It’s a practice that once upon a time was embedded deep in the cultures of certain social clubs and athletic teams. Some places, it still may be.
Occasionally, if the mood strikes a former fraternity or sorority member, or football or basketball player, they might tell you about some of the experiences they went through in order to be a part of said team or club. These can range from fulfilling dares to putting up with some mostly harmless pranks or practices much more disturbing and can create a culture where this behavior is accepted for generations.
This fall, at the Knox County R-1 School District, located in Edina, Mo., in the northeast corner of the state, through the reporting of my hometown paper, The Edina Sentinel, news has come to light of hazing at its most disturbing. Members of the district’s middle school football team have been accused of sexual assault with an object against members of a younger team as their extremely misguided way of initiation.
I graduated from Knox County High School in 2005. I played for multiple sports teams and participated in multiple other activities there through middle school and high school.
The recent allegations hit close to home. They have affected many people I know because they are either employed at the school district or have kids enrolled there — family, friends, classmates, neighbors, coaches I played for and teachers whose classes I attended.
I was part of the very first fifth- and sixth-grade football team as a sixth-grader back in the fall of 1998. I went on to play for the middle school team the next two years as a seventh- and eighth-grader. It wasn’t until high school that I first encountered any hazing.
As of the fall of 2001, my freshman year, hazing was very much a part of the culture around the football team. What I experienced was nothing anywhere close to what has allegedly occurred there this season.
At that time, it was common then that by way of initiation, freshman players might be required to wear what was known as the spirit shirt at any given practice. Typically, a senior would take an old shirt on a particularly hot day early in the season and wear it at practice and made it good and ripe. It would then travel from freshman to freshman for the remainder of the season without the benefit of being washed or even allowed to hang where it could be dried out.
The spirit shirt could frequently be found wadded up in the corner of one of the seniors’ lockers where it could bask in its filth until the next practice when that senior would bestow it upon that day’s unlucky freshman.
It was also common at that time for an upperclassman to come over and talk to a freshman at practice, distracting them as another elder player got on their hands and knees behind the freshman. Once in position, the first upperclassman would then shove the freshman backward, tripping over the teammate and crashing to the ground. Urban dictionary calls this prank a “tabletop.”
Not the safest of things to do, but for the most part it was genuinely just “boys being boys.” By the time I graduated, both the spirit shirt and “tabletops” were virtually nonexistent from the high school team. I don’t recall seeing either take place during my junior or senior years and only rarely during my sophomore year.
I can’t speak to anything that has transpired at the school since then, but those were the only forms of hazing I encountered during my tenure at Knox County R-1 at any level.
However, one has to think that us allowing a culture to exist back then where bullying behavior in any form was accepted makes us partially responsible for allowing that culture to endure into a new generation. My generation and those before us have to hold ourselves personally accountable on some level for not putting a stop to it completely when we were in that position.
Edina, Mo., is a rural farm community. It’s the county seat from among a handful of other towns that are dried-up versions of what they once were when my parents were growing up.
The entirety of Knox County attends one grade school, one middle school and one high school — all located on the same campus. That’s the way it was when I went to school and that’s how it continues to be. My graduating class consisted of less than 40 students.
In certain ways, like many other small communities in that area and others like it, Knox County can tend to be behind the times. After all, small and out-of-the-way places like that can often be some of the last touched by progress.
That’s absolutely not an excuse. Hazing is a practice that has been in the media crosshairs and justifiably maligned for decades now. There is simply no place for it. There never was and never will be.
To this generation of student athletes and the ones to come, please do better than we did. End it.
If you can’t do it yourself, seek help from a coach, a parent or an administrator.
You never know what your silence may end up costing others.