I remember well my initiation into the high school Lettermen Club.
At my school, you didn’t automatically qualify by risking life and limb on a football field or doing endless wind sprints on a basketball court. Those things were important enough to earn a letter your mom could sew on a sweater. But to prove your valor and qualify for the vaunted club, one step remained. You had to spend a day at school dressed as a girl.
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From the more enlightened view of the 21st century, there are a number of problems with this right of entry. The most obvious would be that my high school included several young women who had earned letters in sports of various kinds. We never thought about them because, well, the Lettermen Club wasn’t for letterladies, even if they dressed as girls every day of the week.
Beyond that, cross-dressing just wasn’t as loaded with cultural, discriminatory and politically correct considerations in the 1970s as it is today.
Still, what we endured wasn’t anywhere near what young first-year wrestlers at Bountiful High School had to endure recently on a bus. As the Deseret News reported, two 15-year-old wrestlers were pinned down, punched between the legs and subjected to other painful, discomforting and humiliating rituals that ended with a triumphant, “Welcome to the team.”
To casual observers, it’s probably no surprise that the perpetrators now are receiving their own welcome to courtrooms, charged with various counts of sexual battery and hazing.
What is surprising is that the perpetrators, both 18-year-old former students and wrestlers, didn’t think their actions might be criminal.
So much for the lessons society has tried to hand down through years of bitter experiences.
Twenty-two long years have passed since Utah made national news with a shocking case of hazing at Sky View High School in Smithfield, near Logan. Football players grabbed sophomore backup quarterback Brian Seamons and used tape to bind him naked to a towel rack after a shower. Then they brought his homecoming date into the locker room to show her what they had done.
Seamons sued after school officials failed to take appropriate action, and after he was suspended from the team for, as the coach described it, his own safety. A jury eventually (more than seven years later) awarded him $250,000.
At the time, the Logan Herald Journal quoted Seamons as saying, “With this lawsuit … we wanted to get out the word that this isn’t right, and I think we did that.”
So much for that strategy.
Search Google for “hazing” and marvel at what comes up. Earlier this week I found stories out of California about a video showing young ladies on a high school softball team being forced to eat dirt. I found a story from Cincinnati.com about young baseball players undergoing a ritual involving urine and a microwave. I found a story from the Portland Tribune in Oregon about high school teachers being investigated for initiating students into a Leadership class.
No, you don’t have to be an athlete to get hazed. And no, hazing is not a new public crisis.
If you have the patience and the access to archives, you can find examples far into the dusty recesses of time. The earliest example I found was a correspondent’s description of hazing at West Point in the New York Times, dated June 7, 1873. It was accompanied by an editorial lamenting that this practice never would disappear because young men “are not perfect gentlemen.”
Except, of course, that these imperfect gentlemen, and women, can hurt, or even (history is full of examples) kill.
What will it take to finally end a ritual with such staying power? What will it take for each rising generation to innately know the line that separates fun from bullying?
I don’t have the answer. I am, however, certain that editorial writers through the ages might have been similarly resigned to the evils of smoking, and we somehow managed to make that culturally unacceptable. The failures of the past don’t always predict the future.