You knew it was coming – my soapbox on hazing. I considered making it a polemic against the media, but as ridiculous as the CBC has been in the name of “journalistic integrity” this week, I decided that wasn’t the biggest tragedy.
There has been an obscene (I use the word purposely) amount of coverage of the 15-year-old hockey player that bravely came forward to report a hazing incident this week. For a day or two it appeared that the media were considering whether or not to report on the actual events, but now that they have, the floodgates are open. This poor boy (yes, he is a boy, and so are most of the perpetrators) has had his genitals discussed on national news all week. I cannot think of anything that would have mortified me more at that age.
First, let me say that I was not there and I’m aware that the press has an agenda – their bias is no secret (if it bleeds, it leads…). But when I hear interviews with the coaches and others involved, all I hear is defensiveness. So I am inclined to believe the media reports that vilify the team and coaches, and commend the victim for his courage. Yes, I am appalled at the incident itself, and I am disturbed that this type of thing goes on. It’s particularly bothersome that almost all of the incidents that have been reported (in excruciating detail) have had frankly sexual overtones. My issues with the situation are these: why do these things happen, what should be done to prevent them, and how does this kid move on and heal?
So question one: why do these things happen? It’s been said that these are traditions that are handed down from one year to the next until they become somewhat institutionalized. A kind of payback/pay forward thing, where the previously humiliated sentence future generations to the same fate, ostensibly so they all have something in common (why the sport that brought them together and the experience of trying out and making the team is insufficient for that I don’t know), but more likely to feel better about not being on the receiving end for once.
I think that at its root, these incidents happen because they are allowed to. These are kids. Kids are generally pretty willing to do stupid things, either for a laugh or for acceptance, and usually without reasonable consideration of the likely consequences. Somehow, the absence of a mature adult sanctions the behavior.
Which leads to the next question, what should we do to prevent hazing and its like? Well, here’s an idea: adults in the dressing rooms. Kids need supervision. They have brains that regularly take inopportune vacations*. 15 and 16 year old boys may have the physical maturity of adults, so it’s easy to forget that very few have adult levels of emotional and cognitive maturity. This means that it is our responsibility as adults to provide guidance and, I’m sorry to say it, direct supervision. At all times. There is no reason that humiliation needs to be the bonding agent to turn a group of people into a team, as is apparently assumed when it is sanctioned directly or indirectly (by not being actively prevented).
We need to send a clear message that bullying and other related behaviours are unacceptable. What would be clear? All those boys need to be removed from the team. The coaches too. Would it ruin hockey careers? Probably, but I’m having trouble feeling sympathy for them. Would it turn them into bitter, abusive adults? Possibly, and that would be a tragic side effect. But they need to be held accountable for their choices in ways that do not punish the victim.What is that old expression? You make your bed, you need to lie in it. The victim has to live with the humiliation and the consequences of coming forward. For the rest of his life. The rest live with the burden of watching a game or two from the stands.
The problem with a 1-game suspension for essentially the whole team is that the victim is not playing either. Worse, how can he ever go back to playing with the same cohesive group who literally tortured him and then made him apologize for ratting them out. Everyone knows everyone and there are no secrets. He’s going to have a tough time finding a team to play with, through no fault of his own. That is the true tragedy here.
It’s a cycle, though, and to punish one group that happened to hit the front pages means that the experiences of all those who have been assaulted in the name of team building in the past (including, obviously, these boys) remain unacknowledged. So there probably is no perfect solution, but a permanent ban from hockey for these players and coaches, followed by legislation that criminalizes hazing might be good places to start.
If bullying stopped, and achieved the same functional level of contempt that molestation and formerly acceptable behaviors like drunk driving have, I suspect that within a few years, the inclination to trade torture for respect might be replaced by something more constructive. If there was no legacy of humiliation to continue through the generations, maybe it would just die out. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe they’d find a way to get the job done outside of the locker room. But as parents, we have a responsibility to do our best to mindfully enforce limits that set good examples (without somehow smothering the kid into some kind of co-dependent pathology in the process). We need to be the brains when the brains are taking a nap. We need to demonstrate by our presence that this stuff is unacceptable.
I also think that holding the adults who failed to prevent the problem accountable for it, while in some ways similar to humiliation and public ridicule of a hazing incident itself, is perfectly reasonable. They failed to keep that child safe. The incident could so easily have crossed over into the permanently (physically) damaging. They were understood to be responsible for the kids, and they were simply not there.
So how does this poor kid move on? I suspect he will need therapy, but that is no different from any other kid who has been molested or bullied or assaulted, whatever the circumstance. He should be proud for having the courage to come forward. He is extremely fortunate to have supportive parents who have gone to bat for him, and in the face of some pretty steep obstacles even, but that is how parents should be. I hope he gets to play hockey and that he can use this experience to grow and learn. I hope the experience does not lead him into that cycle of payback/pay forward. I truly, fervently hope that the ridiculous media coverage continues to portray him as the hero, because he has already been vilified by his (hopefully former) teammates. I hope he can recall his courage when he needs to stand up to an unacceptable situation in the future as other heroes like Sheldon Kennedy have. I hope this kid can salvage the necessary insight to heal.
So to summarize, yes, I am appalled. I blame the coaches and parents who allowed it to happen. I think they should all be banned from hockey for life. The greatest tragedy is also the one we should look to for the lessons in all this – that young man who was doubly humiliated, first by his team, and then by the fallout from his very brave decision to stand up against it. Good for him. I hope that eventually, with time and healing, that decision will serve him better in life than ignoring it and perpetuating the cycle would have.
*The other day I had a conversation with Jack after he drank a large amount of something, juice or milk, too quickly. He rolled around clutching his belly and threatening to puke. I said, in typical mom-style, “You knew that was a big glass, what were you thinking?”
He stopped, looked at me, and replied, “I was thinking, wow, am I ever thirsty!”
I laughed. It was a very honest answer to the question I asked, and also a lesson to me not to bother asking rhetorical questions.