Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dsyzdek/
Ian Forster, October 19, 2014
The Sayreville Bombers’ football season has been cancelled in the wake of team hazing allegations.[i] The accusations rocked the New Jersey high school and the Middlesex County community, a community passionate about its historically strong football team.[ii] There will be no Homecoming game, no Senior Night, and no celebratory lap around the field for players this season.[iii]
Sayreville football players have remained supportive of their team and teammates,[iv] and the community has united in the “healing process.”[v] But the shocking allegations suggest a harmful culture beyond Sayreville, and raise questions about football locker room behavior and conduct.
The Middlesex, New Jersey prosecutor has confirmed an ongoing criminal investigation into the Sayreville hazing accusations. Seven players, ages fifteen to seventeen, have been arrested on sexual criminal charges.[vi] The allegations involve upperclassmen assaulting younger teammates in a dark locker room, including possible sexual assault.[vii]
According to a joint statement from Middlesex County Prosecutor, Andrew Carey, and Sayreville Police Chief, John Zebrowski, the complaints allege upperclassmen “held victims against their will, while other juvenile defendants improperly touched the juvenile victims in a sexual manner.”[viii] Three players are accused of aggravated sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, conspiracy to commit aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal restraint, and hazing for engaging in an act of sexual penetration. Five players are charged with aggravated assault, conspiracy, aggravated criminal sexual contact, hazing and riot for their participation in the alleged attacks.[ix]
An Issue at All Levels
Locker room hazing and bullying occur at even the highest level of sports as evidenced by the incident between National Football League (NFL) players Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin during the 2013-2014 season.[x] In late October 2013, Martin abruptly left the Miami Dolphins after being hazed by Incognito and other teammates. In February 2014, the NFL released a report that included a text from Martin to Incognito reading, in part, “I don’t blame you guys at all it’s just the culture around football and the locker room got to me a little.”[xi]
Martin, the victim of Incognito’s systematic psychological torment, seemed to understand hazing and bullying as an accepted part of lock room culture.[xii] The fact that Martin’s situation and the national media coverage that it attracted did not inspire more locker room oversight is telling of the larger cultural forces that allow such conduct to occur in the first place.
By most accounts, hazing is a widespread and accepted aspect of competitive athletics.[xiii] Also, there is a troubling rise in reported hazing cases involving sexual assault by teammates.[xiv] It is unclear whether these increased reports reflect rising rates of hazing or simply an increased media presence, though many former athletes seem to agree that hazing is nothing new.[xv]
Dozens of locker room hazing cases have been reported nationally, including incidents in Colorado, Los Angeles, Iowa, Missouri, and Vermont, involving a pencil, a flagpole, a jump-rope handle, a water bottle, and pool cues, respectively.[xvi] When viewed in this context, the Sayreville allegations cannot be written off as isolated incidents of criminal conduct; instead, they reflect a dangerous and accepted hazing culture.[xvii]
Small Town Problems Representative of National Problems
When approached by reporters about the criminal investigation, a former Sayreville football player responded, “I don’t want to talk about it. Nobody wants to talk about it. I’m sorry. We are all waiting for it to go away.”[xviii]
Unfortunately, locker-room hazing will not simply go away. This out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude perpetuates the conduct. John Shara, a 56 year old Sayreville resident, added a thoughtful perspective on the Sayreville incident, while, at the same time, implying an acceptance of hazing in football: “[h]azing is hitting a kid with a towel or jockstrap. What we’re talking about here is not hazing, it’s criminal.”[xix]
Changing the hazing culture requires more than reactionary NFL reports and criminal charges. Communities, school administrators, teammates, and coaches must actively attempt to educate and protect their players. At every level, competitive athletics provide an opportunity to teach athletes important life lessons, such as cooperation and respect.[xx] Coaches and players should focus on teamwork and support, not fear and intimidation.
[i] See Emily Kaplan and Greg Hanlon, Football-Centric Town of Sayreville Divided by Lewd Hazing Allegations, SI.com (Oct. 7, 2014), http://www.si.com/high-school/2014/10/07/sayreville-high-school-football-investigation-hazing (last updated Oct. 14, 2014) (noting that hazing incidents went “beyond any reasonable definition of harmless and fun”).
[ii] See id. (quoting seventeen-year-old Sayreville High School student band member William Simmons, “Football runs this school, that’s all everyone cares about. Football, football [sic] football.”).
[iii] See id. (noting Sayreville Bombers have won three of past four state championships and were in middle of another strong season before news of hazing broke).
[iv] See id. (quoting Sayreville High School freshman, “Things have been blown out of proportion. We know the players, and hazing, to them, they didn’t mean it in that way. It was more like being friends.”).
[v] See Ben Brumfield, 7 High School Players Face Sexual Assault Charges Over Alleged Locker Room Hazing, CNN (Oct. 11, 2014), http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/11/us/new-jersey-football-abuse-scandal/index.html (last updated Oct. 13, 2014, 10:17 AM) (reporting Mayor Kennedy O’Brien announcing creation of Sayreville Coalition of Community Leadership, which will include clergymen and former mayors); see id (noting Coalition members organized and attended an anti-bullying community event in wake of hazing scandal).
[vi] See Harvey Araton, Cancellation of High School Football Season Leads Sayreville To Ask What Happens Next, N.Y. Times (Oct. 11, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/sports/in-sayreville-a-football-seasons-cancellation-leads-to-quiet-and-questions.html?_r=0 (quoting district superintendent Richard Labbe, “As should be evident by now, the Sayreville Board of Education takes this matter extremely seriously and thus will continue to make the safety and welfare of our students, particularly the victims of these horrendous alleged acts, out highest priority.”). Mr. Labbe is a former Sayreville High School Football player and assistant coach and had previously discussed his own sons’ exposure to hazing. See id.
[vii] See Brumfield, supra note 5. (quoting district superintended Mike Labbe, “These were incidents of harassment, intimidation that took place on a pervasive level, in which the players knew, tolerated and in general accepted.”).
[viii] See Araton, supra note 6 (noting SI.com article investigating allegations concluded penetration likely took place but intercourse did not occur).
[ix] See id. (citing Middlesex Prosecutor’s statement).
[x] See Mike Chiari, Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito Investigation Report Released, Bleacher Report (Feb. 14, 2014), http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1960345-jonathan-martin-richie-incognito-investigation-report-released (reporting “three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a patter of harassment directed at not only Jonathan Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman and an assistant trainer.”). The NFL Report concluded that the hazing included “racially derogatory language” as well as “homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching.” See id.
[xi] See Ryan Van Bibber, The Worst of the Richie Incognito / Jonathan Martin Report, SB Nation (Feb. 14, 2014, 11:27 AM), http://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2014/2/14/5411608/worst-of-the-richie-incognito-jonathan-martin-report-miami-dolphins (discussing selections from NFL-appointed investigator Ted Wells’s report, which concluded that Ingonitio’s and other Dolphins players’ hazing of Martin did lead to Martin’s decision to leave team and contributed to Martin’s declining mental health and suicidal thoughts).
[xii] See Tim Keown, Twisted Viewpoint: Wells Report Reflects How Incognito’s Bullying Warped Martin’s Self-Perspective, ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/10458194/wells-report-reveals-how-richie-incognito-bullying-warped-jonathan-martin-perspective (last updated Feb. 14, 2014, 5:53 PM) (reporting Dolphins locker room as “a toxic place among toxic places, and Martin – a man uniquely unsuited to deal with the savagery – wasn’t the only one who was poisoned”).
[xiii] See Brian Armen Graham, This Shocking High School Football Scandal is Everything Wrong with Hazing Culture, Sports.Mic (Oct. 9, 2014) http://mic.com/articles/100988/this-shocking-high-school-football-scandal-is-everything-wrong-with-hazing-culture (noting an Alfred University study found that eighty percent of college athletes had been hazed); see also Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, Hazing Cancels Sayreville, N.J., Football Season: Does Culture Contribute to Abuse?, Christian Science Monitor (Oct. 10, 2014), http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2014/1010/Hazing-cancels-Sayreville-N.J.-football-season-Does-culture-contribute-to-abuse-video (noting that forty-seven percent of high school students experience some form of hazing and, among high school boys, twenty-six percent experience sexual violence from their male peers, according to 2009 report from Journal of Youth and Adolescence).
[xiv] See Kathleen O’Brian, Sayreville Allegations Not unique as Experts See Increase in Anal-Penetration Hazing, NJ.com (Oct. 10, 2014, 8:38 AM) http://www.nj.com/middlesex/index.ssf/2014/10/sayreville_football_hazing_not_unique.html (last updated Oct. 15, 2014, 11:37 AM) (quoting Mary Madden, former co-director of National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention at University of Maine, Orono: “More and more we’re seeing this among male high school athletes, where this is their mode of hazing: some kind of sexual assault that involves anal penetration.”).
[xv] See Mike Kelly, Sayreville Football Hazing Case a Sad Reminder of Past Attacks, NorthJersey.com (Oct. 18, 2014, 11:46 AM), http://www.northjersey.com/news/kelly-sayreville-football-hazing-case-a-sad-reminder-of-past-attacks-1.1112530 (last updated Oct. 19, 2014, 10:27 AM) (discussing multiple past criminal assault cases in high school hazing incidents and arguing that “locker room secrecy sometimes bred behavior that was vulgar and even potentially criminal” but more serious action must be taken to prevent dangerous locker room hazing).
[xvi] See O’Brian, supra note 14 (noting experts agree hazing “traditions” typically escalate due to “one-upsmanship” that each grade brings to practices).
[xvii] See Graham, supra note 13 (quoting Stuart Green, Director of New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, claiming “bullying and harassment . . . are often treated as individual instances instead of potential systemic problems”).
[xviii] See Kaplan and Hanlon, supra note 1 (discussing Sayreville community support for team and players).
[xix] See Araton, supra note 6 (noting Mr. Shara added, “If it’s true, they should shut it down for five years. I mean, how do you leave 60 or 70 kids alone in a locker room?”).
[xx] See Keown, supra note 12 (alleging Dolphins head coach, Joe Philbin, acted with “benign incompetence,” not realizing he was “presiding over the most disrespectful and counterproductive workplace in American sports”).