10/15/2014 05:08 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Hazing, Violence and the Culture of High School Athletics: What Can Be Done?

As the hazing/sexual assault scandal at Sayerville High School has become a national news story, we can't help but ask how this could have happened in the first place. How could such blatant violence involving multiple players take place on a team with the motto "character and commitment?" A team led by a coach who was recently inducted into the New Jersey Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame? A team in the State of New Jersey with one of the toughest hazing and bullying laws in the country?

Over 100 years ago, the founder of the sociology of education, Emile Durkheim, in his lectures on moral education described hazing as an inevitable product of an inequality of status and power without a countervailing moral culture. He warned:

Hazing is not simply a sickly fantasy produced by some sort of unreasonable caprice. Otherwise it would not be so general or so hard to extirpate.

Hazing arises when individuals belonging to an established group interact with newcomers who have yet to be accepted into the group. Durkheim noted that in this interplay, individuals in the established group can become intoxicated with their power and superiority, which they demonstrate by engaging in "harassment and violence" as if it were a "game."

Durkheim is right about hazing being pervasive and hard to destroy. Studies conducted at Alfred University and the University of Maine indicate that almost half of high school students involved in sports and clubs have experienced some form of hazing. Although most hazing is far milder than that reported at Sayerville, the fact remains that hazing is far more common and hurtful than many would care to admit. It is also difficult to stop. Although 44 states have anti-hazing laws, hazing continues. External controls alone are not sufficient to check the megalomania that occurs in toxic cultures.

Administrators and coaches cannot address toxic cultures through fiat and the threat of punishment. Coaches and administrators must work from within by engaging student-athletes in the building of a team culture of mutual respect and caring, a culture in which members of the team take responsibility for each other, especially for the weakest and most vulnerable. Hazing can be prevented only by understanding and addressing the context of inequality that can lead adolescents to behave with a cruelty that they do not exhibit elsewhere.

This is a difficult challenge. In working with athletic departments across the country, my colleagues and I in the Play Like a Champion Today Program at the University of Notre Dame offer clinics in which we discuss adolescent psychology and how to harness the cultural dynamics that underlie hazing and bullying as well as team cohesion. Through these clinics we have grown in our respect for and appreciation of high school coaches, who selflessly guide and serve their student athletes in ways that will last a lifetime. They are willing to take the time to become more effective counselors and moral educators. The public at-large needs to support them by assuring that they receive the specialized preparation they need to build team cultures that are not only safe and fun, but foster character and social responsibility.