article was good too. Imagine the scandal if a bio professor burnt his students if they botched an expirament, lol. Hadn't even thought about that.

  3. To begin I think that what happened at Rutgers is completely inexcusable That was WAY over the top and jobs deserve to be vacated because of it. That said, I think the term hazing is used to loosely. It has a negative cloud over it and anything it attaches to suddenly becomes bad. I don't agree though. I think hazing, to a certain degree, is necessary dependent upon the situation. Let me give you an example. In the movie "The Program" the tailback, played by Omar Epps, had a fumbling problem. The coach fixed this through a form of hazing. Epps had to carry the football all day every day and was told that if any player got that ball from him and brought it back to the coach it there would be Hell to pay. Was that hazing? Technically yes. But was it appropriate? I believe it was. Hazing in sports like that I'm all for.

    1. I was really nervous when you reference The Program as a good example of coaching, lol. I get the example though, make sense.

      To me, coaching and hazing are about building discipline and self-sacrifice in others and making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. There's a constructive and destructive way to do both. Hopefully this incident forces universities to look more closely at coaches, at least periodically. As IAAJ noted, coaches are trusted by administrators and parents to be responsible for their players. This shows how easy it is for coaches to cross that line.

  4. The culture of hazing has existed for quite some time and will continue. Even the Supreme Court Justices have hazing rituals for new judges. It's nothing new and is apart of our culture as a way of creating bonds in groups and organizations, a rites of passage, and establishing a hierarchy.

    If you think I'm full of it, ask any Police officer, firefighter, Military personnel, gang member fraternity/sorority member, NCAA Div.I athletes, etc.. Hazing can be as simple as the new guy carrying all the uniforms to extreme cases of abuse and maltreatment and humiliation.

    It's not going anywhere anytime soon, because it's ingrained into society.


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