Goodman: Improved leadership needed to prevent hazing on college campuses

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Meredith Goodman, Columnist

As a self-proclaimed band nerd (Yes, I consider marching band a sport), I participated in marching band during high school and my first year of college. I even served as drum major for two years. While I hated the actual “marching” part, I enjoyed the sense of camaraderie and trust I gained from my fellow band members.

Therefore, I was shocked when a deep culture of hazing within marching bands and other high school and college sports was revealed after the hazing death of Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion.

In November 2011, Champion, as part of Florida A&M’s “Marching 100,” was participating in a time-honored ritual known as “Crossing Bus C.” Unfortunately, this ritual involves walking backwards through a crowded bus while fellow band members viciously strike the walker with their hands and drumsticks.

At the end of this ritual, Champion was beaten so badly that he collapsed and ultimately passed away from “hemorrhagic shock.” On Monday, Florida prosecutors added manslaughter charges on top of third-degree hazing charges to a dozen former members of the Florida A&M marching band for their role in Champion’s death.

While researching this case, I have always wondered where the band directors were. Throughout high school and college band, my directors would divide themselves up between buses. Particularly in high school, they would interfere on the bus if the students got too rowdy or unruly.

I also wonder how the band directors managed to ignore the physical signs of hazing. The students who were victims of “Crossing Bus C” must have come off the bus limping, obviously in pain. Were they not aware of these students’ injuries? Did they not see the bruises that should have covered the victims after a severe beating?

When I came home for Thanksgiving this year, the news had just broken of a hazing scandal involving the Maine West High School freshman and varsity boys’ soccer teams. Freshmen soccer players told Des Plaines police that they had been “sodomized with fingers and sticks,” had their “heads dunked in a hot tub” and had been beaten by older teammates in hazing rituals during training camp and the regular season. It seemed that the boys soccer program at Maine West had a culture of hazing that was implicitly tolerated by the players and coaches.

Then the other day, I saw an intriguing headline that stated three members of the Bronx High School of Science track team were accused of hazing. What was classified as hazing seemed to me like full-on sexual assault, with accusations of track teammates touching a freshman member’s genitals and threatening to rape him twice.

I have realized that hazing is not the stereotypical fraternity or sorority problem of the past but rather a modern problem in high school and college sports. Many athletes convicted of hazing their peers face stiff criminal penalties, such as in the Champion case. But ultimately, the problem of hazing is a cultural one that must be addressed by team leadership before specific individuals are punished.

In each of these hazing cases, team leadership was noticeably absent or ineffective. The freshman on the Bronx High School Science team was assaulted for more than three months before he reported the case. This student should have been instructed by his coach at the beginning of the season to report this type of behavior to the coach or school administration.

In the Maine West case, the coaches are defendants in a school board hearing for “employee discipline matters.” The district claims that Michael Divincenzo, the boys’ varsity soccer coach, saw the hazing of his athletes and even congratulated one and welcomed him to the varsity team. If these allegations are true, the coach obviously failed in dealing with the hazing effectively and, unfortunately, allowed the problem to continue.

What could have prevented hazing in all of these teams is a clear definition of hazing and explicit instructions on how to deal with it from leadership. Coaches should instruct their athletes to report to them or another trusted adult at the first sign of hazing. Hazing should never been allowed to occur for months at a time — this only creates the standard that hazing is acceptable.

Before another student athlete is forced to “Cross Bus C” or be coerced into sexual assault from his or her teammates, coaches and team leadership need to be held responsible and constantly search for signs of hazing to prevent another needless death like that of Robert Champion.

Meredith Goodman is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this letter, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].