Five members of the Needham Massachusetts High School girls’ soccer team were recently suspended for allegedly participating in a hazing ritual. Local news outlets reported that, after the team secured a place in the Bay State Conference, several senior members of the team led more junior members around on dog leashes and hit them in the face with whipped cream pies. The suspensions may have been a routine response to an all-to-familiar offense, but in Needham’s case, the stakes were especially high. The girls’ suspension meant that they could not practice for or play in the next game, which just so happened to be the State Tournament.
This leads to the most disappointing, mystifying and just-plain-wrong aspect of this story. Instead of seizing this infinitely teachable moment to instill a sense of morality, of humanity into their children, the parents of the girls instead went to court, asking for an injunction against Needham High principal Jonathan Pizzi to allow the girls to play. But Judge Barbara A. Dortch-Okara ruled that since playing sports is a privilege, not a right, preventing their participation does not violate their right of due process. Actually, the word the judge used was entitled, which is exactly what these families seem to feel: entitled to participate in tournament play despite showing a distinct lack of leadership the night they qualified.
Some would argue that hazing is tradition and, as such, should be continued. With that logic, we’d still have segregation and women couldn’t vote. Others say the rituals are all in good fun. In Needham’s case, the hazing victims said they were fine with what happened to them, laughing even. But that’s a little like believing that a sex-worker or an exotic dancer is making her own choice, just because she says so. Sometimes the exploited don’t know they are being exploited until much distance and reflection make it clear.
But back to the parents. Caught up in the competitive chaos of the college admission process, these parents, no doubt, saw the suspensions not as lessons to be learned, but big black marks on their daughters’ applications. But I would urge those parents to take a step back and ask themselves: what’s more important here? Winning a soccer game or having a sense of right and wrong?
Definitions of hazing are outlined in the Massachusetts anti-hazing Statute, in place since the 1980’s. “Hazing…shall mean any conduct or method of initiation into any student organization…which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of a student…” The words are open to interpretation, to be sure. But Needham High School staked out its territory high on the hill… with crampons strapped to their boots. Conversely, the girls’ parents have taken a position much farther down the slippery slope.
As a pediatrician, I often tell the parents of my patients: Remember. You’re teaching your children all the time, intentionally or not. Our children are watching us all the time, learning, taking cues. So what are the Needham girls learning from their parents’ behavior: seeking an injunction to allow their kids to play in the State Tournament. That soccer is more important than their teammates’ feelings or well-being?
I was in my pigeon pose today in yoga class. The instructor was trying to get us to pay attention to everything at once: our breathing, our spine, our hip flexors. “Everything matters,” she told us. Indeed. Maybe the Needham High School girls’ soccer team and their parents need to take a yoga class.