For the Good of the Team?

[editor's note: These views on the subject belong solely to Steven Clark and do not reflect the views of the TotalMLS staff]

On Februrary 1st, shortly after noon in the locker room, three FC Dallas rookies were subjected to a “rookie haircut” given by veteran teammates. FC Dallas Twitter posted the pictures of the players with their hair shaved, twirled, and snipped off in an embarrassing fashion, with the former owners of the hair half-smiling during the process. The team account later re-tweeted a video of one of the rookies, Reggie Cannon, standing in the center of the locker room while the camera operator circles around him while Cannon stares sheepishly at the floor.

Reactions to the tweets ranged from shared delight along with the cheeky phrasing used by FC Dallas, to disdain at the cruelty to the young athletes. Additionally, fans egged the team and other rookies on that weren’t pictured to “see what you’ve got,” expecting the rest of the young players to engage in the activity.

FC Dallas, MLS are not the only participants in this preseason ritual. NFL, MLB, and other major professional sports also participate in activities that target rookies specifically, including the Denver Broncos also shaving the heads of their new young stars and many MLB teams pushing their rookies out onto the field with ridiculous outfits and costumes.

On the surface, these rituals – or “traditions” – seem to be a bunch of light-natured fun in initiating the new athletes into the team. Newly initiated players, by participating in the activity, can prove to the team veterans that they can be trusted on and off the field with being a teammate, no matter what the sacrifice. However, such actions could be damaging to the players, the team, and even the league. And while not explicitly stated so by the participating members of said act or those that facilitate it, these actions are, by definition, hazing.

Hazing is defined as the imposition of humiliating tasks or actions upon the body of the initiate in order to be accepted into a group. Participants are forced – even if only by implication – to do said tasks, or to be potentially ostracized by the group for not having faith or loyalty in those within it. Hazing has been a method used throughout history by groups of all types, including but not limited to: sports teams, college fraternities and sororities, and the military. Such activities can be light-hearted fun, such as dressing up in costume, to undressing completely in front of an entire group, to being tied up, and even to being beaten in. Further extremes have been taken by groups, resulting in activities too graphic to detail in this article. Jail time has been served for some of the offenders forcing the act on the initiates, but many cases go unreported as the initiate wishes to either not divulge the information as to not be cast out from the group itself. Some cases even result in death of the initiate.

In athletics, hazing has been used on rookies or freshman of the team enacted by senior members, and sometimes condoned by the coaching staff themselves. At one time, these acts were accepted and allowed by the organizations, as they felt it created camaraderie and trust between the veterans of the team and those coming up willing to prove themselves to the team. The rituals, unfortunately, in some cases became more creative and outlandish, worse and worse over time, resulting in more humiliating activity and sometimes violence and personal harm to initiates and others. Eventually, the NCAA decided to crack down on hazing, instituting a nationwide policy in 2007 in an attempt to prevent hazing rituals and educate those on the effects hazing can have. The new policy outlined what the organization considered a hazing practice, as well as the roles of coaches and athletes in preventing and responding to incidents.

Professionally, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association are the only North American leagues with any hazing policy.

In 2013, the NBA proactively stepped forward with a league-wide memo after a story surfaced from the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins regarding locker room bullying of a rookie Jonathan Martin by former teammate Richie Incognito. Martin was regularly harassed by Incognito throughout his rookie season and the following year, resulting in emotional instability and hospitalization, and then sitting out the remainder of the season. Incognito was suspended by the Dolphins for “conduct detrimental to the team,” to which Incognito reacted by sending death threats to Martin and his family via personal text messages (Martin attempted to continue playing, but lasted only one more year professionally followed by a stint as a practice squad member for other teams until having to retire; Incognito remains a professional athlete today with the Buffalo Bills). The NBA responded by instilling a list of violations that would mitigate any locker room interference such as bullying or hazing after seeing the media response to the Dolphins scandal. The NFL has yet to release a hazing policy.

In 2013, the NBA proactively stepped forward with a league-wide memo after a story surfaced from the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins regarding locker room bullying of a rookie Jonathan Martin by former teammate Richie Incognito. Martin was regularly harassed by Incognito throughout his rookie season and the following year, resulting in emotional instability and hospitalization, and then sitting out the remainder of the season. Incognito was suspended by the Dolphins for “conduct detrimental to the team,” to which Incognito reacted by sending death threats to Martin and his family via personal text messages (Martin attempted to continue playing, but lasted only one more year professionally followed by a stint as a practice squad member for other teams until having to retire; Incognito remains a professional athlete today with the Buffalo Bills). The NBA responded by instilling a list of violations that would mitigate any locker room interference such as bullying or hazing after seeing the media response to the Dolphins scandal. The NFL has yet to release a hazing policy.

The MLB hazing policy, however, was instituted as a response rather than one that was proactive. For many years, teams within the league created a tradition of dressing their rookies in outlandish outfits, sometimes with a theme such as Disney princesses or Wizard of Oz as just two examples. The issues arose when the pictures that were shared on social media were met with backlash by a major demographic in their fan base, women. Many teams that dressed their rookies did so in the attempt to degrade or humiliate them, typically deciding on a theme that required an abundance of women’s clothing, such as Hooters girls uniforms or dancer’s tights. The gesture was seen as degrading to women in general, which it was. Major League Baseball drafted a policy that focused mainly on not the behavior of degrading the players, but because of the offensive effect the act has on the fans and not also because the behavior may have had an effect on the players.. The league was more concerned about revenue streams than player’s emotional well-being by having been subjected to a humiliating practice.

Major League Soccer, as I can discover, has no policy regarding hazing at all, or at least publicly.

The impact of hazing on a player of any league at any level of competition should not be taken lightly, no matter what the act is. In a general case of hazing, the majority of veterans will coerce the smaller group of rookies to engage in the humiliating activity in order to be accepted into the group. If a player did not want to willingly participate in the ritual, the implication that the veterans expect him or her to do it, the fact that the other rookies are doing it, and that the coaches are doing nothing to stop it, may have a negative impact on the player’s future with this club and others; the rookie silently accepts his or her fate as a result, and does not report the incident in fear of being ostracized. In the most recent case in the FC Dallas locker room, the possibility that one of the players may have had a special connection to his hair (while that sentence may seem ridiculous to some people, hair could be a part of what defines a person: Paul Pogba’s intricate designs, Marouane Fellaini’s afro, Kyle Beckerman’s dreadlocks, and even Nat Borcher’s beard). The rookie would have to sacrifice a part of himself in this humiliating activity in fear that if not, he will not be respected within the group. There are other rookies not pictured in this activity. A commenter on Twitter was quick to point out the lack of participation of fellow rookie Austin Ledbetter based on the pictures, and pushed him to “see what you’ve got.” This kind of response adds pressure to Ledbetter who may have otherwise been vocal about his unwillingness to participate, though the conversations in the locker room have not been revealed so that cannot be confirmed, only speculated and assumed. The hypothetical impact that Ledbetter could feel is the fear that his teammates may not trust him nearly as much as his fellow rookies, thus resulting in seeing less passes his way, or fewer inclusions in extra-curricular activities off the field. His career numbers would be affected thus resulting in lower contract options on later signings. His emotional state may also be affected, causing him to also not rely on his teammates when he needs something. He would not be able to confide in his peers, nor go to his coaches with issues as it would his word against the collective voice of the rest of the team. Again, these are speculations, but very real possibilities that have happened in other locker rooms at different times.

For the team, such publicity could be detrimental to a group of fans of the club itself. Fans could voice their displeasure of the treatment of their new stars via social media, but more importantly with their wallets due to the shame of being associated with a team that condones hazing rituals. A fan may not want to buy merchandise or buy tickets because they would be subjecting themselves to an environment that would make them feel unsafe. If the culture is accepted in the locker rooms, would other fans emulate that behavior?

For the league itself to allow such a culture, such as Major League Baseball, until a large enough group of paying consumers voiced their displeasure to the point that the bottom line could be affected, could also mean trouble especially for a fledgling organization with only two decades of existence in a country with exceptionalism towards foreign sports. The NFL’s recent history with bullying/hazing, domestic abuse, concussion protocol, and racism are beginning to show in television ratings and ticket sales as fans are unwilling to separate the sport itself from the offenses that involve their teams’ players; and this is a professional league that has its roots in Americana since the 1920’s.

All of these reasons previously stated may seem hyperbolic, and indeed I agree many of them possibly are. However, hazing still exists both professionally and In college among all athletes. In late 2016, Susie Bruce and Holly Dearing, both of the Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention released a study addressing the hazing activities done on college campuses nationwide. They noted that the data for hazing is still worryingly high, and that a large portion of those activities involved being sick or passing out due to binge drinking alcohol. Yet, even after being hazed, a shockingly low number of players confided in their coaches, or even their parents of the actions that they were forced to do. Bruce and Dearing also made mention of Lynn “Gordie” Bailey, who died of alcohol poisoning as a result of hazing as a freshman when he and his freshman teammates were forced to drink two gallons of whiskey and six bottles of wine in thirty minutes. These rituals range from being light-hearted and fun to life-threatening, but all begin with good intentions of team building.

Major League Soccer should, in an attempt to be proactive in the measure of hazing and bullying, develop and implement a no-tolerance hazing policy that would hopefully end the act of hazing in MLS locker rooms while they still only remain “harmless hair cutting activities.” Given the ability to become more creative and elaborate, these activities could become more and more dangerous for those involved or merely nearby; and any policy that is not no-tolerance will allow these players to continually push the boundaries until a clear precedent is set. Additionally, emotional counseling services as well as anonymous tip lines should be implemented for players who are subject to hazing rituals that fear repercussion by confiding in a teammate or coach. In addition, the Major League Soccer Players Association should create a protection program for players that are affected by hazing and bullying to prevent them from their careers being affected by such a situation. FC Dallas may have publicly displayed their seemingly harmless activities, but what other locker rooms are privately hazing their players in more dangerous ways while not being reported?

Hazing is a serious issue, and should be dealt with just as seriously. The players, teams, and league itself cannot afford a scandal during a period of nationwide growth and expansion. Additionally, the players themselves should not be affected emotionally when they should be able to see their teammates and coaches as someone they can turn to, as well as say no to without the implication of being alienated.