In the world of collegiate athletics, the activities that go on during a team’s “rookie party” can only be defined as, well, hazy.

At the heart of the initiation process lies conflict. The positive philosophy that may underlie much of the bonding, camaraderie and team unity begets the same dangers associated with humiliation, forced alcohol binging and physical harm. Simply put, some view the team bonding behavior as a rite of passage while others insist on calling it hazing.

“We have strict policies against [hazing],” said UCSB Athletic Director Gary Cunningham, who is responsible for all NCAA Division I intercollegiate athletic programs at UCSB. “We don’t have anything in writing but we set an overall policy. When it comes to alcohol, drugs and forcing people to do embarrassing things, we just don’t do it.”

There is often a gray area between what administrators consider hazing and how the media or students define the matter. According to a 1999 study commissioned by Alfred University titled “Initiation Rites and Athletics: A National Survey of NCAA Sports Teams,” 79 percent of student athletes have participated in initiations that crossed the line into hazing. Recent debacles at the University of Colorado and Iowa State University have highlighted the growing number of hazing incidents among college sports teams.

Hazing, a stigma that has plagued the Greek system on university campuses across the nation for decades, is slowly becoming associated with college sports teams.
“I think athletic teams are overlooked when it comes to hazing,” Inter-Fraternity Council President Jason Everitt said. “As long as they win, they escape any sort of suspicion. The premise that they are strictly athletic ensures that they don’t receive the same level of public scrutiny.”

Everitt defined hazing as creating a situation that makes a new member of an organization feel uncomfortable – including, but not limited to, drinking alcohol, forcing physical harm, engaging in irreverent or embarrassing behavior, or creating an inappropriate distinction between an old or new member.

“I talk really frankly to our athletes about this subject. There is no hazing,” UCSB Cross Country Head Coach Pete Dolan said. “Our athletes are choosing a path which limits what they can enjoy at this campus.”

Dolan certainly endorses team-bonding behavior and has encouraged his athletes to start a jump rope club, a healthy alternative to the infamous Fight Club. During recruiting visits, if a prospective athlete is caught engaging in deviant behavior, including under-aged drinking, Dolan will not invite them to join the team, he said.

In the past, the NCAA has allowed individual universities and colleges to take the lead in deterring and responding to the hazing dilemma. For example, in January 2000, Judith A. Ramaley, president of the University of Vermont, canceled the remainder of the men’s ice hockey season after an investigation of the events and attempted cover-up of a team-sponsored hazing of student athletes. While the NCAA has frequently met to establish goals for progress, the organization has yet to establish an all-inclusive policy directed solely at the hazing problem facing college campuses.

Cunningham has formed a hazing policy at UCSB by allowing coaches to determine their own team rules. Cunningham said he asks for a copy of the team rules for review but likes to stand by the decisions that his coaches make in disciplinary matters.

The NCAA is not the only athletic organization that considers hazing a serious issue.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy towards hazing,” UCSB Sport Club Coordinator Taggart Malone said. “If we find out that hazing goes on, the team is put on probation while [Recreational Sports Director] Paul Lee and I conduct an investigation.”

In an effort to inform UCSB athletes of the severity of hazing, each sports club team is issued a manual that clearly expresses the rules governing hazing and initiation activities. Each team representative is responsible for taking the manual back to the individual teams and ensuring that team members fully understand the rules.

Until explicit and undisputable rules are clearly established by the NCAA, colleges and head coaches, it will be difficult to fairly enforce hazing initiations that have stepped out of bounds.