Freshman Joshua Landis sat in his room working at his computer just like any other weeknight in J. Alvin, when senior Chris Kinzer, a fellow rugby player, walked in and said, “Hello.”
Landis shut down his computer and walked out to find twenty of his teammates waiting in his suite.
“You know what we got to do,” Kinzer told him.
The freshman followed him into the bathroom, took off his shirt and knelt in front of the trashcan. The sound of clippers buzzed in his ear as his teammate took merely seconds to shave his head.
With his haircut complete, his teammates took turns writing their names on his chest in permanent marker.
To a casual observer, the haphazardly shaved heads and marked up chests closely resemble hazing, but the rugby players quickly point out it is all in good nature.
“We shave interesting designs into people’s heads,” said Kent Bakker, the rugby team captain. “It’s a fun thing and it encourages them onto the team. We don’t make it mandatory. If they say no…that’s fine. We don’t need to do that.”
This week campuses around the country are recognizing National Hazing Prevention week to bring attention to the problem of hazing.
The John Brown University handbook clearly identifies hazing as “any willful act…directed against any other student for the purpose of intimidating the student attached by threatening such student to ignominy, shame or disgrace among his fellow students.”
The handbook also says, “the term hazing as defined in this section does not include customary athletic events or similar contests or competitions, and is limited to those actions taken and situations created in connection with initiation into or affiliation with any organization.”
As a result, Robyn Daugherty, the athletic director, met with each of the fall sports teams to warn them of the dangers of hazing and freshman initiation traditions.
“I didn’t tell them that they couldn’t do it,” Daugherty said. “I just told the teams that whatever you do, you need to be careful what you do. If you ask the freshmen to do something, singling out someone or a group of someone, then that could potentially be looked at as hazing, which you need to stay away from.”
The warning convinced the women’s soccer team to stay away from its usual initiation ritual.
Last year, sophomore Hayley Massey experienced the ritual firsthand. The team leaders came into her room at 4 a.m., blindfolded her, and drove around the parking lot for a few minutes. After being taken into a building, Massey took her blindfold off to find her whole team in a Hutcheson common room with donuts and orange juice.
The team dressed Massey and her freshman teammates up in funny costumes and painted their faces. Massey said they were told to wear the ridiculous outfits all day until practice. Before chapel the freshmen met up with the rest of the team to walk to the front of chapel and show off their unique fashion.
“At first I was just mad that they woke us up,” Massey said. “But it was just silly, so I didn’t care too much about it… Everyone on the team had done it before so it’s just kind of a team thing.”
Though done in fun, Daugherty said it is events like this where the line between good nature and hazing becomes blurry.
“Mainly because the things that were fun 10 years ago, we live in a different world now,” she said. “We’ve seen the articles where people have lost their lives based on something stupid and we’re just not going to do that now.”
Steve Beers, vice president of student development and rugby club sponsor, echoed Daugherty’s thoughts when discussing the future of rugby initiation.
“Will at some point we say no to activities like this?” he asked. “I think the world is getting more and more complicated and because there is so much potential for miscommunication, I think that all of this is moving in that direction.”
With all the stigma surrounding initiations, many question whether they are worth it at all.
Landis said he valued the identity and public recognition that came with being formally initiated onto the rugby team.
“You walk around and you know people are looking at you and they think it looks goofy, but they know who you are,” he said. “It identifies the rugby players.”
Bakker said the few who refused to get their hair cut told him they wished they had gone through with it. Some freshman players had even contacted him during the summer and were excited, wondering when they would get their heads shaved.
“It lets people know that we are a part of the rugby team,” Bakker said. “Sure, it doesn’t look good and we’ve got a bunch of skinheads around here, but we’re rugby players. We’re not pretty.”
Beers also said there was a part he likes about a positive initiation scenario.
“Part of me loves the concept of saying ‘we’re unique, we’re different and there is a little bit of a sacrifice to be one of us,’” he said.
Beers said the ‘welcoming ceremony’ must have two characteristics to separate it from hazing.
First, the action should be inclusive.
“The goal shouldn’t be to exercise power over somebody,” he said. “The goal should be to welcome people into your community.”
Beers commended last year’s captains for joining the freshmen and shaving their heads, too. The action showed a collective
sacrifice to be seen as one group.
Second, the event should be optional.
“If someone says no, then there should be no penalty to not have their head shaved,” he said. “I would hate to have guys at JBU who would like to be on the rugby team say ‘I’m not going to do that because my hair is too important’ or ‘I’m not going to be made a mockery of.’”
So how should the University respond to hazing? Where does it draw the line between the bullying and the beneficial?
“We want to be above repproach,” Daugherty said. “We don’t want someone to feel bullied. We can have healthy fun and healthy, team-building things without potentially crossing the line.”