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Why youth sports hazing happens: because adults say it can

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Sometimes a message board is like listening a roomful of drunks. They’re incoherent, belligerent, funny and rude, and they’re all talking over and around each other. But sometimes, in their uninhibited state, they speak their most closely held feelings that they might otherwise not reveal in polite company.

That’s how I look at the threads on Illinois Matmen, a message board focusing on wrestling, that are devoted to the Prairie Ridge High School hazing scandal. For those of you thinking the only hazing I care about happens in Carmel, Ind., on March 5 Crystal Lake, Ill., police arrested five wrestlers as juveniles on misdemeanor counts of simple battery relating to hazing, which they did without benefit of a 1970s goalie mask. (I bet Crystal Lake people get tired of those “Friday the 13th” jokes in a hurry.)

Specifically, the wrestlers are accused of slapping fellow wrestlers and groping their privates through their clothes.

An attorney for the wrestlers has categorized the conduct as “innocent, adolescent horseplay.” That’s to be expected; he’s on the payroll. But the adults (and other high school students) condoning the wrestlers’ behavior — heck, practically giving them high fives for it — can be found on Illinois Matmen, which I discovered thanks to this recent Northwest Herald article on the school’s take toward investigating the scandal.

I’ll preface this by saying that if it seems like wrestling shows up a lot in hazing news, then some of the posters on Illinois Matmen will confirm your beliefs that there is something about the sport — which already has plenty of groping, intentional or not, of other people’s privates — that invites a hazing culture.

There are three threads devoted to the hazing scandal — well, some would say the scandal is that the school and police made such a big deal about a little necessary rite of passage, or as it’s often called on the site, a right of passage. (Like drunks, as I said.) The threads are here and here and here. There is a lot of discussion about pink bellies: repeated, open-handed slaps to the stomach meant to leave a pink mark (though if done repeatedly and hard enough, an act that can leave red welts).

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The 2007 John W. North High School (Riverside, Calif.) boys cross country team gives us a demonstration of the pink belly.

Now to some highlights, which alternate between extreme tough-assedness and the Stockholm Syndrome:

“This is ridiculous. These kids are going on trial for assault for giving pink bellies. This isn’t chess,it’s wrestling” — BigHeadTodd

“This is complete garbage. This was nothing more than what goes on in every wrestling room and locker room in the Country. This same stuff that happened here has probably happened to your kid Cubs84 as it has happened to almost every kid at sometime in the wrestling room. It looks like this was done late in the day on Friday. I’ll find out more when I get to the Courthouse Monday.” — Radical

“I agree, unless things get out of hand, like hitting as hard as can, it’s just kids being kids. When I was a senior captain on my team, a couple of other seniors taped me up and threw dogde balls at me. it was all in good fun, and the coaches thought it was funny too. It may sound like they didn’t respect me, but they did, and it was just for fun.” — jimbob

“It’s sad that it’s called hazing anymore. It was always a right of passage thing. A way of earning respect and showing loyalty.
I have been given and have given pink bellies that turned into welted red bruised bellies that lasted for days. Those who didn’t get these “badges” were never highly regarded. Showing your team you can take it and not whine or cry about it is part of becoming a man. As long as it doesn’t leave a lifetime scar emotional or physical it’s free range.” –uniteordie

“My wrestling team in high school gave pink bellies to wrestlers on their birthdays. That was the coach’s rule.” — Mr. White

“haha well I forget which team, but they pick a freshman that is on the varsity team and make him kneel in the middle of the mats to where everyone can see. he puts his hands behind his back and an older teammate hits him as hard as he could in the face… everyone laughs and cheers!! it’s really funny, even the freshman laugh” — USAwrestlingDAD189, describing an apparently annual event at an Illinois wrestling tourney

“Pink Bellies are part of a tradition that has been going on for decades. When I think back years ago when I was a Freshman in Highschool they used to line us all on the floor and in a room we call the cave and turn the lights off. Each Senior would go down the roll slapping us in the stomach. When I was a Senior we did the same thing. The intent was not to hurt the other person but to see who can take it. During Football this would happen the whole Homecoming week.” — maddog81

Am I cherry-picking responses from the posters at Illinois Matmen? I sure am! To be fair, there were people who did say they thought that any hazing, even pink bellies, was unacceptable, and that the Crystal Lake police were well within their rights to do what they did. But I’m not sure a lot of young athletes hear those voices. Instead, they hear the voice of the coach who encourages the behavior, or hears the implicit voice of the coach who never discourages it.

Other posters worried about how the Prairie Ridge case would affect the sport of wrestling. One made an interesting point about why perhaps so many on Illinois Matmen don’t have a problem with hazing:

“Most of us on this website are wrestling enthusiasts and have very positive feelings toward the sport. That means that we survived or even enjoyed the initiation or hazing that we (or our kids) participated in. And I agree that most of it is pretty harmless with teenagers just goofing off and having fun. However, the kids who had the worst experiences and were bullied or seriously embarrassed probably are not on this forum to share their thoughts, because they are no longer involved in the sport.” — MatsDad

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