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The NFL's disastrous lack of an anti-hazing policy

In the military, hazing is a zero-tolerance crime. In the NFL, it's celebrated. Why?


In the Marine Corps, hazing is a crime punishable by at least seven different articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, according to Marine Corps Order 1700.28, first issued in 1997 and regularly updated since then. The Marines define hazing as "any conduct whereby one military member ... causes another military member ... to suffer or be exposed to an activity which is cruel, abusive, humiliating, or oppressive."

At the time that was written, the Marine Corps was still reeling from a 1997 Dateline NBC report that unveiled video footage of a "blood wing" pinning ceremony filmed in 1991. The images are as graphic and terrible today as they were then:

The Commandant of the Marine Corps who issued the order, Gen. Charles Krulak, set about changing the culture of a 170,000-person organization where pinning and "blood striping" (kneeing a newly promoted corporal in the thigh until he couldn't walk) were common at promotion ceremonies. His order, in part, reads:

This is a leadership issue. This is a warfighting issue. Marines do not go into harm’s way, make the sacrifices they always have, or give up their precious lives because they have been hazed or initiated into some self-defined, "elite" sub-culture. They perform these heroic acts of selflessness because they are United States Marines and because they refuse to let their fellow Marines down.

Marines are also our most precious asset. We will protect them through fair, scrupulous, and unbiased treatment as individuals — caring for them, teaching them, leading them. It is the obligation of each member of the chain of command, from top to bottom, to ensure that this sense of fairness is constant and genuine. Every Marine will treat every other Marine with dignity and respect.

This was written 16 years ago, and the Marine Corps still struggles with occasional hazing incidents; there are still echoes from older Marines about how the Corps has gotten "soft," how it "babies" young Marines by not allowing NCOs the freedom to abuse and debase their brothers and sisters in arms. People who went through the hazing rituals prop them up as traditions worth keeping for the sole reason that they're tradition.

* * *

If that sounds familiar, you probably follow mainstream discourse on the NFL, where changes in the game to improve player safety are met with disapproval by the very players who will later succumb to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That same desperate, misguided loyalty to the tradition of rookie hazing is what will make the Dolphins' problem in Miami a league-wide headache.

A sea change in culture, even with strong leadership, can take a generation. That's what worries me about the NFL machine that's so permissive of hazing: Roger Goodell is a disciplinarian only if it suits the league's owners, the players are hardwired to defend the system they know, and the entrenched media skews sternly paternalistic. Jonathan Martin is the face of this cause only because Goodell is the better part of two decades behind the curve set by warriors who provide football with its preferred martial metaphor. And this is Martin's reward:

"I think Jonathan Martin is a weak person," said one personnel man, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "If Incognito did offend him racially, that's something you have to handle as a man! Mike Pouncey was a rookie at one point while Incognito was there and you never heard any complaints from him. There's no other way to put it, other than him being sofTTT!"

Do not adjust your screen settings; that really is a grown man declaring Jonathan Martin weak — just, you know, as long as he can do so secretly.

Supporters of the NFL's present rookie hazing structure will no doubt point out that pro football's hazing hardly deserves to be compared to the more violent practices banned by the military (or the more humiliating ones banned by college fraternities). Those arguments ignore the persistence of "hazing creep," a phenomenon where hazing "gets progressively worse as each year's group attempts outdo the former," according to a 1997 paper published by the U.S. Naval Institute. Anecdotal evidence from players seems to support this; former NFL tight end Jeremy Shockey recounted his hazing experience to FoxSports' Peter Schrager:

"I’ve been to dinners where I’ve seen rookies spend $30,000. $30,000! When I was a rookie, I had to buy donuts every morning from Krispy Kreme. Every Saturday and every Friday, I bought coffee. No problem."

Former quarterback Boomer Esiason admirably spoke out against hazing in a video for, calling it "a ridiculous tradition."

"If you wanna have the rookies take you out to dinner and you want to give them a check, that's one thing — but only one time. After that, they become part of your family. And the fact that Jonathan Martin has had to deal with this for two years is absolutely ridiculous."

As former players look back on their experience, you can see the sum of hazing creep's increments. Esiason, who played in the NFL from 1984 to 1996, approves of rookies getting stuck with a single large dinner bill. Shockey, a rookie in 2002, bought donuts and coffee weekly. In 2013, it's common practice to stick rookies with five-figure checks every week — and this is after the NFL's 2011 collective bargaining agreement reduced the size of rookie contracts.

* * *

Until Martin left the Dolphins, the most common story regarding hazing in the NFL was one typically written by beat writers: the rookies were given silly haircuts or tossed in ice baths or taped to the field goal, and it was a great way to blow off steam at the end of training camp. These anecdotes will be trotted out by hazing apologists as team-building exercises, and they'll all be full of shit. The hazing doesn't make them a part of a team; the training does.

I deployed to Iraq with a Marine company that was confident and capable in its abilities, and we were fortunate to return home with no serious casualties. We attained that confidence and ésprit de corps thanks to strong leadership and months of challenging training that prepared us for our task. The brotherhood wasn't a product of hazing; it was a product of shared hardship. If NFL teams need to haze rookies at the end of training camp to make them a part of the team, they're missing out on the point of training camp.

The NFL collects more than $9 billion in revenue — yes, $9,000,000,000, more than any sports league in the world — and Goodell has stated that he wants that number to be $25 billion by 2027. The year is 2013, the NFL is closing in on 11-figures in revenue, and it has no official policy on hazing, a problem that the military has banned and worked to snuff out for most of the last two decades.

It can't go on this way. You can't have a lucrative 21st-century business paired with 20th-century ideals of masculinity that violate every H.R. department's litmus test for What Can Get Us Sued. You don't get to demand that all players act like professional adults, and then treat them like lesser employees every week. You don't get to call people weak on the condition of anonymity. You don't run a multi-billion-dollar business while selectively choosing which employees get treated with dignity.

It's not being soft; it's being smart, and the Marine Corps has been doing it for almost 20 years. It's time the NFL followed suit.

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