When does it stop?
We are finally at the point where enough of us see through the archaic notion that hazing in school sports is part of some tradition, or just boys being boys.
The governor, the attorney general, schools, sports officials, and experts have been trying to end these sick rituals through education, zero tolerance policies, and meaningful consequences for toxic behavior.
And yet. News broke this week that upperclassmen on the football team at King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham forced some sophomores to fight each other at a Maine training camp this past August. No coaches were present for the boxing matches (where were they?). On Wednesday afternoon, Boston College suspended its swimming and diving teams indefinitely for hazing.
What will it take to put an end to this?
Nothing will end hazing completely, said Dennis Goodwin, a science teacher, longtime school athletics coach, and umpire who runs The Anti-Hazing Collaborative.
“Sports runs the education system,” he said. “And no one wants to admit there’s a problem until it is right in front of them.”
Over the years, Goodwin has seen so many nasty hazing incidents – some of them caught on video – that nothing shocks him any more. He rattled off a series of recent appalling assaults: Antisemitic and homophobic attacks by hockey players in Danvers; the brutal beating of a 14-year old by members of his football team in Woburn (the victim recently sued the school); an attack on a teenager in the locker room by members of the football team in Haverhill.
There would be fewer victims if bystanders who report incidents had something like the hero status conferred on those who score the most touchdowns; if some parents modeled better behavior in the stands and at home; if all coaches became expert in spotting the signs of hazing, shut it down, and imposed meaningful penalties, even if the bully in question is the team’s rebound king.
In trainings, Goodwin tells coaches he’s not trying to tell them how to do their jobs but to save their careers: We have made at least enough progress that a coach fired for a hazing scandal would have trouble finding another position.
We radically reduce hazing only if we treat interscholastic sports the way we treat the rest of the education system, said Mitch Lyons, founder and retired president of The Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts. Here, we mostly agree that kids learn best in classrooms that are safe and supportive. But too many coaches act like generals, leading voiceless kids into war.
“I coached for 26 years, at every level,” said Lyons, also creator of an anti-hazing campaign called GetPsychedSports.org. “Coaching with tough love, there’s no love in it, it’s just tough.”
Despite the hopes of the parents in the stands, almost no student athletes will go on to be professional players. Lyons says they’ll be far more successful in life if, instead of trying to dominate their teammates, they learn how to help those around them succeed.
“We live in a ‘win’ culture,” said Dan Lebowitz, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, who is leading antibias trainings across the state as part of an antihazing initiative begun by Governor Maura Healey when she was attorney general. “But behaviors that are acceptable on the sporting field are not acceptable beyond.”
Lebowitz said the hundreds of coaches and other leaders he and a coalition of education officials and civil rights groups had trained have been overwhelmingly appreciative. But as the Globe’s Bob Hohler has reported, schools continue to be bedeviled by hateful conduct.
Still, Lebowitz is hopeful.
More awareness means more reporting, he said, and more reporting makes people see the dire effects of turning the other way. Wrentham failed at preventing misconduct by upperclassmen over the summer, but maybe officials at another school will see the world of pain that has resulted there and succeed.
“We are never going to be free of all the ills that plague us, but we can be a world in constant search of how we get to a collective better,” Lebowitz said.
There’s great comfort in that hope. Unless your kid is the one forced into the boxing ring.