5 Strategies for Preventing Hazing, Harassment and Bullying in School Athletics

April 14 2015


  • William Grace Frost, Strategic Relations Director
    William Grace Frost
    Strategic Relations Director
  • Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters
    Rick Phillips
    Founder, Community Matters

The headlines alone are sufficient to let us know that something needs to change in the culture of our school athletic programs…

"Central Bucks West high school in Pennsylvania had their football season suspended after a hazing incident…"

"At a wrestling tournament in Denver a 13-year old boy was cornered on an empty bus by three upperclassmen, bound with duct tape and then sodomized with a pencil…"

"Authorities recently charged 3 Sayreville, NJ high school football teammates with aggravated sexual assault in connection with an alleged hazing incident…"

Preventing these problems begins with understanding what they are and how they manifest in both girls and boys high school sports, band, performing arts groups, ROTC and other youth activities. Each is slightly different but they all include the perception, real or imagined, of an imbalance of social or physical power.

How does hazing begin & grow?

Although we can never be sure exactly where it starts, the culture of sports hazing has been around a long time. In other words, since I had it done to me when I was a rookie, I now get to do it to the next batch of newbies. Another way to describe this phenomena is that it’s behavior modelled by others in a superior positon which I adopt as my own once I have been elevated to that place of superiority or power.

Thus, over time, it can become ingrained as the norm, an accepted rite of passage… “If you wanna be one of us, then you have to go through what we’ve been through!” This often includes the coaches who may have been a part of the hazing cycle as young athletes themselves.

Adding fuel to the fire:
•  the adults who are in charge are often volunteers operating off-site with little training and/or supervision;
•  hazing is strengthened by the explicit veil of secrecy or code of silence that keeps it under the radar of most parents’ and administrators’ awareness;
•  sports can also foster a hazing culture through its focus on “winning at all costs”, “toughing it out” and “giving your all for the team”. These prevalent attitudes, proliferated by students and coaches alike, and expected and lauded by their fans, negate the natural  human tendency for self-care and empathy for others;
•  athletes are sometimes assigned a privileged status on campus which can cause them to develop an attitude of being able to “get away with” things that others can’t.

How can we de-escalate and prevent this cycle of hazing & abuse?

Similar to Community Matters’ bullying prevention approach, we believe that at its core, the solution begins by establishing a culture of high expectations and high support. By establishing strong values, promoting adults to be asset-builders and empowering leadership qualities in our student athletes, we can change the norms that allow hazing, harassment and bullying to develop and grow.

5 key strategies for prevention

1. Train, train and train some more– Changing any long-standing habit takes time, commitment and resources. Those resources need to be applied to training students in understanding the harmfulness of hazing, what to do when confronted with difficult situations, conflict resolution skills, increasing empathy and equipping them with communication tools for supporting others who are confronted with the choices and stresses involved with hazing.

The coaches and other supervisors also need training - training to improve their awareness, knowing what signs to look for, and setting positive expectations and standards of behavior. These adults need to know how to intervene rather than condone, how to provide support, and how to appropriately discipline when necessary.

2. Create a stakeholder committee – This should be a proactive, on-going group that gathers input, assesses team codes of conduct, makes recommendations and provides guidance and oversight. It should include members from the school administration, teaching staff, athletic staff, parent, school medical staff, club supervisors, community supporters and student athletes.

3. Regularly review and update your team and individual conduct policies, procedures and practices – You will only reap the results you want when all aspects are working in alignment, from the values and vision established by your organization, to your conduct and discipline policies and practices, and to the programs and services that you offer for training. Like a well-oiled machine or a high-performing symphonic orchestra, you will be able to harvest the positive results you desire when all parts are working together in harmony towards a common goal.

4. Host a community symposium – This strategy follows closely on the heels of “more training” as well as strengthening relationships. A symposium is typically a one-day event that engages educators, students, parents along with leaders from government, business, nonprofit and service sectors in a dialogue to examine how young people can partner with adults to prevent and reduce hazing, harassment, bullying, cyber bullying, and other forms of mistreatment, and to build more positive team cultures and school climates. 

5. Develop a Code of Conduct and bring it to life! – Living and playing by a code of conduct can help increase the probability that hazing and other mean-spirited behaviors will be kept to a minimum. According to the California-based Character Is First organization, “Interscholastic athletic competition should demonstrate high standards of ethics and sportsmanship and promote the development of good character and other important life skills. The highest potential of sports is achieved when participants are committed to pursuing victory with honor according to six core principles: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and good citizenship”. It’s easy to find sample codes on the internet, but be sure to include your student athletes as you develop them.

Taking action with these 5 strategies will help produce athlete-leaders, higher self-esteem, top notch coaches, better performing teams and better citizens.

While there may be a lot of negative headlines out there about hazing, the good news is that there are more stories about students supporting students, athletes expressing compassion and coaches making positive differences in students’ lives.

For more help with school climate assessments, professional development for coaches and school staff and for youth empowerment programs, please see our Programs and Services page.

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