Anyone who has attended John Brown University usually knows how to identify a newcomer on the men’s rugby club. This year, however, such a task may be a bit more difficult.
The University is currently in discussion with the leadership of the men’s rugby club about traditions that could be perceived as hazing. Due to these precautions, the club has chosen, at least temporarily, to stop the tradition of giving embarrassing haircuts to the new club members.
The reason for is found on page 53 of the University handbook, which quotes an Arkansas state statute:
“No student of any school, college, university or other educational institution in Arkansas shall engage in what is commonly known and recognized as hazing, or encourage, aid or assist any other student in the commission of this offense.”
While the tradition has currently been placed on hold, it is still not out of the picture. When asked about why the tradition appeared to have gone away, faculty sponsor Steve Beers did not mince words saying the tradition has not gone away yet.
“It’s not cancelled,” Beers said. “But what the University has said, what I’ve said, what the Student Development team has said is that we don’t want the University to encourage anything that puts students in a position where [a tradition] intentionally or unintentionally could be perceived as hazing.”
Beers’ phrase “could be perceived” leaves the definition of “hazing” up for interpretation. But the concern goes deeper than how to interpret a state law.
Fifth-year senior rugger, Stephen Gilmour, who plays lock for the club, said that the tradition might prevent people from going out for rugby in the first place.
“I think one of the big reasons that they don’t want to do that is because they thought there were some people who wouldn’t want to join because of that,” Gilmour said.
In spite of this potential perception, there is something to be said for teammates going through something awful, like embarrassing haircuts, for instance, together. Junior rugger Ellis Hunt, who plays eighth man on the team, said it is a great way to create ties within teammates.
“I think it’s a really fun and important part of the rugby team to have some sort of initiation,” Hunt said. “It creates bonds and memories.”
Recalling his own experience with the men’s rugby initiation, Gilmour could relate to Hunt’s point. He stated that while he did not exactly enjoy it, getting his hair cut by the club’s returning members was definitely something that created a bond.
“I got a really bad haircut,” Gilmour said. “I think it was a fun thing to go through because it built class unity… you’re always hanging out with these guys, and you’re all going through the same thing together.”
Although Beers is currently hesitant to allow the tradition to continue, he completely agrees with the club members regarding the tradition.
“There is a sense of camaraderie,” he said. “When the individual joins the group, they gain something… I understand, because I came from a world where it’s much more common, that [humiliating haircuts] can be seen as a non-hazing event. But we’re moving into a world where that’s more and more complicated.”
The club, its sponsors and even the University are now looking for ways to allow the tradition to continue. Hunt even said that some of the new members have come to him to see if the tradition will continue.
“I’ve already been asked by a few of the freshmen this year about what’s going to happen,” Hunt said. “We might be able to do it if we ask them ahead of time if they’re OK with it, but that kind of takes away from the fun of it, so we’ll see.”
Beers said that the school mentioned the possibility of allowing the continuation of the tradition under two conditions. First, that some returning members of the team participate as well, and second, that the players are given an out.
“I think it has to be non-hazing, it has to be optional and you have to lead by example,” he said. “It can’t be us doing something to them; it has to be ‘we are doing this.’”
Finally, Beers stated that the initiation—whatever it ends up being—has to be an obvious acceptance of the new players onto the club.
“If there’s an invitation, if you will, into the rugby community… then it needs to be done in such a way that isn’t hazing, isn’t a power play and isn’t abuse,” he said. “Instead, it’s an embrace.”