Short Relief: Don't give the NFL a pass for hazing

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The Nov. 24 Patriots-Broncos game featured some of the worst football and some of the best football. It was bitter cold. The Patriots committed six turnovers. Three of those led to Broncos’ scores. By the end of the first half, the Patriots were down 24-0 and fans were heading for the exits.

But the Patriots did not give up. They made adjustments. They made some great plays. And, they came back to win in overtime, 34-31.

It was exhilarating to watch. A bunch of guys, working hard, together, under adverse conditions, rise above their mistakes, and overcome a worthy opponent. I am not sure that there is anything more satisfying, except maybe to do so in service of a more noble cause.

Notwithstanding the good show, the NFL faces significant challenges these days, including reports that Miami Dolphins veteran guard Richie Incognito, who is white, harassed second-year tackle Jonathan Martin, who is biracial, with sexual and racial insults to the point where Martin was so unhappy that he left the team.

The story has been dribbling out. Initially, it sounded as though Incognito was a rogue who sexually harassed Martin. Later reports suggested that team management enlisted Incognito to toughen-up Martin and that Martin disliked being hazed by the team.

In my mind, hazing is the practice of a group attacking an individual in order to make the individual a part of the group. The attacks can take different forms and can vary in severity. What distinguishes hazing from bullying is the purpose for which it is undertaken. Hazing is harm administered to build a bond.

Maine law defines injurious hazing more broadly, as any action that endangers the mental or physical health of a student. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have laws making hazing illegal. Most of those laws define hazing as violence used to initiate someone into a group. Some make exceptions for customary athletic events.

Football is a contact sport. On the field, players hit each other in ways that would be illegal, if not criminal, on the street. It isn’t, because those involved understand and accept that the game involves a certain amount of physical violence.

Even so, there are limits. Clipping, crackback blocking, and face-masking are penalties. And the rules evolve. This season, as part of an effort to decrease the number of concussions, the league implemented a rule penalizing players for hitting opponents in the head with the crown of their helmet.

Football is also a team sport, a game played by a group of individuals working together toward a common goal. Teammates specialize. Teams win by having great athletic talent, good systems and smart coaches, by practicing, and by working together.

It takes enormous sacrifice, more than most of us will ever know, physically, mentally, and emotionally. There are many ways to create that willingness to sacrifice. Historically, one of them has been hazing.

Hazing has been documented in ancient Greece, medieval European universities, military organizations, American colleges, fraternal organizations, marching bands, and athletic teams. A 2008 University of Maine study of nearly 11,500 students enrolled at 58 colleges found that 55 percent of those involved in organizations experienced some form of hazing.

There are various theories about how and why hazing builds solidarity. Sharing an intense experience tends to define, distinguish and associate people. Suffering can be a form of investment. Punishment is a way to make people conform. Some hazing is designed to systematically strip a person of their individual sense of self and replace it with that of the group.

My belief is that hazing is part of a process of building an individual’s commitment to a group. It does so as part of the push and pull of acceptance and rejection in different forms, from psychological to physical.

As evident from the Incognito-Martin case, it doesn’t always work. It can backfire, and worse. There are extreme cases in which people have died from hazing.

What’s confusing is that we value the teamwork in football. We accept, if not relish, some of the violence. We think of bullying as something that the strong do to the weak; not something that 300-plus-pound men to do each other. Sometimes, the line between acceptable teasing among equals and unacceptable insulting can be hard to define.

What may be most offensive about the Incognito-Martin situation is the racial and sexual language that Incognito used on Martin. In most workplaces, it would be considered an illegal hostile environment.

We often make exceptions for NFL players, because they entertain us. Because they are a big business that generates a lot of revenue and employs a lot of people. Because we admire their exceptionalism. Because they provide an outlet for our own aggression.

But there is no good reason to excuse this kind of behavior. There are other ways to build loyalty. The NFL should not be exempt from the rules that prohibit racial and sexual hostility in the workplace.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.