Your Organization’s Response to Hazing and Member Misconduct

There have been a few recent member misconduct incidents making the news lately and we wanted to comment on how sports organizations should approach responding to hazing incidents involving their members.

The most high-profile incident occurred in professional sport, with Toronto Blue Jays’ shortstop Yunel Escobar displaying an anti-gay message in Spanish written on stickers under his eyes. The note was spotted by a fan, who posted a picture on Twitter, and the Blue Jays held a press conference a day later where Escobar apologized for the incident. The Blue Jays suspended Escobar for three games.

Some critics believed the organization’s response to the incident, a three-game suspension, was not enough (Link1, Link2) and other commentators (such as Sportsnet Analyst and former professional player Gregg Zaun) blasted the Blue Jays for the way the press conference itself was presented. In a radio interview Zaun said:

 “What made it worse was that press conference today. Everyone was on a different page. They didn’t have time to prepare, and yet they had a day to prepare. That’s the best they can do?”

Zaun also added insight about the team’s atmosphere:

“The atmosphere they’ve created in this clubhouse is consequence-free. If your name is so-and-so we’ll cut you some slack. The three-day suspension is sending the message of a consequence free environment. You can evaluate the culture that’s created. It starts at the manager.”

Dr. Charles Pascal, a noted professor of human development, wrote about his own dissatisfaction with the Toronto Blue Jays’ response to the Escobar incident and added that, as a coach with the University of Toronto baseball team, he spent time informing his players of the “zero tolerance consequences policy for anything that resembles hatefulness”.

The day after of the publication of Pascal’s editorial, alleged hazing activities surfaced involving the baseball team at Wilfrid Laurier University.  The Laurier team has been suspended for four games over activities alleged to have occurred at a ‘rookie party’. The University’s athletic director said that the team broke the new Code of Conduct but he is permitting the team to make a presentation about why they should not be suspended for the entire season.

Like the time Pascal spends with his University of Toronto baseball team, it is commendable that the Wilfrid Laurier baseball team has its players attend pre-season “code of conduct sessions” that include “anti-hazing instructions”.  But it is concerning that there appears to be a lack complete organizational buy-in for the enforcement of these policies.  The team’s manager is quoted as saying “I have full faith in our players. I recruited all of these guys. This is not a reflection of our student-athletes.” A second article claims the athletic director said the team’s manager was “cleared of any wrongdoing” because he was not aware the activities were occurring.

Respectfully, the players’ off-field activities are entirely the reflection of themselves as student-athletes. The alleged hazing activities, whatever they may be, are evidence of the culture that been allowed to exist within this university’s baseball team. Further, the team’s manager is directly responsible for cultivating a team and an atmosphere where players choose to ignore their pre-season instructions and violate the code of conduct.

Organizations take great care to craft and publish policies and codes of conduct that include directives that prohibit hazing and harassment in all forms. The best definition of hazing, which is increasingly being included in Canadian sport organizations’ Codes of Conduct is taken from researchers Crow and Macintosh who reviewed decades of academic literature on the topic of hazing:

[Hazing is] any potentially humiliating, degrading, abusive, or dangerous activity expected of a junior-ranking athlete by a more senior teammate, which does not contribute to either athlete’s positive development, but is required to be accepted as part of a team, regardless of the junior-ranking athlete’s willingness to participate. This includes, but is not limited to, any activity, no matter how traditional or seemingly benign, that sets apart or alienates any teammate based on class, number of years on the team, or athletic ability [1]

But the response to the violation of these policies, the enforcement of a code of conduct, is still lacking among some sport organizations. In a February 2012 post, we described an incident where an athlete on a CJHL hockey team brutally hazed rookies by forcing them to drink excessively, by forcing them to swim and run around naked, and by taunting them with anti-gay slurs. We understand that the description of these incidents, which can still be found online right here, were reported to the league and team and apparently neither organization, at the very least, has made any effort to have the website taken down.

When faced with an issue of hazing or even general member misconduct, an organization must not be ‘soft’ or ‘permissible’ if their policies have been violated. If they are, then what were the policies for?  We would draw connections here with an organization’s values. If your values have informed the creation of your policies, and your policies are breached by member misconduct, not upholding your policies would be like deciding to ignore your values.

To an outside observer, regardless if the CJHL has policies or codes of conduct for its athletes or clubs, the publication of the details of a ‘rookie hazing’ on an athlete’s personal website reflects not only on the individuals involved as student-athletes (and as people) but also on the values the organization may claim to hold. Whatever values the CJHL or the hockey team may claim to hold are undermined by their demonstrated inability, disinterest, or refusal to react to their athletes violating their policies and codes.

It is not enough for organizations to uphold their policies and codes for member behaviour (such as in the Laurier example) – and it is not enough to be seen upholding them (such as in the Blue Jays example) – organizations must BELIEVE they are doing the right thing by enforcing their policies and codes. In both the Blue Jays and Laurier baseball team examples, neither organization has done a convincing job of demonstrating they believe – and their response has reflected badly on their organization.

When a team has been disciplined for violating a policy, the team’s manager must not boldly state his support for the players. Instead, the team’s manager must boldly state his support for his organization, the organization’s policies and code of conduct, and the organization’s values. The organization must prepare a proper response where everyone in the organization is on the same page – supporting the policy or code and its enforcement - and upholding the organization's values.

Simply, organizations must have and live their values. If Wilfrid Laurier University claims among its values that it wants to ‘Develop the whole person’, then it must not permit its athletes to humiliate or degrade each other in any form because those activities would not only be a breach of its policies but a violation of its values. Organizations may create ‘wiggle room’ by offering to later reevaluate the policy or code in light of new developments or a values review, but the policy or code as written must always be applied.

Hazing is abhorrent behaviour that consists of varying forms of abuse that is often illegal and disguised as team bonding or initiation rituals. It is damning on the reputation and values of any organization or coach who tacitly or implicitly permits hazing or any type of member misconduct to occur, or fails to enforce or uphold the policies that are in place to prevent it.

[Update: The Laurier baseball team convinced the school's athletic director that they understand why hazing is unacceptable and he permitted the team to continue their season]

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[1] Crow, R. B., & Macintosh, E. W. (2009). Conceptualizing a meaningful definition of hazing in sport. European Sport Management Quarterly, 9(4), 433-451.

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