Why Do We Tolerate Hazing In Professional Sports?


Richie Incognito (left) and Jonathan Martin during training camp in July.

The case of alleged abuse of Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, who left the team abruptly last week, is only getting worse, growing from fellow lineman Richie Incognito asking Martin for $15,000 to help finance a trip to Las Vegas, to Incognito leaving threatening voice mails filled with racial slurs, to, this morning, reports that Dolphins coaches had urged Incognito to help “toughen up” Martin during the offseason. Now, multiple Dolphins players have said they support Incognito, who was suspended indefinitely Sunday.

As the situation continues to worsen — and become more convoluted and complicated — it raises an important question: what is the value of hazing in the NFL, and why does it have any place in today’s sports, where it is tolerated openly by coaches, players, fans, and the media?

Hazing isn’t uncommon in sports. Rookies carry equipment after practice, they stand up to sign their fight song in front of a team film session, they pick up the tab at team dinners or carry luggage to the bus and hotel rooms on road trips. Most of it seems harmless, some it truly is. But it’s hard to imagine that the abuse of Martin — and incidents like it, whether they are as rare as some players say or more common than we know — isn’t an outgrowth of that ritualistic abuse that is viewed not as exceptional but as a normal rite of passage in the game of football and in other sports too.

Incognito’s actions, to be sure, went above and beyond the normal scope of hazing. But hazing still promotes abuse, subjugation, and the idea that some players need to be subjected to harassment, well-intentioned or otherwise, to make them tougher, to build character, to get them ready for the rigors of professional sports, where they’re no longer the Big Man on Campus but another fish in the pond. Perhaps some of the hazing rituals aren’t that bad. Maybe there’s an argument that making a rookie stand up and sing his fight song in front of a film room is just a one-time form of mild humiliation and initiation that breaks the ice more than it demeans.

But when hazing, even of the seemingly routine variety, turns into persistent mental and physical abuse and subjugation, it’s easy to see how it can fester into a problem and lead to much bigger and broader abuses of players like Martin who don’t want to deal with it and don’t feel like they should have to (especially when it’s condoned by coaches and other players). Consider Martin’s situation, but also think about the results of “routine” hazing in fraternities and the military and at places like Florida A&M, where the practices have led to severe psychological damage, physical injury, and even death. Or consider the fact that the NFL locker room is really nothing more than a player’s workplace, and that we’d never tolerate that sort of abuse in other professional settings.

The military, center of progress that it always is, now has defined punishments for hazing and ritual abuse, and even if it hasn’t eliminated the practice altogether, it has taken action to reduce it. And yet professional sports remain a bastion of this sort of abuse, even though there’s no reason that a man showing up to do his job should be subject to abuse to do so and no reason why, given Martin’s situation and all of those we never hear about, these outdated and counterproductive rituals should have any place in sports today.