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With The Devastating Psychological Effects Of Hazing, USC Has Precautions In Place

Marah Alindogan |
October 13, 2014 | 5:29 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

It seems like football can’t catch a break these days.

Scandal — and a cancelled season — has struck the small town of Sayreville, New Jersey, after details surfaced of seven of its football players at Sayreville War Memorial High School hazing their own teammates. 

The student-athletes, who range from 15 to 17 years old, will appear in court this week for sex-crime charges.

Shedding light on a taboo subject, Sayreville War Memorial High School shows hazing exists everywhere, even in a small town unknown to most of the general population. With the psychological effects of hazing described by sports psychologists as "potentially devastating," the University of Southern California’s student-athlete policy on hazing shows preventative measures that makes sure the program is not the next target. 

Historically, sports — from the high school to the professional ranks — has been consistently associated with acts of hazing. For some, hazing has been normalized as something that is seen as a part of the game because of the violent and aggressive nature of athletics. However, sports psychologist Dr. Mitch Abrams says that there is no truth in the idea that athletes are more likely to participate in hazing than non-athletes. 

“A lot of people talk about athletes being more violent that non-athletes. Hazing is something that we have seen in many branches of society and what they have in common with sports is that the culprits tend to be males in groups and sometimes there is alcohol involved,” says Abrams.

Sports psychologist Dr. Casey Cooper says that hazing is not an act of sex, but rather, an act of domination.

“The goal of the hazing is to establish who is top male and for others to accept their position in terms of who is the top male and who is not. The most extreme form of extorting maleness over someone else is in those types of physical acts,” said Cooper. 

Likewise, Abrams says that hazing exists because of the common misconception that it results in building team camaraderie. He, however,  begs to differ. 

“We know that traumatic bonding is very powerful. When people go to a potentially traumatizing experience together they tend to be more closer knit. What people don't consider: What is the intent?” said Abrams. 

Most cases of hazing inside and outside of the sports arena occur within groups of adolescents. 

It is no coincidence. 

Because an adolescent’s brain does not fully develop until they reach adulthood, it can lead to poor decision making. 

USC Football has strict precautions to deter hazing. (Flickr/Neon Tommy)
USC Football has strict precautions to deter hazing. (Flickr/Neon Tommy)

Developmental psychologist Dr. Erin Pahlke says that matters of hazing are influenced by the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This development happens over the course of adolescence and plays a significant role in decision making and cognitive control. 

“Decisions that involve prefrontal cortex involvement, like the decision of whether or not to participate in a hazing situation when all of your teammates are egging you on, can take adolescents longer to reason through,” says Pahlke. 

On the other hand, the maturation of the brain’s limbic system, which controls one’s emotional responses, happens at a much earlier stage of adolescence. Thus, adolescents are far better at expressing their emotions and memories of events that invoke a strong emotional response. 

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“Though adolescents have the capability to regulate their behavior and evaluate complex situations, in the heat of the moment, particularly when peers are present, they sometimes make choices that are consistent with what will bring them pleasure rather than what makes sense in the grand scheme of costs and benefits,” said Pahlke. 

As the Sayreville football team scandal has shown, adolescents and those participating in group activities are more prone to experience hazing. 

Collegiate and high school athletic programs should take notice. 

The USC athletic program sure does. 

USC has strict policies in place to make sure they won’t be the next program struck with a hazing scandal of its own. In its student-athlete handbook, the USC athletic department has a policy that does not tolerate any form of hazing. Specifically, the handbook refers to the State of California Education Code:

“No student, or any other person in attendance at any public, private, parochial, or military school, community college, college, or other educational institution, shall conspire to engage in hazing, participate in hazing, or commit any act that causes or is likely to cause bodily danger, physical harm, or personal degradation or disgrace resulting in physical or mental harm to any fellow student or person attending the institution.”

When a situation of hazing does occur, the USC athletic department procedure involves a thorough investigation of the incident to determine the proper punishment, which includes a meeting with the involved individuals, coaches, the athletic director and other school officials. 

If USC’s extensive and stringent hazing policy is not enough to convince athletes of the negative repercussions of such a violent act, the psychological effects might. The effect that hazing has on a victim has the potential to be devastating and last well beyond the incident. 

“With trauma, it’s ultimately in the eyes of the victim. There are some people that will go through hazing and will come out of it completely unscathed with no psychological effects and no damage at all. They will even say they are better off for it. Others will have full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares, flashbacks, an exaggerated startle response, low-level paranoia, irritability, difficulty sleeping — the list can go on and on,” said Abrams. 

Likewise, Cooper says that shame, guilt and denial are commonplace for hazing victims. 

“It’s a very shocking experience. There is a lot of shame attached to being dominated in that way. A lot of the time they never report it to anyone. A lot of the people are surprised and they shouldn't be. Things like hazing have been handed down to such cultures because it has been an unspoken type of ritual among groups,” said Cooper. 

The key in avoiding scandals in the first place? Prevention.

Abrams, who works five minutes away from Sayreville War Memorial High School expressed shocked that he has not received a phone call from the school yet. 

“The issue is, people want to stick their heads in the sand and act [like] it’s not happening. There are ways to come out of this intact. All of us have to own our piece of this. If we saw it and didn’t say anything, we are a part of it. If we knew about it and didn’t say anything, we failed our players,” said Abrams.

Abrams added, “Prevention is a whole lot cheaper.”

Contact staff reporter Marah Alindogan here and follow her on Twitter here.



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