Two weeks ago, Dallas Cowboys rookie Dez Bryant refused to carry pads for veteran teammate Roy Williams, and then later changed his tune. More recently, Tim Tebow accepted a ridiculous haircut in order to gain the respect of his teammates. A number of sports reporters then brushed off this poor example of role modeling as an ‘age old tradition’ which should be celebrated and upheld. (Read Searching for Heroes to learn more). Yesterday, Peyton Manning chimed in with his take on the issue and told a very different story. So, are haircuts, errands, and pranks really hazing? Should we be so concerned? Are they truly harmless? Which athlete’s example should we follow? The answers range dramatically depending on whose opinion you ask. This is one of the great challenges in overcoming hazing practices: how can these seemingly insignificant incidents fall under the same policy which targets alcohol abuse, sexual assault and physical attacks? We need some clarity here.
First, there’s the law. In its most narrow definition, hazing is a legal term defined by state law and organizational policy. It is up to the authorities to determine whether these incidents qualify as hazing according to the language of the law. Unfortunately the NFL isn’t doing anything, and I don’t see Tebow or Bryant pressing charges against their teammates. These incidents might be unprosecuted instances of hazing, but we will never know.
Second, regardless of the written law, hazing is an insult to human dignity. It is neither ethical nor dignified to ask a new member to participate in meaningless and irrelevant activities just for personal satisfaction. It may be a tradition that veterans also went through, but that does not make it any more ethical. This is little more than an expression of dominance – a power play disguised as ‘good fun.’ Even if state laws don’t yet recognize this type of emotional abuse as hazing, it’s still a problem.
There is also a third test. Even if something is legal, ethical and dignified, it may simply have no place within the organization. Dez Bryant said it best: "I'm here to try to help win a championship, not carry another man's pads." What does a haircut have to do with team performance? And how does requiring someone to run errands build dedication? Does the humiliation of one person foster mutual respect among the larger group? The fact is, these ‘techniques’ are ineffective at best, and detrimental to team dynamics at worst. As a result, they earn their way into the hazing definition.
What is the alternative? Manning’s answer: "We don't do that around here, because we don't treat the guys like rookies. We expect those guys to play this year and to play well." This idea seems to have worked well for him as the leader of a championship team.
Drop the debate about whether an activity fits the definition of hazing, and ask yourself whether it helps the organization. What is the best way to indoctrinate and assimilate new members? When we’re working with fraternity/sorority chapters to improve the new member experience, the answer is not found in a series of ridiculous activities; the answer comes from genuine relationship building, hands-on coaching and a consistent expectation across the entire organization.
In the statements he made to the press, Manning shared a similar philosophy. “If they're on the team, we expect them to know the offense and to be in there. That's why we treat them all like veterans.” And later he talks about a new teammate: “I think you have (to) spend the time with him. You have to watch some film with him. You have to go out and throw with him.” Automatic respect, consistent expectations and an investment in talent. Standing up to the controversy to tell a different story about what is possible? Sounds like a real MVP to me.