Hazing and bullying in professional sports was thrust into the public spotlight after the story of Miami Dolphins teammates Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito go out. Allegations have come out that veteran offensive lineman Richie Incognito bullied second-year lineman Jonathan Martin to the point that Martin decided to leave the team. New reports and stories have since surfaced showing Incognito’s history of bullying (all the way back to college), an apparent disdain for rookies, and his reported usage of racial slurs, some of which were directed at his teammates.
Issues of bullying and hazing in sports are, sadly, nothing new. And while we can hope that it’s nothing much worse than good natured teasing between teammates, far too many stories of bullying include violence and degradation amongst players. For instance, 3 Bronx Science track runners were charged with forcible touching, endangering an incompetent person, and hazing. Several high school wrestlers from Arizona were arrested after it was reported they “performed lewd acts on the restrained student while the third teen helped hold the boy down.” And in Chicago, five students were charged with charged with criminal sexual assault, aggravated battery and unlawful restraint. Clearly these acts of bullying and hazing went above and beyond any good-natured teasing and joking—they turned into criminal acts.
A 2008 report found that 47% of students experience some form of hazing before graduating high school and 74% of college students on a varsity athletic team report going through hazing. Clearly bullying is not an uncommon occurrence and stories like the ones mentioned above make us wonder how many other youth athletes are suffering quietly at the hands of their teammates under the assumption that belonging to a team means “dealing with it.” Is that the kind of message we want to teach our kids? That being physically and verbally abused is just part of playing sports? As coaches and parents it is our job to protect our kids as best as we can, even if that means protecting them from each other.
And if it could possibly get more disheartening, more than a few stories have also risen where coaches knew and did nothing, or even actively participated in the hazing of young players! What kind of message does that send to youth athletes, where the people who have the power and responsibility to ensure their safety allow them to be bullied and abused? It teaches those victims that adults won’t step in even when things are at their worst, and they are truly on their own.
If we want to put a stop to bullying and hazing in youth sports we all have to abide by a few simple guidelines:
1. Physical abuse will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Hitting and kicking (with hands and fists or objects), holding people down, any kind of sexually suggestive touching—sports teams need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to physical abuse. Beating up younger players does not help make them any tougher; it teaches them abuse is part of sports and if they want to belong they have to keep quiet about it.
2. Any reports of bullying or hazing will be taken seriously. “Kids will be kids” is no excuse for young players to abuse each other. And just because “it’s how things have always been” doesn’t mean we have to allow it to continue today. If a child comes to an adult for help and that adult turns a blind eye what kind of message does that send?
3. Create an environment from the top down that opposes bullying and promotes real community and team building. Coaches, administrative professionals, officials, sports parents—we all have to be on the same page when it comes to stopping bullying in youth sports. If we don’t enforce the rules and hold kids accountable for how they treat each other who will?