Official Responses to Hazing
By Doug Abrams
The Ooltewah (Tenn.) High School boys’ varsity basketball season is over. The school superintendent canceled the remainder of the schedule on January 6, after three older players were arrested for allegedly raping a 15-year-old freshman teammate in a cabin during the team’s overnight stay at a tournament in nearby Gatlinburg on December 22. The attack smacked of hazing, an abuse frequently discussed on askcoachwolff.com and in other youth sports circles.
One of the three Ooltewah perpetrators allegedly stuck a pool cue up the victim’s rectum, causing severe lacerations that required a week’s hospitalization after emergency surgery to repair the colon and bladder. The other two perpetrators allegedly pinned the victim on a bed and, according to the victim, filmed the assault on a cell phone. According to WRCB-TV, the three alleged assailants (who are unnamed in the media so far because they are minors) face charges of aggravated rape and aggravated assault, both felonies.
The school superintendent said that he canceled the season to allow law enforcement’s investigation to proceed without disruption. But allegations quickly surfaced that Ooltewah’s basketball program has tolerated a culture of hazing and bullying marked by a pattern of assaults unremedied by coaches or other school authorities.
Absent from the Ooltewah news accounts are statements from other players’ parents complaining that canceling the team’s season unfairly stigmatizes their sons for the misconduct of a few. Such statements sometimes arise when hazing results in sanctioning an entire team, but the Ooltewah assault’s utter savagery may have turned the tables here. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports say that the superintendent acted following mounting community anger directed at school authorities for inaction.
Prevention and Response
Rick Wolff has treated hazing issues several times on “The Sports Edge” and on askcoachwolff.com. I share his disgust with the practice and his calls for meaningful prevention efforts, including written anti-hazing policies backed by removal from the team or other stern punishment for violation. Brooke de Lench, executive director of the MomsTEAM Institute, also places obligations for prevention where they belong — on parents, and on coaches and other league officials.
In any field of endeavor, however, no prevention effort can prevent 100% of the targeted conduct. Just last month, Reuters wrote about a new research paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The researchers found that “hazing is still common in U.S. youth and collegiate sports,” including teams whose institutions presumably maintain written anti-hazing and anti-bullying policies.
Written policies and other prevention efforts have teeth only when authorities vigorously enforce them. Regardless of how events play out in Ooltewah, the remainder of this column provides some general thoughts about how parents, coaches, school authorities, and youth sports associations’ boards of directors should respond when hazing occurs.
When Hazing Happens
Without canceling the season, authorities may discipline the perpetrators while allowing the rest of the team to resume playing. Each case must be judged on its own merits. Are school or team authorities confident that they have correctly identified the perpetrators? Did the perpetrators comprise a sizeable percentage, or a majority, of the team? Was the rest of the team really innocent? Did other players try to cover up the hazing afterwards? Do the other players refuse to identify the perpetrators? What did one or more of the coaches or other authorities know?
Some hazing is so serious that canceling the season is the soundest response. (If the facts are as alleged, the Ooltewah incident would qualify.) Where one or more players ignore a written anti-hazing or anti-bullying policy, prevention efforts have obviously failed. A known culture of hazing and bullying, sustained over time, also demonstrates failure.
To stem existing patterns of abuse and to prevent future abuse, more dramatic official response may be necessary. Cancelling the season, publicized in the school or the media, may send players and their families a message more forcefully than suspending individual players from school or the team, or both, and letting the game schedule proceed.
If authorities cancel the season (or otherwise discipline the entire team) for the misconduct of a few, such collective discipline is consistent with the nature of team sports. Collective punishment may be advisable if the guilty players cannot be identified, or if (as discussed above) a dramatic sanction may seem in order.
One way or another, punishing the entire team is supportable because teams rise or fall as a unit. (Remember the old saying, that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’”) If three members of a varsity basketball team combine for a last-second buzzer beater that wins the game, every player – including ones on the bench – share in the victory. If three members commit acts of hazing, every player may share in adverse consequences imposed after authorities do fact finding and consider various options.
Authorities should tread carefully, however, before sanctioning the entire team for the misconduct of a few unnamed perpetrators. For example, imposing team-wide consequences might tar the future reputations of innocent team members, who might remain subject to speculation from employers, colleges, and others about whether they participated in the wrongdoing.
In most states today, however, if the perpetrators are adjudicated in juvenile court for serious crimes such as aggravated rape or aggravated assault, their identities will become part of the public record. If perpetrators of a violent hazing are tried in adult court, their individual identities will also become publicly known.
Much or most hazing probably never reaches law enforcement or the media. In the absence of criminal or juvenile charges, the perpetrators may not remain anonymous for long because kids talk, even when the perpetrators do not film their assaults.
Sources: Tenn. Code Annotated, sec. 39-13-502 (2015) (aggravated rape), sec. 39-13-102 (2015) (aggravated assault); Stephen Hargis and Kendi Anderson, Ooltewah Students Charged With Rape, Assault After Teammate Injured With Pool Cue, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Dec. 29, 2015; David Carroll, Supt. Smith Cancels Ooltewah Basketball Season http://www.wrcbtv.com/story/30892245/sources-student-took-video-of-ooltewah-basketball-rape-incident (Jan. 6, 2016); Ooltewah High School Basketball Season Canceled: School Officials Under Gag Order, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Jan. 7, 2016; Brooke de Lench, Bullying: An Ongoing Problem In Youth Sports, http://momsteam.com/health-safety/bullying-ongoing-problem-in-youth-sports (May 12, 2009, and 2013 update); Reuters, Hazing Still Common in Collegiate, Youth Sports (Dec. 24, 2015). (reporting on Alex B. Diamond et al., Qualitative Review of Hazing in Collegiate and School Sports: Consequences From a Lack of Culture, Knowledge and Responsiveness, British Journal of Sports Medicine (Dec. 2015)).