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Exterior of Maine West High School. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

What is hazing?

It could be something as relatively benign as one group of football players chasing another through a cornfield.

Or it could be something as serious and troubling as a number of alleged incidents at Maine West that have led to criminal charges, the suspensions of two coaches and a “top-to-bottom” review by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

Those examples happened years apart and are near the opposite ends of the scale. But they are a reminder that all of us who participate in, coach or follow high school sports need to be aware of this issue. History suggests, unfortunately, that it probably will never go away. But it needs to be acknowledged so we can all help everyone involved understand it can’t be tolerated.

Part of the problem is that many don’t want to admit it still exists. And it’s probably not being reported on well enough, at least in any systematic way.

A study by Alfred University in 2000 said that 48 percent of high school students “reported being subjected to activities that are considered hazing.” Hazing in sports accounted for half of that number, 24 percent; gang initiations were another significant segment of the total.

Most of the evidence we have about the existence of hazing is anecdotal, unless and until it rises to the level being seen at Maine West.

Dave Mattio recently retired from football coaching after 42 seasons at Marian Catholic, including the last 37 as head coach. He said the cornfield pursuits happened “early in my career,” but “we reached a point in society where all that was stopped.”

Mattio, who remains Marian’s athletic director, has a simple policy, which he and his coaches make explicit at meetings with parents at the beginning of each sports season. “We don’t tolerate any of it,” he said. “I made it very clear: hazing, intimidation, harassment would not be tolerated or accepted.”

Mike Small, a former athletic director at Regina Dominican and chairman of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association’s Girls Division, has been addressing the issue for more than 20 years as a teacher for American Sports Education Program coaching certification workshops.

“I think it’s always been around,” Small said of hazing. “I think it was worse at one time. ... I know when I participated in athletics, that was something that was expected to happen. You had to participate in hazing.

“What it is sometimes, some team will do something more dramatic to top the previous year. It escalates, it gets out of control.”

But times seem to have changed, and for the better. Small believes there is no longer a mind-set that hazing, bullying and abuse of any kind are acceptable in any way.

“Just because you’re part of a program for the first time, you shouldn’t have to undergo an initiation,” he said. “That’s just wrong.”

In his classes, Small tells coaches they should have athletes and parents sign contracts stating all involved understand what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. And preseason meetings with parents, coaches and athletes also help reinforce the culture of respect and accountability.

One cultural change that Small has seen is athletes’ willingness to speak up about hazing and parents willing to back them.

“Ten, 20 years ago, the kid would not tell his parents [about hazing],” Small said. “He would be called a ‘wuss.’ Now parents are willing to speak out, [saying], ‘I don’t approve of this — not just for my child, but for any child.’ ’’

That is a sign of progress. And it’s a reminder that standing up to bullies is a sign of courage — not of weakness.

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