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Addressing student-athlete hazing

Susie Bruce, director, Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, University of Virginia; and Holly Deering, health educator, Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, University of Virginia

“… The intention was to have a fun night of team bonding, not to humiliate or embarrass anyone. … We realize it didn’t benefit us or improve our skills. It didn’t make us close as a team, and in fact, just the opposite occurred! Our fall season was canceled, as was our spring break, and our team is on probation.  Playing is a privilege not afforded to everybody, and with that privilege comes a responsibility to our team, our school and ourselves.”

Team captain’s quote after her team was involved in, and sanctioned for, hazing1.

We have all heard the myths of hazing: Bonding activities will bring the team closer together; new teammates need to earn their spot and prove themselves worthy of the jersey; activities are all in good fun and people can always choose not to participate. The reality is that hazing is associated with lower team cohesion2 and can put personal, academic and athletic goals out of reach.

The NCAA defines hazing as “any act committed against someone joining or becoming a member or maintaining membership in any organization that is humiliating, intimidating or demeaning, or endangers the health and safety of the person. Hazing includes active or passive participation in such acts and occurs regardless of the willingness to participate in the activities. Hazing creates an environment/climate in which dignity and respect are absent”1.

Too many students have lost their lives due to hazing, including Lynn “Gordie” Bailey Jr., who died three weeks into his freshman year of college. He and 26 other new members were told to drink four handles of whiskey and six bottles of wine in 30 minutes. Bailey drank more than his share to help out some of the other members who were clearly past their limits. Tragically, after Bailey passed out on a couch, no one checked on him until the next morning when it was too late.

Less serious, but more common risks of hazing, include: physical injury, legal penalties (for stealing, violence or breaking state laws against hazing), losing institutional eligibility to compete and canceling the rest of the team’s season. Other harms of hazing are more hidden. People respond to stress in individual ways. Some appear not to be bothered, while others cope by avoiding all contact with the hazers. Others may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as nightmares, depression and feelings of shame. Hazing may create unity within a recruiting class, but the abuse of power by upperclassman leaders frequently results in mistrust of all other team members. When teams include alcohol in hazing activities, the scales are tipped toward a greater likelihood of a negative outcome. In addition to increasing the risk of a season-ending injury, alcohol use can have a lingering negative effect on athletic performance for all involved.

Consider the following national data:3

  • 74 percent of student-athletes experience at least one form of hazing while in college.
  • The most frequently reported hazing behavior among student-athletes is participating in drinking games (47 percent).
  • 23 percent of student-athletes report having to drink large amounts of alcohol to the point of getting sick or passing out as part of a hazing activity.

In retrospect, some people who have been hazed feel that the experience wasn’t that bad or may have had positive results. But what does the research say on how the 55 percent of college students who have been hazed view their hazing experience?  The national “Hazing in View” study3 found the following:

  • 69 percent disagreed that hazing made them feel more like a part of the group.
  • 78 percent disagreed that they felt a sense of accomplishment. 
  • 82 percent disagreed that they felt stronger. 

The national data is clear that hazing does not pull a team together.

Nearly half of college students (47 percent) were hazed in high school,3 so these individuals come to college with the belief that hazing is normal and to be expected.  Nine out of 10 college students who experienced hazing do not consider themselves to have been hazed.4 In 25 percent of hazing experiences, students believed coaches and/or advisors were aware of the activities.3  As a result, few student-athletes identify problem behaviors as hazing and even fewer report hazing when it occurs.  In most situations, student-athletes are most likely to turn to family member for help, yet only 27 percent of men and 29 percent of women reached out to family members if they had been hazed.5

A comprehensive approach to hazing prevention

The following suggestions provide a framework for developing a comprehensive plan for preventing and responding to hazing within athletic teams. Each component is critical to providing a health-enhancing culture where hazing behaviors are not tolerated.

  • Policy.
    • Athletics administrators, coaches and student-athletes need to work together to develop anti-hazing policies which promote healthy team activities and avoid practices that humiliate members. All student-athletes and members of the department must be educated on the policy annually.
  • Recruitment practices.
    Conversations with potential team members should include discussion of team values and goals, expectations of new members and reassurance that hazing is not tolerated on the team.
  • Education.
    • Athletics department administrators must educate coaches, athletic trainers, student-athletes and others in the department on hazing definitions, the hidden harms of hazing and appropriate team initiation activities. Teams are more likely to haze if healthier methods of group bonding are not readily available.6
    • Hazing should be addressed during alcohol education programs.  Student-athletes who were hazed were most likely to report that alcohol was involved.
    • Teams need opportunities for hazing prevention training and reflection to help them learn the difference between team building and hazing activities.
    • Student-athletes need to be trained and empowered to intervene effectively as active bystanders when they witness hazing behaviors or when questionable activities are planned by their team. 
  • Expectations and Attitudes.
  • Coaches must be vocal in their support for positive team activities and provide unambiguous guidance to captains and other upperclassman student-athletes regarding acceptable and unacceptable practices. 
  • Team captains, Student-Athlete Advisory Committee members, student-athlete mentors and other student-athlete leaders should be aware of the power dynamics that exist between upperclassmen and incoming students and actively work to level the playing field.
  • Sanctioning.
    • When hazing behaviors occur, athletics department administrators must hold coaches and team leaders accountable and follow campus reporting guidelines. Sanctions should be administered consistently across all teams and players, regardless of status.
  • Reporting
    • Athletics department administrators need to work with campus colleagues who oversee hazing reporting and judicial systems and ensure that student-athletes are aware of the campus-wide reporting process.
    • Confidential assistance should be readily available for any student-athletes who believe they have been hazed.

Empowering student-athletes to establish positive team expectations

It is essential to empower student-athletes to take the lead in discussions with their teammates about hazing and help set the tone for positive team-building activities. Student-athletes want their team members to grow and learn through affiliation with their team. However, some students lack the knowledge of how to accomplish these goals in a way that isn’t hazing. The following questions provide a guide for student-led discussions within teams.

  • What are our team’s goals (e.g., perform at a high level, win our conference championship, post-season play)?
  • What does team bonding currently look like for our team?
    • What are the positive elements to these activities?
    • What are the less positive elements (which may even cross the line into hazing)?
    • What role does alcohol play in these team-bonding activities?
  • How can we change or adapt the less positive (potentially hazing) activities to better meet our goals and unify our team?
  • If tradition plays a role in these activities, how can we keep the positive elements and change the less positive aspects? Consider outdoor excursions, team dinners, community service and/or an alcohol-free season.

Strong relationships are built around friendship, teamwork and trust. It takes courage and honor to be a leader. In her testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Dr. Elizabeth Allan remarked, “We … need to eliminate hazing to promote educational environments that are most conducive to learning and the development of ethical leaders who treat others with the dignity and respect each deserves.”6

It is our hope that this article helps you better understand how hazing can impact student-athletes and provides ways to prevent hazing behaviors within teams and athletics departments. The NCAA has a number of excellent programs to support you in addressing hazing on your campus, including the guide Building New Traditions: Hazing Prevention in College Athletics

Additional NCAA resources include sponsorship of the annual APPLE Training Institutes to Promote Student-Athlete Wellness and Substance Abuse Prevention and the Step UP! Bystander Intervention program. Registration for the January 2017 APPLE Training Institutes opened at the end of August 2016. Step UP! provides hazing prevention resources including training slides, handouts and talking points.

About the Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention at the University of Virginia

The Gordie Center honors the memory of Lynn “Gordie” Bailey Jr., who died of a hazing-related alcohol overdose, by challenging attitudes about the true risks of hazing and alcohol use. The Gordie Center provides programs and materials, including National GORDIEday (part of National Hazing Prevention Week), the documentary “HAZE,” and GORDIEcheck cards to help students identify and respond to an alcohol overdose. The Gordie Center develops and coordinates the annual APPLE Training Institutes, the leading national training institutes dedicated to substance abuse prevention and health promotion for student-athletes and athletics department administrators. Participating campus teams create an institution-specific action plan with follow-up support from Gordie Center staff.

About Susan Bruce

Susan Bruce is director of the University of Virginia’s Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. She directs the NCAA-funded APPLE Training Institutes and the national Gordie’s Call campaign to prevent alcohol abuse and hazing. She is a founding member of the Step UP! Bystander Intervention Program and serves on the Step UP! executive board and the advisory board of the Institute to Promote Athlete Health & Wellness. She serves on the NCAA’s Sexual Assault Task Force; the North-American Interfraternity Conference Presidential Commission on Alcohol Use; the James R. Favor and Company Fraternity Health and Safety Initiative Advisory Panel; and the University of Virginia’s Hazing Prevention Advisory Committee. She is an expert consultant for groups including the NCAA, the NFL and the Naval Health Research Center. 

About Holly Deering

Holly Deering is the coordinator of the APPLE Training Institute and health educator in the University of Virginia’s Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. Her primary role is overseeing the APPLE curriculum, conducting assessment, providing support for APPLE team action plan development and identifying best practices for substance abuse prevention in college athletics. Deering is the co-advisor of the University of Virginia Athletics’ Student-Athlete Mentor program. She serves on the University of Virginia’s Hazing Prevention Advisory Committee, is a liaison to the National Hazing Prevention Consortium and is a master trainer for the national Step UP! bystander intervention program. Holly previously worked in residence life at Southern Methodist University.

  1. NCAA (2007) Building New Traditions: Hazing Prevention in College Athletics.
  2. Van Raalte, J.L. & Cornelius, A.E. (2007).  The relationship between hazing and team cohesion.  Journal of Sport Behavior, 30(4), 491.
  3. Allan, E. J. & Madden, M. (2008).  Hazing in View: College Students at Risk. (, University of Maine, College of Education and Human Development. 
  4. Allan, E. J. & Madden, M. (2012).  The nature and extent of college student hazing. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 24(1), 1-8.
  5. NCAA (2012) Social Environments Survey.
  6. Allan, E. J., (2016). Testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP).  July 13, 2016, page 4.