Hard by a lake in rural northeastern Pennsylvania lies a wooded enclave known as Camp Wayne for Girls. But last August, in the dog days before the beginning of a new school year, the grounds were brimming with testosterone. Sixty boys and five coaches from Long Island's Mepham High football team had converged on the property for the Pirates' annual preseason camp. They spent most of their time on a practice field across from a ring of green cabins, running through plays, determining who would be where on the 2003 depth chart.
The members of the jayvee team—freshmen and a few sophomores—expected to be the subject of hazing. It had all but ossified into a Mepham football tradition: The upperclassmen would initiate the new kids. One young player might suffer the indignity of a shaved head, another a conspicuous bruise, maybe an unlucky one would have body hair ripped off with duct tape. It was understood that they would endure their humiliation without complaint, and by the time they returned home to Bellmore, a middle-class town of 16,000 in the heart of New York City's sprawling suburbia, they would have standing as official members of the team. And besides, they could take some comfort in knowing that someday they would be the ones leading the initiation.
According to accounts provided by numerous sources with access to firsthand testimony and to court documents made available to SI, a senior tackle and a junior linebacker (whose names are being withheld because they are minors) inaugurated their reign of terror in cabin 13 during free time between practice sessions on the afternoon of Aug. 23. As a third teammate helped out, the 6'2", 245-pound senior grabbed a jayvee player whom he outweighed by nearly 100 pounds and sat on him. The hulking junior linebacker then pulled down the player's shorts, dipped a broomstick in Mineral Ice—an ointment that burns when applied to sensitive skin—and forcibly sodomized him.
Other team members in the cabin cheered or looked on in horror (or both), but no one broke the unwritten code by alerting coach Kevin McElroy or any of his four assistants. In the days and nights that followed, as their rampage went unchecked, the senior and his junior cohort—the latter of whom would tell a psychiatrist that he, too, had been hazed as a freshman-sodomized two other jayvee players as well, adding pine cones and golf balls as instruments in their repertoire of brutality.
In the end, there were as many as 10 attacks on the three victims—one vicious enough to cause a witness to vomit—in cabins 12 and 13. On two occasions the perpetrators forced a jayvee player to sodomize another with the broomstick. On another they made a victim suck on a golf ball that had been placed in his teammate's rectum. At one point the junior linebacker placed a banana near his crotch and forced one of the players to simulate oral sex on the banana. Another jayvee player was then made to eat the banana. On the third night of camp, two of the underclassmen were given a choice: They could be sodomized or they could approach an African-American teammate and berate him with a series of racial epithets scripted by the upperclassmen. They chose option B.
It wasn't until the four-hour bus ride home on Aug. 27 that whispers about the horror began to amplify. As the bus barreled down the highway, a freshman who had slept in cabin 10 sidled up to one of the victims and asked if there was any truth to the rumors. "Nah, don't worry about it," came a sheepish response. When the team arrived back in Bellmore, no witnesses reported what they had seen. Ashamed, embarrassed and threatened with additional violence, none of the victims came forward either.
Last September, three weeks after the Mepham attacks, New York Yankees rookies Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras emerged from their clubhouse in the Bronx to howls of laughter. In a scene designed for maximum comedic effect, the Yankees' veterans forced the rookies to parade in flamboyant women's clothing—a leopard-print hat and coat for Matsui, a white fur coat and purple pants for Contreras—in front of eager media from around the world. Everyone got a good chuckle, to say nothing of a picture and lighthearted write-up for the next day's papers. For the Yankees and a host of other clubs, it's an annual rite of passage, a way of humbling the millionaire newbies and initiating them.
It's something else, too: hazing.
The practice is firmly entrenched in an American sports culture that values tradition, team bonding, leadership hierarchies and assertiveness. But what is hazing? As Hank Nuwer, an assistant professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written four books on hazing, acknowledges, the term has a maddeningly broad definition: Any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of the person's willingness to participate. "It's almost like we need different terms, like we have with manslaughter [and murder]," Nuwer says. "Having someone put on silly clothes is called hazing, and so is sodomy."
What starts out benign, Nuwer argues, can turn ugly in a heartbeat. "It can escalate in a single year with a single suggestion," he says. "The experts say, 'Look at the culture. Once you have a hazing culture and some sort of risky behavior, the chances are somebody's going to escalate it and something's going to go wrong.' It would be really rare that the very first time we do hazing we have something bad occur. It's usually a pattern over some years."