When Richie Incognito was suspended from the Miami Dolphins last week under allegations of bullying teammate Jonathan Martin, most of his teammates came to his defense, claiming that Incognito's actions stemmed out of football tradition.
"If entrance into a group requires a lot of effort or enduring something that is unpleasant or embarrassing, we attribute greater worth to the group," said Clark Power, Notre Dame professor of psychology and founder of the Play Like A Champion Educational Series for youth and high school sports. "In sports, we might say that we will value being a member of the team more to justify going through the hazing we are put through."
Proponents of initiation rites and hazing say that the traditions build character and team unity. Still, Power and other experts agree that hazing should never be condoned.
"Studies show that harder tasks required to get into a group can increase (the standing of a new member) for a group," said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written four books on hazing. "But this is a quick fix and doesn't stop cliques and resentment from forming."
Look at the extreme groups that promote hazing-type violence, suggested Susan Lipkins, psychologist and author of "Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment, and Humiliation."
"People bond by sharing an experience," Lipkins said. "When conditions are dramatic or traumatic, bonding happens almost instantly. Hazing activities are based on traditions and are used to discipline or to maintain a hierarchy. These acts are either physically or psychologically harmful or potentially harmful."
So when do acceptable rites of initiation cross the line into hazing?
Although current members of the Miami Dolphins have publicly supported Incognito, denying that his actions were harmful, some former teammates expressed their doubts.
"Hate is a strong word but I've always hated Incognito," Lawrence Jackson, a former NFL player, said on Twitter. "Just for perspective, he's the guy that makes you want to spit in his face."
College teammate David Kolowski said Incognito's bullying goes back to 2002, when one player walked out of practice after Incognito knocked him to the ground during practice, USA Today reports.
Bystanders, most hazing and bullying experts agree, have a great deal of power in such situations. But football players are so indoctrinated in a culture that celebrates a narrow view of masculinity that it's easier to blame the victim, said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.