By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Back during the summer of 2005, I started work as a rookie Metro reporter at the Chicago Tribune. And about a month into my tenure, I was hazed.
No, not in the ways you might imagine. I wasn’t duct taped to a buttress atop the Tribune Tower. My head wasn’t shaved by WGN into a Bozo haircut. And I wasn’t ordered to pick up the tab for some veteran reporter’s dinner at Charlie Trotter’s.
As if I could have even afforded an appetizer at the joint.
However, on a slow weekday afternoon in early August, a notoriously mercurial news editor did indeed march up to my desk at the Tribune Tower and order me to hightail it up to North Avenue Beach.
“There’s been a report of a shark sighting,” she barked.
“A shark sighting?” I said in a voice as dry as beach sand.
“Get on it,” I was told. And so with a roll of my eyes, I picked up a notepad and went down to Michigan Avenue to hail a taxi. A few minutes later, the cabbie dropped me off near the picturesque, sun-splashed beach, which was crowded with happy sunbathers – and perfectly serene.
Obviously, there was no incident at all, let alone one involving Jaws. But knowing that I’d be grilled about having done my due diligence as a reporter, I trudged up to the lifeguards’ window and leaned forward.
“Hi,” I said in a deadpan voice. “I’m a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, and I get sent out to ask silly questions. So, I need to ask you if there’s been any report of a shark sighting out here today.”
The well-bronzed Barbie and Ken working inside the lifeguard booth stared at me for a moment with incredulous looks, before Ken finally broke the silence by saying, “This is fresh water.”
“Yes,” I answered wearily. “I know it’s fresh water. So, no shark sighting, right?”
And with that, I left the beach and took my very fine time strolling through the sunshine back down to the Tribune Tower. Upon my return, I passed an office in the newsroom that was hosting an afternoon editors meeting and was asked what I had found at the beach.
“Not sharks,” I said, drawing a round of chuckles from my bosses.
Being a rookie. It bites.
As hazing stories go, though, my experience at the Trib was about as mild as it gets. Sure, it may have been a bit annoying, but it was harmless and ultimately made for an amusing tale that I enjoy telling. I have no problem with an occasional prank when it’s fun and games.
However, what we’ve learned this week about the hazing and bullying endured by Miami Dolphin offensive lineman Jonathan Martin over the past 18 months is that it’s been anything but fun. And in the wake of the allegations of violent threats, racism and extortion made toward Martin by teammate Richie Incognito, as well as the apparent juvenile behavior of many other Dolphins players, I have to ask: Isn’t it time for the NFL to just ban hazing?
What truly worthwhile purpose does it have in the game?
On Wednesday, the Washington Post published an article, “Great moments in Redskins hazing,” which included a story from 2004 about LaVar Arrington squishing a shaving-cream pie, containing menthol, into teammate [Sean] Taylor’s face as a hazing prank.
“Taylor rolled on the ground in pain, screaming that he was blind, and missed practice the next day with eye problems,” the Post reported.
Five years later, during the 2009 training camp, “Redskins Albert Haynesworth and Cornelius Griffin tied five rookies to the goalposts, four to each other on the ground, and then nabbed late arrivals Marko Mitchell and Keith Eloi and taped them up back-to-back, standing up.”
“It’s hot, they’re real tired, so we just want to make sure they cool out,” Haynesworth told the Post. “This is family right here, so this how we’re doing to our little brothers. This is what we always do.”
But, really, why is that what they always do? How did either of those incidents help the Redskins be a better football team? Obviously, neither instance rose to anything near the level of what Icognito is accused of doing in regards to Martin, but that hardly makes them any more worthwhile.
Whatever the example, I simply don’t see how that the potential costs of hazing – whether they be on a personal level for Martin or on a public one for the NFL’s increasingly tattered image – outweigh the benefits. That’s if there even are any benefits.
In 2008, Redskins coach Jim Zorn didn’t see many benefits when he quashed some of the Redskins’ longtime hazing traditions including forcing rookies to stand on chairs and sing.
“I just remember how distracting it is for a young guy trying to make a football team,” Zorn recalled in the Washington Post. “And when I went to Seattle, one of the early meetings in training camp, Mike Holmgren stood up and said: ‘Men, there will be no hazing.’ I though: ‘What an idea! Gosh!’ And he explained why, and he kind of explained that whole thing that I always thought: ‘What are we doing here?’ You know, we’re grown men, we’re fighting to make a football team.”
This week, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported how Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has worked to prohibit hazing among his team since August 2012 when veteran defensive linemen Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Kevin Williams taped then-rookie Chase Baker to a goal post in front of fans, sponsors and media. They bathed him in ice, Gatorade and Pepto-Bismol before finally cutting him loose. His transgression? He wouldn’t perform a song-and-dance routine that the lineman had demanded earlier in camp.
About hazing, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder said, “In this day and age, I think that it doesn’t really have a place in this game. Coach Frazier has done a great job since I’ve been here to limit that, and it’s a great environment to play to, and our locker room is great. We’ve got a ton of good guys. So we don’t see that, and I think that it creates a better environment for everybody to show up and work together.”
On Wednesday, as reported by CBSChicago.com’s Adam Hoge, first-year Bears coach Marc Trestman explained how he sent a similar message to his players before the start of this season’s training camp.
“I told the team the first night, when you haze somebody, you take their ability to help you win. Everybody’s here to help you win,” Trestman said. “Our whole foundation is built on respect for everyone in the organization, respect for the players, respect for the game, honoring the game. We talked about it a lot.”
Now, with the Incognito-Martin incident putting the NFL in a Miami vice, everyone is talking a lot about hazing. But the league, with all of its CTE and Aaron Hernandez black eyes, needs to do more than talk. It needs to take action by outlawing hazing entirely.
It’s time to take the sharks out of the water.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.