Searching for clarity in controversy

(Editor’s note: This part one of an ongoing series taking a look at the culture, causes and possible solutions associated with hazing incidents, the reporting of which has been on the rise within athletics programs across the country at the high school and college levels. Our objective is to continue the important community conversation that was sparked following the recent hazing incident at Cottage Grove High School this past September and reported on in The Sentinel on Oct. 30.)

It happened on a girls high school gymnastics team in Vermont as well as a high school baseball team in Ontario, Ore. A track and field squad in Arizona and a basketball team 100 miles north in Molalla. Since as far back as the early 1980s in athletics programs around the country and as recently as several weeks ago and as close to home as Cottage Grove High School, incidents of hazing in sports — specifically “broom handling” has had a steady presence in the U.S.

Three weeks ago, The Sentinel reported on allegations stemming from an incident in late September in the CGHS locker room. The accusations surfaced when a freshman junior varsity player alleged that he was harassed by two older players. Specifically, one of the older players held him down on the locker room floor while another attempted to penetrate the younger student’s rectum with a broom handle.

An investigation by the Cottage Grove Police Department determined that no official sex crime had taken place, given that there had been no penetration due to the clothes and football gear the victim had been wearing. Nonetheless, the visceral, cruel and potentially sexual nature of the assault came as a shock to a tight-knit Cottage Grove community that was unaccustomed to such disturbing acts within its school district. Since the incident was first publicized, concerns and questions continue to abound.

Perhaps the largest concern — particularly for parents who put their children’s safety in the hands of school staff five days a week — has been the worry that this recent event represents a pervasive “culture” of hazing and harassment. It is a concern that, if valid, would understandably damage the public’s trust in a school’s ability to provide a safe learning environment for children.

This, as it turns out, is not a Cottage Grove cultural issue. It is not even an Oregon cultural issue. It is even tenuous to conclude that it’s a sports cultural issue. Research into the frequency of hazing, both sexual and non-sexual in nature, reveals the ubiquity of the problem across America, across genders and even sports.

The Voice in the Locker Room

Elkton High School’s first-year head football coach Jeremy Lockhart, though still relatively new in his position after taking over in early summer, has years of athletics experience — both as a player and a coach — throughout the state of Oregon.

When hazing cases of this magnitude break in a community, the dialogue becomes centered around media, law enforcement, local citizens and school administrators. Despite being the “boots on the ground” and the eyes in the locker room, coaches often lose their voices within the cacophony of controversy. Ultimately, in day-to-day operations coaches, head and assistant alike, are the people whose voices will set the tenor of the team.

As of press time, Lockhart was the only local head to coach to respond to The Sentinel’s request for comment.

“I would honestly say that, as the head coach, you have 100 percent control in setting the bar and putting out the expectations,” Lockhart said of his and others’ roles within a team, which still comes with a caveat acknowledging a student’s free will.

“The kids are still going to make their choices, whether they’re good or bad. I can’t make those choices for them,” said Lockhart. “I have to let them know what their responsibilities and consequences are and, if they still wanna do something, that’s on them. So I have no control over that aspect.” 

ESPN Outside the Lines (OTL) research in 2003 showed 59 cases of hazing at the high school and university levels between 1990-2003. OTL uncovered 40 more cases that specifically involved sodomy between 2011-2016. These compiled incidents represent only the reported cases and there are likely many more that have gone unreported or uninvestigated. The data shows that the highest frequency of such violent behavior occurs in football and, to a lesser extent, in wrestling. But the larger conclusion is that this is a trend that ultimately does not discriminate.

Hazing, as it relates to the more general idea of harassment, is distinct in two important ways. According to the non-profit, unlike bullying — which involves harassment that is repeated over a duration of time as a means to alienate a victim — hazing is often limited to a single moment or day and is often employed as a process of initiation. If bullying serves as a form of rejection from a group, hazing then represents a discordant form of “welcome.”

The group dynamic, then, is central. If a hazing “culture” exists, it is predicated on a majority acceptance — either silent or vocal — of the practices and behaviors that comprise the “culture” within that group.

For example, in 2018, members of the Bothell High School football team near Seattle, Wash., were accused of participating in a practice they called “Rape Squad.” Once those words were yelled out, players would then target a teammate and attempt to poke them in the buttocks and/or rectum with their fingers or foreign objects.

Just as in Cottage Grove, investigations turned up no evidence of penetration and local police ultimately declined to pursue criminal charges against the alleged perpetrators. Statements from those involved, however, painted a picture of understatement and equivocation, if not outright acceptance, of sexual hazing practices.

“All parties involved indicated that, although highly inappropriate and potentially criminal, the behavior was done without malicious or criminal intent or sexual motivation,’’ investigating Officer Garrett Ware wrote in his report.

Ware closed the case after determining that the students viewed the acts as “horseplay” and some victims were even known to reciprocate. These statements leave many questions unanswered: Does it matter how the students view it? Does it matter if it is reciprocated? Does intent matter when the results will be equally traumatic for the victim, whether born out of malice or not?

“I wasn’t going to say that it was consensual or anything, but they were just messing around,’’ said the student who initially reported witnessing the events in a report by The Seattle Times. The student chose to remain unidentified.

But what message are children being sent when something non-consensual can simply be accepted as “just messing around”?

An unnamed junior at Bothell claimed to have seen the practice all three years he played there, describing it as part of their “football culture” and a harmless attempt at “goofing around.”

The Roots of the Problem

From coaches, to police officers, school officials and the students directly involved, there is a consistency in how so many of these events are downplayed and deemed acceptable. For Lockhart, it raises an even more disturbing thought.

“Maybe I shouldn’t say it’s something innate, but it almost feels like it is to a certain degree. I do agree that some of it is environment for sure. But this hazing and bullying type of stuff — I’m not trying to be pessimistic — but it doesn’t seem to ever go away and I’m not sure it ever will,” he said.

When it comes to hazing in a sports context, Lockhart said he believes there is a problem — despite having no first-hand knowledge of any hazing at Elkton during or before his tenure — but the root cause of the issue extends beyond school walls.

“I think it speaks to a larger problem, you know?” said Lockhart. “Our intolerance for each other, and the environment we’re in — that influences our youth. To be honest, that’s where I think the problem stems from.”

Countless cases, many disturbingly similar in how each played out, seem to illustrate that point and how the hazing culture certainly didn’t begin in — nor is it limited to — Cottage Grove. The real battle being fought is not only in preventing incidents that lead down a path of sexual violence, but also in figuring out how to eliminate something that, in far too many instances, is already there.

“Once it’s accepted, then it is extremely difficult to weed out and try to justify what’s right and what’s wrong — because now it’s a part of the culture,” Lockhart said.

American society is already all-too familiar with hazing in fraternities and sororities, other examples of organizations of like-minded young men and women whose desire for a sense of unity is akin to a sports team. These groups’ rhetoric is often rife with the vocabulary of “togetherness,” “brotherhood,” “sisterhood” and “family”. In contrast, when hazing leads to assault, injury and in some cases death, communities find themselves unable to comprehend how it could have happened.

Why would a student behave this way towards another student who is meant to be a peer, a teammate, a sister, a brother? Why must entrance into a group — a group meant to provide stability and positivity in a young person’s life — require an act of intimidation or cruelty? These are questions that students, coaches, teachers, administrators and parents across the nation have been posing for decades.

Despite these challenges, Lockhart sees reason for optimism as both a coach and a teacher.

“Generationally, I think we are more tolerant and I think we do behave better now, at least in my experiences that I’ve seen,” he said. “When I was in high school in the late 90s, there was no way that I would see an openly gay couple. Now, in this day and age, those things happen and, for the most part, nobody gives a rip, which is awesome to see. I mean, that’s just one little example … but I think we are raising our youth with more consciousness towards social tolerance.”

It’s possible, then, that the solution to the issue of violence among students — and particularly among athletes — in the spaces they’re meant to be the most safe isn’t so different from solutions to other social ills. There was a time that drunk driving, date rape, racism, misogyny and homophobia were far more accepted and tolerated within American society.

It took monumental, decades-long paradigm shifts in law and ways of thinking to see noticeable, meaningful changes. Ending the practice of hazing has the potential to have the same result if students and communities truly work together to see it end.


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