Rookie hazing in sports is back in the news because of two recent incidents in the NFL. One was Cowboys rookie receiver Dez Bryant refusing to take part in the long-standing tradition of carrying a veteran's pads at preseason practice. The other was Broncos rookie quarterback Tim Tebow getting a haircut that made him look like Friar Tuck of Robin Hood fame. Bryant was mostly criticized for his refusal to take part in the hazing. Tebow was mostly praised for his good-natured acceptance. Reactions to Bryant and Tebow renewed the debate on hazing in sports. Some see it as a harmless tradition that builds team unity; opponents see it as bullying. Today we look at hazing in sports, from the playful to the serious.
Bryant and Tebow
At every level of football, first-year players are asked to carry the pads of an older player. When Cowboys receiver Roy Williams asked rookie first-round draft pick Dez Bryant to carry his gear at a practice last month, Bryant refused. Bryant said, "I'm not doing it. I feel like I was drafted to play football, not carry another player's pads.'' Some criticized Bryant for acting bigger than the game and his teammates. ESPN Radio's Mike Golic, who said his head was shaved when he was an NFL rookie, called the practice "not mature'' but also criticized Bryant. Others applauded Bryant for standing up for himself and renewed their argument against hazing.
Last week, when Broncos rookie first-round pick Tim Tebow had the middle of his head shaved, the quarterback told the media, "I think all the rookies had a good time with it. It was something to give everybody a laugh, something also to build chemistry."
Regardless of whether you think hazing is harmless or dangerous, this is true: Bryant's refusal to carry Williams' pads will be remembered for longer than it will take Tebow's hair to grow back. Rightly or wrongly, Bryant's reputation probably has taken a hit outside and inside the game.
Baseball hazing usually involves making players dress up in costumes during a road trip. The Rays, like many teams, have their rookies dress as women. Evan Longoria, David Price and others have taken part in good humor. Some teams get creative with their dressup. The Padres once made their rookies dress like Hooters girls. The Yankees have had players dress as characters from Batman and The Wizard of Oz . The 2008 Red Sox had their rookies dress up as characters from High School Musical.
Sing a song
Aside from carrying equipment, the most widespread form of hazing is making a player sing at a team lunch or dinner, usually his alma mater's fight song. Some teams make the singing a bit harder. Last year the NBA's Hornets turned their training camp into American Idol in a gym packed with spectators. Then-rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton were forced to sing Beyonce's Single Ladies.
On his blog, Collison wrote, "At first it was embarrassing, but then when they started encouraging us, it became a little bit more fun. It's all fun and games, anyway, I've just never had to do anything like that before. Hopefully our team comes together and we can use the experiences — however embarrassing they might be! — to help us win a bunch of games this year.''
For what it's worth, the Hornets went 37-45 and missed the playoffs after two consecutive winning seasons. But Collison and Thornton made the all-rookie team.
Stay right there
The NFL's other big tradition is taping players to the goal post. Sometimes being taped is the hazing, and sometimes it's punishment for not participating in another form of hazing. For example, in 2008, the Titans hazed rookies by playing the dizzy bat race: You put the fat end of a baseball bat on the ground, put your forehead on the knob and spin around the bat 10 or so times. Then you run while your equilibrium is out of whack. But the Titans rookies too injured to play were taped to the goal posts. What's so bad about that? They were soaked with practically anything the veterans could get their hands on, including water, cut grass, mustard, ketchup and flour.
Picking up the check
Hockey's hazing usually involves rookies paying for an expensive team dinner, with veterans ordering everything on the menu, including the most expensive bottles of wine and champagne. The Lightning once ran up an $18,000 bill. When former Lightning-now Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle was a rookie with the Panthers, he and five others had to shell out $4,000 apiece. In the NFL, the Chargers' Shawne Merriman claimed he once picked up a $32,000 tab. By hazing standards, this appears to be the least humiliating. In fact, longtime NHL veteran Tim Taylor once said it does build team unity and doesn't embarrass a player like shaving his hair or making him lug equipment.
"This really is a great thing," Taylor said after the Lightning's 2006 team dinner. "As a rookie, you sort of feel good about treating your teammates and you get to enjoy it as well. We're all in it together, doing the same thing."
Plus, there's a secret: If the tab gets too high, a well-paid veteran quietly chips in some dough.
From playful to dangerous
The NFL's Saints used to have a tradition of making players run a gantlet in which they were hit with bags of coins. In 1998, Cam Cleeland suffered a serious eye injury, and fellow rookie Jeff Danish required stitches. Danish got more than even. He sued the Saints, an assistant coach and six players, seeking damages of more than $650,000. The suit was settled out of court, and terms were confidential. As far as team-building, well, the Saints went 6-10 that season. And, needless to say, they don't run the gantlet anymore.
Even former NFL good guy Joe Montana hazed rookies. Back in the days when the 49ers rode bikes to the practice fields, Montana would steal the rookies' bikes and hide them in trees. But come to think of it, stealing a bike, pedaling it into hiding and then carrying it halfway up a tree sounds more like he was hazing himself, doesn't it?
One of hockey's most infamous hazing incidents involved a current Lightning player. When Steve Downie was playing junior hockey in Canada, his team, the Windsor Spitfires, would make first-year players (who were 16 at the time) strip naked and stand in a small bathroom in the back of the team bus. One player, Akim Aliu, refused, and the story goes that Downie then attacked Aliu in practice. Aliu lost three teeth when Downie cross-checked him in the face. The team's coach and GM, former NHLer Moe Mantha, was suspended as GM for a year and as coach for 25 games, and Downie was suspended for five games and ordered to attend counseling sessions.
It appears that the most serious hazing happens at lower rungs of sports. In high schools and small colleges, hazing can be obscene and sickening. A glance through ESPN.com's archives reveals more than 70 incidents, and the worst include sexual assault. And yet even in some of those incidents, community and school officials chalked them up to a long-standing tradition of hazing.