What the Sayreville Hazing Scandal Tells Us

It is a reckless and often dangerous behavior that undermines core values. It serves only to humiliate, bully, and degrade fellow human beings. Yet, hazing is a tradition that is condoned or tolerated in many group environments. It can be found in team sports, schools, fraternities, sororities, bands, clubs, and in the military. It is a practice seen worldwide.

Behavior Described as ‘Horrifying’

The issue has been in the news again with the arrest of seven members of the Sayreville (NJ) War Memorial High School football team. Those players face charges involving the alleged hazing and sexual assault of four of their teammates. As NJ.com reported, the allegations were first called “serious bullying and harassment” of young players on the team. From the charges filed, it is clear that the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office believes the criminal conduct went beyond a hazing ritual. The alleged assaults reportedly were carried out on younger players by upperclassmen on the team. What is alleged to have taken place during four separate incidents at the school between September 19 and September 29, truly is sickening.

The community is struggling to come to terms with what has happened. As NJ.com put it Sunday, “A week into the scandal, Sayreville officials and residents were still at a loss to explain how their celebrated football team — state sectional champs in three of the past four years — had suddenly become an emblem of the dark side of organized sports”.

Hazing Has No Useful Purpose

High school football plays a big role in the life of towns like Sayreville. It is a huge part of the identity of many towns across the United States. The traditions surrounding the sport can bring a community together. Others, like hazing, seem to exist solely because of tradition. Many people still view hazing as a mostly harmless tradition; a long-accepted rite of passage and form of bonding that only occasionally results in negative consequences. Perhaps this case in which hazing may have led to horrible conduct, will be the catalyst to bring an end to the practice.

A Pattern of Destructive Behavior

In sports and in society, we express surprise and anger when stories like this emerge. We wonder how 15-to-17 year old high school athletes could show such a lack of decency and regard for human dignity. But, this behavior is part of a pattern. Consider the other negative athlete-related stories we’ve seen reported in just the last month. Four high school football players were arrested for their alleged involvement in a series of armed robberies. The father of a youth football player was arrested for assaulting his son’s coach. There have been allegations of domestic violence, date rape, bullying, and cheating.

All of the stories share a common thread. They all involve values and character.

A Change in Emphasis is Needed

I believe that “What you focus on expands”. It is a universal principle and, to me, a logical one. Focusing on solutions rather than problems makes sense. A positive attitude is helpful in overcoming challenges. Positive or negative — “What you focus on expands”.

What has been our focus in sports and as a society? It clearly has been on winning, on getting results. We have emphasized to kids the importance of being competitive. The collective message has been that the world is tough and you have to fight for what you want. Success in life in measured by results, so you better learn what it takes to win. Whether it is getting good grades in school or producing on the playing field, we’ve concentrated on the outcomes. And, the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of “results”, that core values have been sacrificed in order to win. Too often, the vital element of character has been pushed aside. Given the ethical misconduct we’ve seen in nearly every area of life, do we really want to continue to send our kids the message that results are more important than the path to achieve them?

What Do Want Our Kids to Take Away From the Team Sports Experience?

Our mission with Even Field™ is to cultivate greater integrity and ethical behavior in sports and life. Our message is that the way you win, compete, reach goals, and do everything else in life matters.

We all want to win. But, we should remind ourselves that youth sports is more about life lessons than game scores. Our kids are observing how we react to stress, mistakes, and adversity. They are seeing how we behave in response to wins and losses.

What are the lessons our kids are learning? Are we promoting the importance of core values such as respect, responsibility, honesty, fairness, and compassion? Are we teaching, modeling, and reinforcing behaviors we want to see in our children?

Team sports can be a great training ground for young people to practice values-based behaviors that develop integrity. However, research shows that conveying values through sports depends largely on the coaches and parents. Our kids are watching us to see what we value in life. It is up to us to continually reinforce, through our actions and words, that high moral and ethical behavior is a top priority in our lives.

By improving the youth sports culture, we will produce not just better athletes, but better people.

We’ll have some thoughts on the best ways to do that, next time.

Photo Credit: AP Photo

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