October 27, 2011
The scourge of hazing needs to be treated for what it is — assault.
Otherwise, as the sick story about what happened in the dressing room of the Neepawa Natives of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League illustrates, it will not go away so long as it's treated like a mere disciplinary matter that can be handled with suspensions and fines. Hockey Canada, Canadian Interuniversity Sport and virtually all junior leagues have spelled it out: Hazing is not tolerated.
Yet it still happens, young people giving into the mob mentality where, as Neepawa team president Dave McIntosh put it, "pranks become bullying and bullying becomes intimidation, and intimidation is hazing."
That seems to have been the case when some future brain surgeons went too far and decided to humiliate the team's rookies. Worse yet, the team's 21-year-old assistant coach was in the room at the time.
Honestly, I did not want to get into this; it's beyond the ken of your typical sportswriter. There is no one out there playing devil's advocate for hazing. Everyone agrees it's wrong. It is pretty much impossible to get into it without being a scold on a soapbox or a "finger-wagger," as CBC's Brent Bambery put it on Wednesday.
Still, it keeps surfacing. It happened in 2005 when there was incident on the Windsor Spitfires team bus, involving current NHLer Steve Downie (left, photo) and a younger player, Akim Aliu (right, photo). The same year, Montreal's McGill University cancelled its last two football games after a hazing scandal. Every so often, you read of some university team in Canada which had to forfeit games after rookies were peer-pressured into getting drunk at a so-called rookie party.
Point being, it's still going on.
It keeps coming back to how it's handled. We should be wondering whyin Canada it's left up to myriad sports administrators to decide how to punish something that crosses a line into criminality. Canada shouldn't be copying the U.S. criminal justice system, but police there will lay charges against young athletes over alleged hazing. It's not enough to suspend the coach, assistant coach, and make players who stood idly by sit out one game — nice of the Manitoba junior league to rotate the suspensions so Neepawa won't have to forfeit games — and fine the team.
Get the law involved
There is a parallel between hazing and another scourge that never seems to go away, bullying. There have been endless efforts at creating public awareness to eradicate both from our society. Bullying has had a lot of attention in Canada lately, particularly after the sad story of Jamie Hubley, the Kanata, Ont., 15-year-old who committed suicide after years of being harassed by his classmates for being gay. Perhaps you heard Rick Mercer's rant earlier this week about teen suicide. Mercer wondered why more isn't done to identify the culprits.
"What about the old-fashioned school assembly, you know, where the cops show up and there's hell to pay and they find out who's responsible, like when the lunchroom is vandalized? Because the kids who bullied this boy, they know who they are and more importantly, other kids know who they are. It's no longer good enough for us to tell kids who are different, 'it gets better.' " (Rick Mercer Report, Oct. 25)
Perhaps the Neepawa Natives are being scapegoated for going a little too far with a common rite in junior hockey, as one MJHL alumnus noted. Point being, paraphrasing Mercer's take on bullying, it may no longer be good enough just to suspend and fine and issue carefully worded statements saying this cannot stand. What happened to Jamie Hubley was not bullying. It was assault. He was mugged out of a chance at getting an education which would have helped him have a chance to make sure it gets better.
I'm not drawing a equivalency between teen suicide and hockey players taking liberties with rookies. Far from it. Something similar on a small scale did happen to the 15-year-old Neepawa player who blew the whistle on the ugliness. The adults' refusal to go beyond making a show of taking this seriously, if that, has resulted in him, at the present time, being mugged out of a chance to pursue his hockey dream. Fortunately, it does seem like the league and the provincial hockey association might let him play for another team, although you'd sure hope he doesn't become a marked man across the MJHL for upsetting the herd.
(Update: A western Manitoba radio station is pulling its coverage and sponsorship of the Neepawa team. Nice to someone close to the situation has a moral sense.)
As his father pointed out to columnist Randy Turner, the boy has missed more games than the perpetrators.
Both [MJHL commissioner Kim] Davis and Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods described the 15-year-old player's actions in coming forward with the hazing allegations as "brave" and "bold."
If so, reasoned the parent, who has since resigned as a Natives assistant coach, then why is his son still out of hockey while his former teammates remain with the team?
"That's the question of the year, isn't it? Because I don't have the answer," he said.
"Why is he (the son) not playing, missing his seventh and eighth game, when the most anybody else got was five?" (Winnipeg Free Press)
The ultimate aim is always damage control, limiting the bad publicity. That shouldn't be. So long as that is the case, hazing stories will keep popping up and we'll all tut-tut and wonder what was going through everyone's heads at that moment.
The Neepawa Natives might not have planned for their rookie initiation to get so out of hand to the point of degradation, but at some point, common sense and decency should have kicked in. Why is that? It doesn't take a sociologist to know that if such behaviour could be subject to police investigation, maybe that would change the behaviour. So would knowing the league would be willing to kick players out — it beggars belief the maximum suspension levied here was five games, considering that Davis, back in 2003, suspended a Southeast Blades player named Blair Sinclair for 30 games for leaving the bench to waylay a Waywayseecappo Wolverines player.
There's no way of knowing if the spectre of a police involvement and charges might change the behaviour. That's a hypothetical. But it might take that to get people in hockey and all sports to wipe out hazing.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.