By: Emma Melendez
On Sunday, May 4th, 2003 a group of junior and senior girls gathered to participate in an unsanctioned school game of Powder Puff football. These girls from Glenbrook North High School, Illinois, met at a forest preserve wearing their jerseys. However, instead of playing football, the event changed course and resulted in a nationally publicized hazing incident. During the hazing, the junior class participants were covered in paint, urine, feces, animal innards, shot with paintball guns, kicked, slapped, and otherwise injured as the senior class continued with their ritual that had been going on for decades.
Kelly O’Keefe, ’10, a freshman during the incident said, “This was not a onetime thing, and it had been going on for years.” I was only thirteen when the Glenbrook North hazing occurred, however, being only twenty minutes away from that high school, it affected our community. The result was a lot of freaked out parents watching the Oprah special on “Glenbrook North Hazing.” Since then, hazing has caught the nation’s attention and has enforced a sense of obligation to crackdown and counter hazing rituals.
Glenbrook North, a case caught on tape, pushes the limits of cultural acceptability. It made society question the limits of group fanaticism. And, it showed the world what is really happening. This event begs the question, what is hazing? Can one event revise the nation’s perspective on young adult rituals?
Last month, Lehigh University participated in National Hazing Prevention Week with the goal of educating students about hazing. Their education session featured a definition so broad that anything could be reported as hazing. They said, “Hazing is any action taken or situation created, whether on or off campus, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule.” Although they give inclusive examples of “brutality of physical nature, such as paddling, whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics,” there is no clear threshold as to what constitutes hazing.
Is forcing a rookie to go buy you a sandwich hazing? According to Lehigh University, yes, it certainly is. It will be enforced through Lehigh’s anti-hazing compliance, as well as the state of Pennsylvania’s law against hazing, and the NCAA policies for sports related hazing. Therefore, it is crucial to educate students on the fine lines between hazing and initiation.
Using Lehigh’s mental or physical discomfort standard, the following situation can be tested as hazing. If I ask a freshman to go get a sandwich for me from the Goose, is that putting a person in physical discomfort and hazing them? If so, I am violating a Pennsylvania anti-hazing statue as well. This law states the punishment as a misdemeanor of the third degree, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000. The NCAA has adopted similar policies and rules for college athletes, stating in their handbook, “Any act committed against someone joining or becoming a member or maintaining membership in any organization that is humiliating, intimidating or demeaning, causes emotional anguish or physical discomfort or endangers the health and safety of the person.”
In an attempt to reach some clarity with regard to this zero-tolerance rule, I met with Julie Sterrett, director of student leadership development. Sterrett asked a roomful of student athletes, “Is initiating a freshman acceptable or unacceptable?” The students responded with confusion. According to Julie, the definition of hazing with respect to athletics specifically, “…is making someone feel uncomfortable,” which sums up Lehigh’s policy too. However, what pushes the limit when it comes to uncomfortable, or what exactly qualifies as uncomfortable? Julie explains, “It is a controversial subject; hazing has a negative connotation to it. [It is]…in a sense seen as an extreme, and often misinterpreted. It is not a one size fits all [dynamic], and [requires] educating athletes to develop relationships so that teammates understand what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable so that there are no assumptions. Assumptions are what can get people in trouble.”
However, the definition of hazing as making someone uncomfortable is just ridiculous. People can get uncomfortable in all sorts of situations, and with such a broad definition of hazing, it puts sports teams under the impression that they’ve essentially initiated teammates to unify the team, and it turns out they’ve actually hazed them by Lehigh’s broad description.
In order to seek out more truth, I interviewed a freshman on the women’s volleyball team, Margaret Acton. When asked what her view of hazing was, she replied, “Doing stuff to freshman…or picking something embarrassing or annoying for those people to do.” Every year the incoming freshman have to perform a skit for the sophomores, upperclassmen, coaches, even the trainer, which incorporates every single person on the team in Lehigh’s Fight Song. According to Lehigh’s definition of hazing, that skit could potentially harm the mental well-being of those freshmen, causing embarrassment and ridicule. However, as Margaret explains, “No it’s not embarrassing, it brings the freshman and the team closer because it makes the freshman think about every member of the team and incorporate them in the skit.” This is a perfect example of a potentially infringing hazing situation; an initiation for freshman, the skit is required, and one’s mental state after performing a skit in front of said team could lead to possible psychological damage or discomfort.
Last year, I was a freshman on the volleyball team, and there were established rules and duties that had to be preformed every day before practice. Freshman, as a rule, were required to pick up and drop of the team’s laundry before practice every day. Failure to do so, resulted in negative consequences: the team would not have clean practice clothes and gear. However, in the context of the current frenzy, making a freshman pick up your laundry could be interpreted as hazing, which is a bit dramatic. Making freshmen follow the rules and participate in their duties is not damaging to their mental or physical health. Sure, it might be annoying to pick up laundry, but overall it creates a sense of obligation and respect for your teammates. I’m not saying other classes such as sophomores do not have duties; everyone does, but to single out freshmen and point out that getting laundry could essentially be hazing is absolutely ludicrous.
Hazing has become too broadly defined to accurately pinpoint what hazing exactly is. The lack of clarity in Lehigh’s and the NCAA’s anti-hazing policy allows too much misinterpretation and could lead to anything being considered hazing. What needs to be established is a conscious understanding that hazing is indeed harmful and detrimental to people. However, forms of initiation could prove to be beneficial in uniting groups, especially in athletics. Using common sense to evaluate whether or not a certain activity is hazing obviously isn’t working with the policies that have been established. The definition of discomfort is just too vague.