When two Centennial High School junior varsity soccer players were injured in an Aug. 31 hazing incident, the school acted quickly to suspend the 14 varsity players involved and send a clear message that athletic hazing is out of bounds.
If only it were that simple.
Initiation rites have been around as long as human beings have been forming hierarchies, and hazing long ago found a comfortable home in scholastic athletics. Though it has been criticized in recent years, it apparently has not decreased in popularity among young athletes.
Alfred University released a survey two weeks ago that indicated more than 75 percent of the 325,000 NCAA athletes who participated in intercollegiate sports during the 1998-99 school year had to undergo some form of hazing to join a college athletic team, and one in five of the athletes surveyed reported being subjected to hazing that crossed the line between harmless hi-jinks and potentially dangerous or illegal activity.
No recent study has gauged the frequency of hazing at the high school level, but there have been enough publicized incidents over the past few years to indicate that it is a nationwide problem.
The Centennial soccer incident is the second hazing controversy to make headlines in the Baltimore area this decade, though it pales next to the ugly 1994 incident in which a baseball player at McDonogh High allegedly poured urine on the head of an underclassman, then was viciously attacked by the victim's brother.
Military academies routinely encourage hazing to toughen up young cadets, a practice that is believed to enhance group unity and morale, but similar practices that were once condoned in the athletic arena have fallen victim to a decided shift in societal attitudes toward discipline in the second half of the 20th century.
"There is no gray area between tradition and hazing," said former Centennial soccer coach Bill Stara, who left Centennial four years ago to coach at River Hill High in Howard County. "Tradition is building a program. Hazing is trying to intimidate a group of people.
"I don't believe in it. I never have, and it will never happen on a team I'm coaching. Building a program means that the older players look out for the younger ones, not terrorize them. If you've trained the older players well, you don't have problems."
Second-year Dulaney soccer coach Steve Shaw agrees.
"I'd rather not have guys singling out younger players and making them feel like others on the team are against them," Shaw said. "Does tearing guys down for the sake of the team make the group come together better? I don't buy into that."
Though rough practice methods remain common in high school and college football, coaches are quick to delineate the harsh regimen that builds aggressiveness and endurance from unsupervised attempts to intimidate or humiliate teammates.
"I always said that if I thought hazing would help us beat Loyola or Calvert Hall or Gilman, I'd be the first in line," said retired football coach Augie Waibel, "but we know that hazing doesn't help you win football games.
'Lack of discipline'
"This [incident] will squash things for a while, but it [hazing] will rear its head again. In today's society, there's such a lack of discipline that every once in a while schools must remind players of what is acceptable behavior."
Maryland is one of the 34 states that has an anti-hazing law. The Maryland statute states: "A person who hazes a student so as to cause serious bodily injury to the student at any school, college or university is guilty of a misdemeanor and, on conviction, is subject to a fine of not more than $500, or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both."
No charges were filed after the incident at Centennial High, in which 12 junior varsity players were forced to bend over while teammates punted soccer balls at them.
The "butts up" soccer ritual that led to the mass suspension has been a common practice on prep and youth soccer teams for years, though the Aug. 31 incident apparently was performed in an unusually aggressive manner -- with the upperclassmen punting the balls from close range instead of kicking the balls off the ground from farther away.
One player suffered a concussion when he was hit in the face and another suffered a hand injury, but both are back practicing with the junior varsity team.
"In the old days, you'd see bottoms-up as part of a competitive practice," said former Liberty High varsity boys soccer coach Lee Kestler, who now coaches the junior varsity.
"Losers would line up on the [goal] line and shots would be taken from far away. In most cases, the shooters were so bad the balls would end up in the right corner, instead. But it's gone away up here. We got a complaint about it being a humiliating experience, so we knocked it off."
One former high school player from the Columbia area, who asked not to be identified, said that the "butts up" drill has been employed in the area's youth soccer program at age-group levels as low as 11 years old, under the supervision of coaches. But it was done under much more controlled conditions, with players from the winning scrimmage squad allowed one kick each from 12 yards.
Longtime Sparrows Point High School coach and athletic director Mitch Moon also acknowledged that informal "bottoms up" drills have taken place in the Sparrows Point gym, but not as a pecking-order initiation rite.
"I've seen kids do that 'butt' stuff," Moon said. "Last year, three or four varsity kids took turns kicking the ball at each other, right after school. A couple of them were leaning against the wall, and the others were at midcourt taking shots. I don't think any of them got hit, but my office is in the gym and we stopped it. All you need is a good lawsuit coming against you.
Incident in '94
"They said they do it all the time. It was like a joke to them."
Moon is more concerned about the mentality that leads to the more egregious forms of hazing that have made headlines in recent years, like the 1994 incident in which McDonogh baseball player Adam Vasilakis allegedly poured urine on an underclassman during a team trip to Orlando, Fla., then was assaulted by the victim's brother.
Michael Ryan Working pleaded guilty to one count of battery and was ordered to pay Vasilakis' medical expenses.
"Seniors are the worst ones [for hazing]," Moon said. "Sometimes, they forget they are part of the human race. It's like, whatever they want to do is fine. They don't have to obey the rules."
"I think it happens at other schools. I can't believe Centennial is the only school where this happens. It's part of the mentality of the times. The violence in schools. And the more publicity it gets, the greater the chance of it happening again."
The challenge for the coaches is to end a cycle that may have been going on at some schools for many years, even generations.
"You'd like to think the varsity players are mature, respected and that they understand what sport is supposed to be about," said Bob Maxey, the athletic director and baseball coach at Hammond High, "but the reason why seniors become a pain in the butt is because for three years, they've been the ones harassed, and by the time they're seniors, they want to do it to someone else."
North Carroll High wrestling coach Bryan Wetzel remembers undergoing an extensive rite of passage when he made the varsity wrestling squad at Curwensville High in central Pennsylvania in the mid-1980s.
"After you got that first varsity letter, you had to dress like a woman to get into the [varsity] club -- a dress, lipstick, panty hose and combat boots. By the lockers, they would smash eggs over your head and dump motor oil. Then you would march to the park and wrestle around in this pit full of pig [manure].
"My dad had to do the same thing back in the '60s. It was tradition and nobody ever got hurt. But the year after I graduated, one person complained and they did away with it. That stuff just doesn't occur anymore with all the political correctness."
Once more accepted
Of course, the incident at Centennial High and a number of other well-publicized incidents at high schools around the country prove that hazing remains common, though the incidence of severe hazing rituals -- relative to previous generations -- is difficult to determine since most incidents go unreported.
"Back when I was in high school -- about 100 years ago -- it was more accepted and you knew darn well if you were a freshman or a sophomore, the older guys would take you out somewhere and tie you up," said Westminster wrestling coach Henry Mohlenrich.
"When I first got the coaching job at Westminster, it was made clear to me there were no initiations. But there's still a pecking order in the wrestling room -- tying shoes together and stuff like that may go on -- until a coach walks in."
There is little evidence that any local high school coaches condone initiation rites that involve physical abuse of freshman players. Most of the incidents that have made headlines around the country over the past decade have taken place outside the supervision of the coaches.
"We [coaches] all became very conscious of hazing when the McDonogh incident occurred," said former Perry Hall cross country coach Jerry Martin. "This incident gets attention and now kids who never thought of that are probably out there thinking up some of their own.
"That seems to be the way the adolescent mind works. What seems like a bad idea to a 50-year-old sometimes seems like a good idea to someone who's 14. Kids don't think about the consequences until after the incident occurs."
Martin thinks the only thing a coach can do is make it clear that there will be zero tolerance for any form of hazing.
"You draw the line at nothing," he said. "There's no such thing as benign hazing. Coaches can't afford to take a million-dollar chance [risking a lawsuit] when they've got a 10-cent job. The scary thing for coaches is, you've got to know what's happening before you can stop it, and kids are close-mouthed about it."
Serious hazing incidents involving female athletes at the high school level are relatively rare -- infrequent enough that the new Independent Athletic Association of Maryland, a coalition of private school girls programs, does not even mention hazing in its bylaws.
Mercy athletic director Mary Ella Marion, who was president of the girls Catholic League last year before it merged with the Association of Independent Schools to form IAAM, said that the issue just never came up.
"That's a word that has never come up in any conversation I've had in seven years as athletic director," Marion said.
Dulaney physical education department chairperson Nancy Woodside also could not recall any serious incidents involving girls athletics, but has witnessed some non-physical "pecking order" initiation rites at the high school level.
"They've been more like some type of initiation," she said, "just like dressing up in some kind of way. They've had to wear certain things to school like pigtails, outfits that don't match or pajamas."
Julia Malinowski, who starred at John Carroll before playing college soccer at Arkansas, knew all about the initiation rites that awaited the freshman boys, who were annually dunked in a pond behind the Bel Air school during a distance run across campus, but never saw the practice extended to the girls team.
"It was apparent and very well known that guys got pushed into the pond," Malinowski said. "That was really big among the boys in football, soccer, everything. It very well might have happened to some girls, but it didn't happen to me. Being a freshman on varsity, we didn't have anything like that."
Apparently, however, athletic hazing in women's sports -- particularly involving alcoholic beverages -- is far more prevalent at the college level, where the Alfred University survey revealed that 77 percent of NCAA athletes (both male and female) have experienced some form of hazing to join an athletic team and that women were more likely to be involved in alcohol-related hazing than in other forms.
Sun staff writers Rick Belz, Katherine Dunn, Glenn P. Graham, Jamison Hensley, Pat O'Malley and Stan Rappaport contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 9/17/99