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Homophobia & High School Sports: Institutionalized Bullying

by Roger Brigham
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jun 13, 2011

With public awareness and video responses to school bullying increasing almost daily, it is perhaps inevitable that scrutiny will fall more and more on the scholastic areas in which physical domination and intimidation not only occur, but are encouraged and rewarded. Scholastic sports, especially, according to anecdotal and scientific evidence, men's full-contact sports such as football, wrestling and water polo are entering the crosshairs.

Just this week, two mothers in Tennessee told a federal court their seventh-grade sons were held down in the locker room by older members of their junior high school basketball team and anally assaulted with felt markers. In late May, four members of the Wisconsin state high school championship team were arrested on charges they repeatedly sexually harassed a 15-year-old teammate by dangling their privates in his face and putting them on his legs or buttocks. Earlier this year, a high school senior in California who was captain of the wrestling team was expelled and charged with sexual battery for allegedly sticking his finger inside a teammate's anus last summer -- during practice while executing a move to use in matches.

In the Wisconsin and Tennessee cases, the alleged acts were not reported as isolated abuses, but frequent and ongoing. In the Wisconsin case, the police complaint said a witness saw the defendants mocking the speech of the victim, who "is hearing impaired and needs an interpreter to communicate."

'Hazing' = Bullying
Bullying or hazing? Researchers note little distinction.

According to the National Federation of High Schools' web site, "Hazing is similar to bullying, but hazing has a tendency to be an institutionalized form of harassment/intimidation centering on initiation rights connected to certain school clubs and activities. Hazing can be seen as an organized form of bullying. One difference between these behaviors is that bullying typically attempts to exclude a person from the bully's activities while hazing is often a condition of acceptance or initiation into a group. While bullying may begin in early elementary school, hazing generally does not occur until children are older. As with bullying, however, hazing may involve a ringleader and bystanders who do nothing to stop the activity."

"Hazing is usually some part of initiation, or making new players do something to become part of the group," Norm Pollard, dean of students at Alfred University, told EDGE. "With bullying, they have absolutely no desire for that individual to be part of the team."

Although such incidents seem to be making headlines with increasing familiarity, that does not necessarily mean they are happening more frequently.

"There's no data to show growth or change," said Pollard, who led a 1999 study on hazing among college and high school athletes. "These days we put more stuff about our lives out there. There's less filters. There is more inclination to expose more of one's life now through things like Twitter and Facebook, so there may be more opportunities to report."

The Alfred study found that the percentage of athletes who get hazed in high school (22 percent) virtually stays the same at the college level. Overall, 48 percent of high school students in the study were hazed.

No discipline is exempt from hazing--incidents have been reported with choral groups, cheerleading squads and a surprising number of church groups and honor societies--but clearly some sports have more problems with physical and sexual assaults than others.

Some Sports Too Close for Comfort?
"This particular type of hazing seems to be mostly with males, and the sports hockey, football and wrestling," Pollard said. "It's what I consider the 'hyper-masculine' sports. For males who are adolescent and insecure about themselves, they may think one way for them to feel better about themselves is to exert power over and dominating over a perceived weaker player. They may use sexual power as a weapon. It's purely about power and control.

"The sad part is that typically the hazer has had a very similar thing done to them the year before. It perpetuates and then escalates the practice."

Dave Westol, a former prosecutor who officiates high school football and lectures extensively about hazing, said male sexual hazing dates to antiquity.

"It's about subservience and dominance," Westol told EDGE. "I understand they had 'tea-bagging' in ancient times: a warrior would sit on a fallen opponent and drop his scrotum in his face. Often there's penetration of the opponent's body, usually with some item or devise. There's no sport that's immune to it."

When Alfred University conducted its study of high school hazing, it noted its documentation of sexual harassment was less than welcomed. "Even though there is anecdotal evidence that suggests that sexual acts are definitely a part of high school hazing, we were required to guarantee the providers of student names and addresses that we would not ask direct questions about sexual activity," the report noted. "We were surveying high school juniors and seniors, who are generally between the ages of 16 and 18, and therefore considered to be minors. This restriction limited our ability to determine the prevalence of sexual abuse compared to other behaviors."

Nevertheless, hazing incidents the high school students did report included being forced to have multiple sexual partners; perform oral sex; skinny dip; strip and streak; play truth or dare; put heat balm on their testicles; shave their balls and walk around with them hanging out; rape or be raped; and/or have sex with animals.

Hank Nuwer, an associate professor of journalism at Franklin College in Indiana who has written several books on hazing, said the Wisconsin incident seemed to be more bullying than hazing. "This one just seems to be not to welcome at all, but to intimidate," Nuwer told EDGE. "This is more like the hazing you have at West Point, where you're trying to get someone to leave."

Next: Wrestling: Homoerotic - & Homophobic


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