Bonding or Bullying? Does Hazing Build Character?

Over the past few days, allegations of bullying and extreme hazing have rocked the Miami Dolphins football team and the NFL in general. Although few defend Richie Incognito's alleged treatment of offensive line teammate, Jonathan Martin, some NFL players have blamed Martin for deserting his team and publicly criticizing a teammate. FOX Sports NFL Insider Mike Garafolo reported that some Dolphin's coaches knew about the hazing and thought that it might help to toughen Martin up. Many NFL players and former players support that view. Football is violent game and requires extraordinary mental as well as physical toughness. Moreover, enduring hardships together builds lasting bonds of friendship. To some, Martin appears selfish, weak and whiny. They argue that others have put up with all kinds of harassment, and ask why he feels that he is special and how he can be so disloyal to his team. The complaints against Martin appeal to a commonsense view of character development and are deeply rooted in American culture.

I hear these arguments routinely in the clinics that I give to youth and high school coaches of all sports as well as in the class that I give to teachers and school administrators. They certainly ring true on one level. We live in a rough and tumble world. We can't count on others looking after us or caring about our feelings. We have to develop a thick skin, earn what respect we get, and wait our turn to boss others around. Above all, we have to learn to be loyal to those who hold power.

As an educational psychologist, I have been fascinated by how quickly children learn how to adapt to the cruelty and insensitivity of elders, as well as peers. We know a great deal about the resilience that children can develop in the most adverse of circumstances. However, the fact that those children can develop the inner resources to hold up under oppressive conditions should not be used to minimize the evil or the harm that they are forced to endure. We know that children and adults suffer when their basic sense of dignity is assaulted by repeated acts of degradation and humiliation. Persons, whether they are children or adults, have an inalienable human right to be respected. True bonding is built on mutual respect, not on fear and coercion.

Discussing concrete cases helps to expose distorted views of loyalty and toughness that protect those in power at the expense of their victims. There are many young athletes playing at the high school and college level who feel incapable of walking away from abusive peers and coaches (however benign their intentions may be) for fear of prematurely ending their sports careers. We should acknowledge abuse for what it is and take decisive action to root it out-- without having to wait for another Jonathan Martin.