Inside The Culture: Hazing in High School Athletics

By Chris Earl

The Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS — Six weeks after the first reports of hazing incidents involving members of the wrestling team at Lisbon Community High School, one wrestling mother is sharing her family’s story.

The woman, who does not want to give her name, said her son was a victim of hazing as a younger wrestler.

“I want to encourage our youth that they need to stand up for themselves and they need to stand up for their teammates,” she said in an interview Friday evening.

She brought medical and law enforcement documentation to the interview to support her claims. The Gazette is not identifying any of the student-athletes alleged to be involved because they’re minors and because of the sensitive nature of the allegations.

Last year, the woman said, her son was one of the team members involved in rough play in an unsupervised wrestling room at the high school. The activities, which she described as “non-wrestling,” resulted in a broken clavicle bone for her son.

“It required surgical repair and it will require another surgery to remove the screws in his collarbone,” she said. “It took him out of eligibility for an entire season.”

Three student-athletes at Lisbon are facing simple assault charges in connection with a more recent incident, in late 2011. 

 Another wrestling parent told The Gazette last month that his son was “held down” by one teammate and another put his genitals in the victim’s face.

As rumors swirled, cancelled practices and one missed wrestling meet followed for the Lisbon team in late December.  The mother who spoke Friday said some student-athletes were suspended, including her son, and that not all the disciplined team members have been reinstated.  She said her son has not been charged in the incident.

 ’Open secret’

Finding people willing to talk on the record about hazing in high school athletics, even with multiple incidents reported in Iowa for one specific sport, has been extremely difficult.

“It is this open secret and because, historically, we’ve thought of hazing as ‘boys being boys,’ ‘harmless fun’ and all of this to gel together as a team,” said Jennifer Waldron, an associate professor at the University of Northern Iowa’s School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services. “It’s still happening and people don’t want to talk about it, and they turn a blind eye.”

Since 2009, Waldron has published three reports on hazing or bullying within athletics.

At least four high schools in Iowa are dealing with hazing issues in their wrestling programs. Other cases in Sioux City and Gilbert have had moderate levels of disciplinary action put into place while one incident, in Greenfield, led to sexual abuse charges against two wrestlers. 

However, Waldron said, such problems can occur in any sport.

“I think it’s a huge coincidence that it is wrestling right now,” she said. “They’re all in season.”

Addressing the issue

Last week, The Gazette sent emails to more than 60 Eastern Iowa high schools –- large and small, urban and rural –- requesting an on-the-record comment about hazing or bullying within the culture of wrestling and not asking about any specific programs or incidents.

Cory Connell, head wrestling coach at Eddyville-Blakesburg High School in Eddyville, is one of only two coaches who agreed to talk on-the-record on the subject.  The other is Iowa City Regina head coach Bill Thomsen.

Connell first addressed the topic with the Des Moines Register two weeks ago. On Thursday, the former Hawkeye and City High standout spoke to The Gazette as he watched over 22 wrestlers during team practice.

“As a coach, I’ve touched on this with my team and we’ve talked about it,” Connell said. “We want to be the best wrestlers we can be, but I think it’s about being the best people we can be. It’s on and off the mat.”

The mother of the Lisbon wrestler said abusive behavior in athletics “needs to stop”. She called the school investigation into what happened “very short-lived.”

When asked for comment Friday, Lisbon superintendent Brad Laures offered a written statement.

“Every student disciplined appealed this decision as they felt it was too severe or unjust,” Laures wrote in an email. “We do not take this behavior lightly. As we move forward, we want to continue to educate all of our students regardless of their involvement with this situation.”

*******

Iowa Hazing Law, from the website stophazing.org

   708.1 Hazing
     * 1a. A person commits an act of hazing when the person
       intentionally or recklessly engages in any act or acts involving
       forced activity which endangers the physical health or safety of a
       student for the purpose of initiation or admission into, or
       affiliation with, any organization in connection with a school,
       college, or university. Prohibited acts include, but are not
       limited to, any brutality of physical nature such as whipping,
       forced confinement, or any other forced activity which endangers
       the health or safety of the student.
     * 1b. For the purpose of this section, “forced activity” means any
       activity which is a condition of initiation or admission into, or
       affiliation with, an organization regardless of a student’s
       willingness to participate in the activity.
     * 2 A person who commits an act of hazing is guilty of a simple
       misdemeanor.
     * 3 A person who commits an act of hazing which causes serious
       bodily injury to another is guilty of a serious misdemeanor and
       could be referred to civil authorities.
     * 4 Display of materials and use of language
     * 5 Public posting or utterance of obscene language, or the display
       of lewd or pornographic material or erotic art is not allowed on
       campus.

*****

Full statement from Brad Laures, Lisbon Community School Superintendent:

“We have cooperated completely with law enforcement, as well as the Linn County Attorney.  We issued discipline in accordance with school board policy to several students.  Every student disciplined appealed this decision as they felt it was too severe or unjust.  We do not take this behavior lightly.  As we move forward, we want to continue to educate all of our students regardless of their involvement with this situation.  Teenagers and other school-age children have much to learn, including how to get along with each other and how to treat each other with respect.  Our teachers, coaches and administrators work hard every day to inspire our students to be their best.”

*****

Full transcript of the Friday evening interview with the mother of a Lisbon Lions wrestler.  She agreed to speak with us, on the condition that her identity not be revealed.

Q: Tell me why would are talking about the incidents at this point. 

 ”I want to encourage our youth that they need to stand up for themselves and they need to stand up for their teammates, whether youre directly or indirectly involved in matters of hazing.  The success of your team starts and ends with you.  I want the general public to know there’s two sides to every story.  Right now, my son wasn’t given a voice in our district and I am his voice.”

 Q: What did your son experience, as a younger wrestler and this year? 

“(For the 2010-11 season), five days before the season opened up, my son was injured and it required surgical repair and it will require another surgery to remove the screws in his collarbone and it occurred in an unsupervised wrestling room and it took him out of eligibility for an entire season.  He didn’t encounter any acts other than that one but he did see other episodes of hazing going on.  I took the matter of his injury to the district and I communicated, clearly, that it wasn’t a wrestling injury and something was happening in the wrestling room and it was unsupervised.  What the school did with that is not something I can answer to.  I do know that, in the current allegations, they were occurring in an unsupervised wrestling room.  It doesn’t appear to me that anything was addressed in that matter.

Q: And for the incident this year?

 ”I choose not to comment because our school officials did a very short-lived, what they call, through investigation in which they only talked to a handful of the wrestlers on that team.  They closed their case without the voice of those they accused and without the voices of some of those not accused.  They don’t know who the victims truly are and they don’t truly know what went on and I’m not going to feed it to them through this interview.”

Q: Do you feel there is a code of silence to follow among hazing activities with the wrestling program?

“I don’t know how you define it.  Is there silence?  There is silence but I don’t think it’s anything that’s written or anything that’s verbally agreed upon.  My opinion is that it’s a learned behavior from what has been seen through the years and it is acceptance of the behaviors.  It is more about personal strength and defying any weakness, a rite of passage into being accepted on the team.

Q: How difficult has this made your life in the community? 

“It’s opened up a chapter of parenting I never thought I would live.  As far as my position in the community, I’m not a juvenile looking for acceptance, not an alumni of the district itself.  I’ve established my roots in the community and in the church community and I’ve found my acceptance in the people of the congregation and my friends and peers who have similar morals and values.  I would say our community is divided and I wouldn’t say it’s divided in half.  There’s fingers pointing every which way because there’s been no truth.  More silence than truth spoken about the occurrence.”

“I have found a unity among an awesome group of mothers of student athletes, whether accused or not.  We found some unity in this.

Q: What do wish the school district would do?

“Moving forward, there are some suggestions I have for them.  I wish they had given these students their due process that they are required to, by law.  Every one of these students should have been spoken to.  Not just a handful on the wrestling team.  Every participant, whether they were directly or indirectly involved, should have had a voice in this matter.  Going matter, they should ensure they put some aim in their investigation before they start firing with suspensions, that they rewrite and revisit their policies to include a matter as large as this.  That they hold their administrators to the same standards of conduct that they hold their juveniles to.  Their students are being held more accountable than their administrators on conduct right now and I wish to see these administrators resign.”

Q: Is hazing something that needs to stop?

“It absolutely does need to stop.  My question is ‘how are you going to get it to stop?’  You have all of these reality TV shows and these networks where you have inappropriate behaviors going on these kids can view online with the technology we have, watching TV.  How can you stop kids being kids other than educating them?  This really doesn’t begin in the homes with the parents.  This goes deeper into the coaches, instilling into the students that you need to watch what you’re doing.”

 ”When I was a juvenile myself, it was the simple snap of a towel and that can cause welts and bruising that somebody could construe as an assault.  Even something innocent anymore kids can’t get away with what we could get away with. 

 ”It needs to stop.  I hope the kids will step up to the plate and protect one another and protect themselves. 

*****

Full transcript of Thursday afternoon interview with Cory Connell, Eddyville-Blakesburg High School varsity wrestling head coach:

CORY CONNELL

EDDYVILLE-BLACKSBURG HIGH SCHOOL ROCKETS  6th Year

On the recent incidents around the sport:

“I don’t think its good for the sport.  As a coach, I’ve touched on with my team and have talked about it.  I think it’s a learning moment for all of them to understand that any time there’s something good or bad in the world to talk about it and let them know what my expectations are as a coach, as a program and as a school.  What our expectations are and we have high expectations.  We want them to be the best individuals they can be.”

On promoting a positive environment within the program:

“Being the best we can be on and off the mat.  24/7.  We want to be the best wrestlers we can be but I think it’s the best people we can be and, like I said, it’s on and off the mat.”

On the atmosphere of wrestling when he was a student: 

“(Iowa) City High is a great program.  I didn’t many issues when I was there.  I didn’t hear about many issues.”

 ”We have a great bunch of kids here and around the state and kids knowing the expectations and what’s right and what’s wrong.  A couple of bad isolated incidents around the state have shed a negative light but I think wrestling is really positive.”

On “doing the right thing”:

“It’s great for me and a lot of people I know.  Wrestling coaches are out there trying to get “you need to do the right thing”, telling my kids about this and what’s right and what’s wrong.”

*****

UNI Associate Professor of the School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services Jennifer Waldron has released these publications in her studies of hazing/bullying in high school athletics:

“Duct Tape, Icy Hot and Paddles: Sport, Education and Society”, 2011

“Looking The Other Way: Athletes’ Perceptions of Coaches’ Responses to Hazing”, Christopher Kowalski and Jennifer Waldron, 2010

“Crossing The Line: Rites of Passage, Team Aspects and Ambiguity of Hazing”, Christopher Kowalski and Jennifer Waldron, 2009

Transcript from Jennifer Waldron interview:

“I was an athlete myself in college and high school.  I was hazed as a college athlete.  I’ve been interested in the experiences of athletes.  I’ve taken my own experience and said what is going on with hazing right now.”

On whether this is common in wrestling:

“I think it’s happening across all sports – and very community specific and team specific.  I think it’s a huge coincidence that it’s wrestling right now…they’re all in season.  For many schools in Iowa, wrestling is the privileged team and we tend to see hazing being associated with that status.  Most people don’t necessarily associate hazing with bullying.”

On getting people to go ’on-the-record’ about hazing: 

“Very difficult to get people to understand why you’re interested in it and I’m not trying to expose problems but if we really care about our athletes, which we should, we need to be talking about this as an issue.  I love athletics!  That’s why I’m in physical education.  I love sport.  I’m not anti-athlete but we need to make sure we’re creating environments where our athletes excel and have a positive environment.

“We see this across all sports.  Some of the athletes in cross country or swimmers, they have pretty intense hazing situations.”

Examples?  “Walking naked, swimming naked, having alcohol and going off a diving board.  Those are dangerous situations, being hog-tied and being thrown in a river.  That was a cross country runner.  Being hog-tied and thrown into a river is dangerous and harmful.  Being urinated on in the shower is a common one for male athletes.  Being hit with weights.”

Why so secretive?

 ”It’s this open secret and because historically we’ve thought of hazing as boys being boys, harmless fun and we all gel together as a team.  It’s still happening and people don’t want to talk about it and turn a blind eye.”

Why do some coaches condone it?

“Coaches have experienced hazing and they view it as part of the sport experience.” 

“It is interesting is that hazing in sport research is young.  Talking with coaches hasn’t happened a lot.  I ask athletes what coaches did to stop hazing and they say ‘they knew it was going on and just said don’t hurt anyone and make sure no one finds out and it’ll be okay.”

*****

INITIAL STORY: Saturday night first draft.

CEDAR RAPIDS – In the six weeks since the first reports of incidents involving members of the wrestling team at Lisbon Community High School, now one wrestling mother is speaking.

The mother, who does not want to give her name, said her son was a victim of hazing as a younger wrestler.

“I want to encourage our youth that they need to stand up for themselves and they need to stand up for their teammates,” said the woman in a taped interview Friday evening at the KCRG-TV9/Gazette newsroom in Cedar Rapids.

The mother brought medical and law enforcement documentation to the interview to support her claims.  Given the sensitive nature of the allegations and that those alleged to be involved are minors, this report will not mention any names of student-athletes.

She said, last year, her son was one of the team members involved in rough play in an unsupervised wrestling room at the high school.  The activities, which she described as “non-wrestling”, resulted in a broken clavicle bone for her son.

“It required surgical repair and it will require another surgery to remove the screws in his collarbone,” she said.  “It took him out of eligibility for an entire season.”

Initially, three of the student-athletes at Lisbon are facing simple assault charges.  One wrestling parent told KCRG-TV9/The Gazette last month that his son was “held down” by one teammates and another put his genitals in the victim’s face.

Cancelled practices and one missed wrestling meet followed for Lisbon in late December as rumors swirled over what occured.  The mother said some student-athletes were suspended, including her son, and that not all the disciplined students have been reinstated.

Plenty of high school athletes, whether past or present, can recall moments where they faced bullying or hazing in their team sport.  Yet finding people to talk about this, on the record and even with multiple incidents reported in Iowa for one specific sport, has been extremely difficult.

“It is this open secret and because, historically, we’ve thought of hazing as ‘boys being boys’, ‘harmless fun’ and all of this to gel together as a team,” said Jennifer Waldron, a UNI associate professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services.  “It’s still happening and people don’t want to talk about it and they turn a blind eye.”  Since 2009, Waldron has published three seperate reports on hazing or bullying within athletics.

At least four high schools in Iowa are dealing with hazing issues amid the wrestling program.  Other cases in Sioux City and Gilbert have had moderate levels of disciplinary action put into place while one incident, in Gilbert, led to sexual abuse charges against two wrestlers.

Waldron does remind people these issues can occur in any sport.

“I think it’s a huge coincidence that it is wrestling right now,” said Waldron.  “They’re all in season.”

Last week, KCRG-TV9/The Gazette sent emails to more than 60 Eastern Iowa high schools.  Schools that are large and small, urban and rural.  Asking for an on-the-record comment about hazing or bullying within the culture of wrestling and not asking about any specific programs or incidents, only two coaches agreed to speak.

Cory Connell, head wrestling coach at Eddyville-Blakesburg High School in Eddyville, first spoke with the Des Moines Register two weeks ago about this.  On Thursday, the former Hawkeye and City High standout allowed our crews into his practice.

“As a coach, I’ve touched on this with my team and we’ve talked about it,” said Connell, who watched over 22 wrestlers during this practice.  “We want to be the best wrestlers we can be but I think it’s about being the best people we can be.  It’s on and off the mat.”

The mother of the Lisbon wrestler said abusive behavior in athletics ”needs to stop”.  She called the school investigation into what happened ”very short-lived”.

When notified of the pending story on Friday, Lisbon superintendent Brad Lauers did offer a statement.

“Every student discliplined appealed this decision as they felt it was too severe or unjust,” Lauers wrote in an email.  “We do not take this behavior lightly.  As we move forward, we want to continue to educate all of our students regardless of their involvement with this situation.”


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