Monday, January 23, 2012

Wrestling with the issues

It’s kind of hard for someone who is athletically inept and not especially competitive to make much sense out of wrestling-related hazing cases, some overtly sexual, that surfaced in Iowa high schools during January after incidents late last year.

So far as wrestling is concerned, I’m probably missing the point, but the concept of men young or old clad in skin-tight singlets rolling around on the floor with each other as crowds cheer seems a little warped. I’m told it builds character.

High school and college wrestling is a big deal in Iowa. State wrestling tournaments are a major cultural event. But ---

Two students at Nodaway Valley High School in Greenfield, over northwest of here, have been charged with second-degree sexual abuse for allegedly sodomizing as many as three younger teammates with the handle of a jump-rope as a punishment for infractions such as missing practice.

At Sioux City North High School, four members of the wrestling team have been charged with simple assault after three allegedly held a 15-year-old victim down while the fourth used “humiliation techniques on bare skin of sensitive body parts.”

At Lisbon, in northeast Iowa’s Linn County, simple assault charges are pending against three wrestlers after an incident during which a student was restrained while teammates placed their penises and testicles on his face. The victim also says he was placed in a shower and urinated upon.

At Gilbert, in Story County, wrestlers reportedly were disciplined by the school without police involvement after an incident involving “non-sexual horseplay.”

None of the coaches have been disciplined because investigators concluded they hadn’t known what was going on. The young men charged at Greenfield were jailed, but wrestlers involved in incidents elsewhere remained active in wrestling programs. And in many cases, especially at Greenfield, angry parents rather than school officials brought the incidents to light --- and to the media.

I’m sure there are many fine well-managed wrestling (and other athletic) programs in Iowa and it seems unfair to paint with too broad a brush, but three dramatic incidents and one less so in so short a time does bring up the question of how unexceptional this kind of behavior is.

A major point of sexual assault, or assault with a sexual element, is to shame. And those shamed I’d guess would be reluctant to speak out. So there’s probably much more of this going on than we’d care to think about.

When asked by the Register about proactive responses to hazing, an official of the Iowa High School Athletic Association, which governs boys’ athletics, told the Des Moines Register that conduct issues are in the hands of local school districts, although an anti-hazing seminar is available upon request. The overall impression was that the state organization wasn’t overly interested.

I’m surprised no coaches were held accountable. While a coach certainly can’t control everything a student in his charge does, he (or she) is ultimately responsible for the culture of his or her program --- and perhaps for supervising locker rooms, too.

The boys-will-be-boys approach isn’t really acceptable any more, and we seem to be getting over the idea that bullying, hazing and the like build character. The focus lately in schools has been quite rightly on ending the bullying and harassment of LGBT youngsters. But it looks like the target needs to be broader.

1 comment:

Ken said...

This post is disconcerting, to say the least. As the father of a student-athlete (a high school swimmer), I'm a firm believer in coach accountability. If only by failing to set the RIGHT tone, a coach inevitably sends a signal to his or her players as to what's acceptable and what's not. Now that this issue has gained such prominence in Iowa, I would hope that coaches (in all sports) would start doing the right thing by ALL their players.