Hazing

Peter Johnson

David, a Palo Alto High School senior and varsity football player, remembers his first hazing experience, when his hands were held behind his back and his legs spread open next to a pool table.

“It all happened pretty fast,” said David, who like the other students quoted in this story has had his real name withheld as a condition for speaking with The Viking.

David, a sophomore JV football player two years ago, had just been called up to the varsity football team for the 2005 Central Coast Section tournament when he was hazed at an off-campus dinner. No coaches were present at the dinner, according to David.

“Everyone surrounded me, and I got my hands held behind my head by two guys,” David said. “Another guy tried to pop the ball up [from the pool table] and hit me in the balls. It wasn’t really working. They tried five or six times and it kept hitting my belt or my leg or something. Another two upperclassmen said, ‘Well f**k this’ and they came up and hit me twice in my balls. I had my hands behind my head, so I was in a vulnerable position already. Sometimes you feel like you can get out of the way, but there was no doing that this time. It [the punch] went low to high, so it was just right in. They hit the spot. It was the worst because it was two hits in only five seconds. After that I puked a little bit. It was like a dry heave, and I felt pretty sick the rest of the night. They stopped after I started gagging…”

David’s experience does not stand alone in high school athletics. Commonly, juniors and seniors feel that freshmen and sophomores have to prove themselves as worthy teammates before they are accepted as part of the team. While most underclassmen have positive experiences at the varsity level, some sports at Paly carry out initiations for the younger players on the team that vary in magnitude and can include physical and emotional harm.

Throughout this story, athletes and administrators used “hazing” as a generic term to describe any form of team initiation, whether or not the action falls under the legal definition of the word.

The California Education Code section 32050 defines hazing as, “…any method of initiation or preinitiation into a student organization which causes, or is likely to cause, bodily danger, physical harm, or personal degradation or disgrace resulting in physical or mental harm, to any student or other person attending any college, University, or other education institution in this state…”

The Paly student handbook also refers to and defines hazing as, “Any conduct or method of initiation into any student organization that willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or person.

Palo Alto first year principal Jacqueline McEvoy stands by these definitions and believes any form of hazing is unacceptable at Paly.

“Hazing is wrong,” McEvoy said. “It’s against the education code, it’s against the penal code, and it’s not allowed in school.” 

With numerous hazing stories circulating through our student body, The Viking felt it was important to uncover the activity that occurs away from the field when the floodlights go off and the bleachers empty.

For this story, The Viking interviewed administrators, coaches and players from all Paly sports – volleyball, football, tennis, wrestling, soccer, cross country, water polo, badminton, basketball, swimming, golf, baseball, softball, and diving. Each incident described in this article was corroborated separately by at least two eyewitnesses.

From badminton to wrestling, athletes spoke about whether or not their team practices initiation activities, and the results ran the spectrum. Some sports, such as baseball and girls’ basketball, do not initiate players.

“We have never hazed,” varsity girls’ basketball player junior Madison Hoffacker said. “There is no real reason why not. It just has not been something that we are interested in.”

Baseball is another sport that avoids initiation, according to current and past players.

“We were way too focused, classy and good to haze in baseball,” said Joe, a 20-something Paly graduate who was on the football, wrestling, and baseball teams.

Football and wrestling, however, are on the opposite end of the “hazing” spectrum. Their initiation activities include punching, paddling, and eating grotesque foods, which include pubic hair and tobacco products, among other things.

“Hazing” generally occurs under the radar at Paly. Even within the athletic community, students seem to be unaware of the extent of these rituals.

Senior volleyball player Abbie Havern’s first reaction on hearing some of these anecdotes was, “Wait, at this school?”

Even administrators and coaches were skeptical about the extent of these activities.

“I know a lot of things that happen on campus, and I really don’t think any hazing has gone on,” Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson said. “But I could be wrong.”

Varsity basketball head coach Peter Diepenbrock agreed with Berkson’s reaction. “It doesn’t seem like Palo Alto [would be a place where it] happens that much,” Diepenbrock said.

Paly athletic director and football head coach Earl Hansen recognizes that there is a history of hazing at Paly.

“We deal with it the best we can,” Hansen said. “Every senior group thinks they can get away with stuff. It’s not a new thing. We don’t like it whatsoever.”

Hansen feels that a number of cases are just rumors.

“As far as rumors and things that happened go, we always hear different things,” Hansen said. “No one has ever quit the team because of it, which tells me that it’s under control.”

“There is always a team dinner on Thursdays before games, and it is a tradition that something happens to the sophomores that get called up to varsity,” David said.

According to players from many teams, the most severe hazing occurred at after school team functions, most commonly at players’ houses for team dinners, where the coach is not present and the parents are unaware.

Charles, another senior varsity football player, had his first hazing experience the same team dinner as David back in 2005. Charles describes his hazing as, “Taking it too far.”

“A senior tackled me next to the pool, with the intention of throwing me in to the pool” Charles said. “I was not complying, so he punched me in the stomach. He then picked me up to throw me into the pool, but I missed and ended up landing on the side of the pool, bruising my ribs.”

David witnessed this event and further describes the incident.

“They tried to throw a guy in the pool and dropped him on the side of the pool and he seriously hurt his ribs,” David said. “He was just rolling around and they tried to throw him in and half of him got thrown in and the other half hit on the side of the pool and he fell in.”

Charles said that afterwards he was helped out of the pool and a number of seniors apologized.

“The seniors felt bad and said that they took it too far,” Charles said. “It’s an incident that was frowned upon by other players.”

While Charles was able to recover from his bruised ribs without medical attention, a slight twist in either direction could have led to far more severe injuries.

Todd, a junior on the varsity football team, was called up for CCS last year during Paly’s impressive run to the 2006 state championship game. He endured his hazing experience at separate team dinner before the first playoff game.

“I went to the team dinner and they [the upperclassmen] all called me into a room,” Todd remembered. “They gave me a cake sprinkled with pubic hair and they told me to eat it. It was either that or a bunch of other worse stuff.”

Josh, a senior varsity player, admitted to joining six other upperclassmen in contributing to the cake.

“We used clippers to shave off our pubic hair and sprinkle them onto the cake,” Josh said. “It was almost a full layer of hair.”

Todd did not have much time to think about the cake’s taste, as it came up before he could even finish it.

“I didn’t actually get any of it down,” Todd said. “I threw up almost immediately. It was disgusting… It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done.”

Todd said that there was a certain amount of pressure on him to comply with the seniors. With a whole football team staring in sick fascination, refusing was not an option.

“I definitely couldn’t say no,” Todd said. “They [the upperclassmen] had been talking about hazing the sophomores all week. I knew it was coming, and I knew that I was doing it, whether I liked it or not.”

Hazing has been a tradition in Paly football far before Todd, Charles and David’s experiences.

“It has been going on for forever,” said Josh, the varsity football player who contributed to the pubic hair cake.

Joe, the former three-sport athlete, also recalls team dinners as being a common location where these initiations would occur.

“One time we made a kid eat a hot dog rolled in dip [chewing tobacco],” he said.

The football player who ate the hot dog recalls only having a slight stomachache but not vomiting.

“He put it down like a champ,” Joe said.

The incidents that occurred off-campus were not reported to coaches or administrators. No disciplinary action was taken.

However, Hansen did uncover a subsequent incident in the same 2005 season, when one player was forced to lick chocolate syrup off of another player’s fingers and nipples. Hansen said that the issue was dealt with internally, and that “that kid was not on the team anymore”.

Hansen believes that it is impossible to maintain complete control over the team off the football field and that the responsibility to act appropriately lies with the players.

“The degree of hazing depends on the maturity level of the upperclassmen,” Hansen said. “I’m not a policeman. I don’t travel around watching these guys.”

Football players agree that Hansen does not know about the hazing that happens at team dinners, though they comment that he does know about the more passive forms of hazing, like haircuts.

“Some guys would get their heads shaved,” Todd said. “Those kinds of things, Hansen obviously knew about. He thought that was funny.”

The boys’ soccer team also used team dinners as a place to initiate newer players. The started a new tradition in 2006, where all the players, including the seniors, cut each other’s hair at the dinners.

“The seniors would start by shaving their own heads, and then it would move down to the younger guys,” said Jake, an anonymous varsity soccer player. “Everyone who wanted a haircut got one.”

However, Jake said that this activity strengthened team chemistry and that it was a positive experience.

“They [the seniors] were nice about it and you got to choose what haircut you got,” Jake said. “Everyone looked stupid together and we got to know each other better [that way].”

Hansen said any hazing that occurs off the field does not translate onto the field or into the locker room.

“It doesn’t happen on the field,” Hansen said. “I kick guys off the team for issues in the locker room. The locker room is a safe place.”

However, Joe, the former three-sport athlete, said that football hazing took place anywhere and anytime, noting that it happened behind coaches’ backs.

“We would haze all year whenever the coaches weren’t around,” Joe said. “[It would occur] at the team dinners, the locker room, and on sometimes on the field. On the field we would do things like, ‘your ass was grass’, which means that the underclassmen had to go up against the biggest guys on the team in drills at practice.”

Principal McEvoy believes that this culture of secrecy makes it difficult for the administration to enforce penalties relating to hazing.

“It’s hard to say what happens at school because there is a sense of secrecy surrounding hazing,” McEvoy said. “Even when you’re dealing with victims of hazing, they don’t want to talk about it. They’re on the team.” 

David, the senior football player who was punched in the groin, described other incidents that occurred in the locker room during his first year as a varsity player in 2005.

“It started when they put a dead rat, half-decomposed rat in one sophomore’s helmet before practice,” David said.

Joe, the former three-sport athlete, remembers the “ridiculous” things that they would make underclassmen do in the locker room when he was at Paly.

“We did things like make the kids hold ice on their bare balls for a good thirty minutes,” Joe said.

According to Joe, the wrestling team also has a longstanding tradition of initiating the underclassmen at the end of each season.

“Nothing was done throughout the year. There was nothing but total respect for all of your teammates in wrestling,” Joe recalls. “But at the end of the year, we would duct tape the freshmen’s hands and feet in nothing but their boxers, and then tape them to the benches in the girls locker room, some to the shower poles. Then we would turn the water on freezing. That was of course after we paddled them.”

Joe felt a greater impulse to participate in the more physical initiations for wrestlers.

“You couldn’t hold me back in wrestling,” Joe said. “I was the first one to paddle those little f***ers. Wrestling those guys down, taping them and then paddling them was satisfying.”

He also remembered his own experience as a freshman wrestler.

“My freshman year I got taped to the benches face down in my boxers and water poured on my boxers to get them nice and wet for paddling,” Joe said. “I was there for a good hour.”

However, Nick, a junior and current varsity wrestler, said that the wrestling hazing tradition has died down in recent years, and attributes this to a changed mentality on the team.

“There aren’t many dominant football players that wrestle in this generation,” Nick said. “This team doesn’t have the same kind of mentality that there was in the past.”

Head wrestling coach Dave Duran feels that the hazing in wrestling is under control.

“I do not think it is a problem,” Duran said. “And if anything happens, we will deal with it.”

Hazing also occurred on the Paly campus during a school day in broad daylight.  Last fall, Sam, a JV sophomore football player at the time, received a phone call from a senior player at lunch ordering him to come to the “senior deck.”

“He called me and said, ‘Come to the deck.’ I immediately knew I was going to get hazed,” Sam said. “I was definitely going to go, because if I didn’t then they would have just made my hazing worse.”

Upon arrival at the senior deck, a prominent location on the Paly quad, an upperclassman tied Sam’s legs with rope to a tree, and subsequently paddled him in front of “at least thirty people”.

“The rope was tied around my legs, which was tied around the tree,” Sam said. “They paddled me for five to ten minutes. Everyone on the deck at lunch saw it.”

Despite the public nature of this incident, which The Viking corroborated with a photo of the event, Sam said that no one was punished for it.

“No one got in trouble,” Sam said. “I didn’t even see anybody [administrators] around. Hansen didn’t know about it either.”

Boys’ basketball takes a different approach to “hazing” on the court. The team verbally initiated underclassmen in practice to put them in their place.

“While we do not do initiation hazing, we do make fun of the underclassmen,” an anonymous varsity boy’s basketball player said. “We would constantly rag on specific players. Whenever we watched game tape, we would single out their mistakes and make fun of them. It got so bad that they cried a few times.”

The girls’ water polo team also avoids physical initiation, however they make the underclassmen wear bizarre outfits to school, in addition to other embarrassing activities.

“The idea is to make them feel like a part of the team,” a varsity girls’ water polo player said. “If any of the girls felt uncomfortable with it, we would not have made them do it. We don’t want to make them feel like we are taking advantage of them or that not participating in the hazing will affect their position on the team.”

Varsity volleyball used to practice a very similar form of hazing as water polo.

“We used to get T-shirts that said,  ‘I heart my seniors’ and make them go out to the Paly fields where we would set up tarps and put milk and syrup and the most disgusting things you can think of on them,” said Natalie, a varsity volleyball player.  “Then we would blindfold them and make them slide in it.”

Natalie said, however, that the team stopped these practices last year, in fear of the administrative consequences.

“It was getting too close to ‘hazing’ and if the administration found out we’d get in trouble,” Natalie said. “So we stopped doing it.”

The JV volleyball team decided to continue the tradition but ended up in a load of trouble. In early October of this year, the JV captains held what was called a “team breakfast” before school one morning. The “team breakfast,” however, was just a euphemism for an initiation session. As in water polo, the captains prepared strange outfits for everyone to wear, including themselves. The outfits varied from bright colored spandex, to bras that didn’t fit. In addition, they made large cardboard signs that read ‘I love my captain,’ with the captain’s names signed on each sign. Everyone but the captains wore these.

After everyone was all dressed up, they went to school. Their day only lasted an hour or so, when the campus supervisor Scott Reese saw the signs and confiscated them. This incident led to a one-game suspension for the captains.

“It was only until after practice when my coach told me that I was either benched for one game or suspended from school for hazing,” a JV captain said. “I chose to be benched.”

However, Berkson maintains that the administration was not involved in the punishment for the volleyball incident.

“The only thing I could guess is that the coach got pressure from someone, and decided that they didn’t want to be the bad guy so they said the administration told her to do that,” Berkson said. “I would not have suspended her for a game.”

JV volleyball head coach Jekara Wilson did not return repeated phone requests for an interview.

Principal McEvoy believes that both coaches and administrators play a key role in preventing and disciplining hazing. She said that a great deal of the responsibility in prevention falls to the coach.

“A lot of it [prevention] is an educational piece,” McEvoy said. “And that falls to the coach, who is the first point of contact for the players. He/She needs to understand what’s going on and communicate with the players and the team members. It needs to be clear that hazing is unacceptable.”

McEvoy also made it clear that “hazing” does not only present serious problems for players, but for the coaches as well.

“Even though the players do it without the coach’s knowledge, they need to understand they’re putting the coach’s job on the line too,” she said. “If the coach knows about a hazing incident and doesn’t report it to the school, then that is an issue. That’s a real issue. That would be an issue for me with that coach. I would sit down and say that ‘you have a responsibility in your job.’  If the coach has a suspicion or the coach knows there’s a history, it’s really the coach’s responsibility to deal with it. What we don’t want is somebody to get really hurt.”

The confusion over the intent of these incidents is representative of the potential for ambiguity that can come in dealing with hazing. It is difficult to know where to draw the line: When does team bonding turn into physical harm or emotional humiliation?

McEvoy said hazing incidents should be taken on a “case by case basis”.

“I would have to talk to the students that are involved,” McEvoy said. “I would have to ask the question, ‘Is what we’re doing building team spirit? Or are we coercing people into participating on the team?’”

Hazing is not an issue only at Paly. According to a 2000 nationwide survey conducted by Alfred University, 48 percent of all students belonging to a group experienced some form of hazing, while 39 percent performed “potentially” illegal activities while hazing.

These numbers bring up an obvious question: Why do we haze?

Josh, the contributor to the pubic hair cake, believes that it is a combination of many things.

“We do it to pass along the tradition,” Josh said. “It is the whole, ‘I went through it, so you have to’ kind of thing. It is also our way of welcoming the guys onto the team,” adding, “Plus, it’s funny.”

David, the football player who was punched in the groin, believes that the violent nature of football is a large contributor to the motivation behind their hazing.

“Football is a deadly sport, and that’s the mentality you have as a player; you want to kill your opponent,” he said. “It rubs off outside the field a little bit. It’s hard to turn off that switch immediately once you get back into the locker room.”

Joe agrees, saying that the same concept also applies with wrestling.

“Wrestling leaves you with so much testosterone. You just want hurt something,” Joe said.

From some players’ perspective, hazing seems to be dying down at Paly, as players are beginning to recognize the line between team bonding and hazing. For example in football, the severity of the initiations has tapered off considerably.

“In football, we hardly did any hazing this year,” David said. “I think the tradition is getting lost. Hansen gave us a stern talking to this year, and that had some effect on people.”

David also said, however, that each year brings a different group of seniors and a different mentality.

“It depends on the mentality of the group of guys,” David said.

“A lot of those things are just gross. I would never do anything like that,” Charles, one of the senior football players said. “But hazing is definitely a tradition at Paly, and I don’t think anything can stop it.” <<<