COLLEGE PARK – It didn’t matter that Hudson Taylor, a three-time All-American wrestler at the University of Maryland, isn’t gay.
Some of his teammates still lobbed anti-gay slurs at him and questioned his sexuality, he said, because he was active in theater on campus.
Taylor, who graduated in 2010, was one of the thousands of college students involved in club and varsity sports who are hazed by their teammates each year. Despite national efforts to eliminate hazing, more than half of all college athletes are hazed every year, according to Hazing Prevention, a nonprofit advocacy group.
The group defines hazing as any action taken to cause emotional or physical harm to an individual, regardless of their willingness to participate.
“Life is hard enough with the problems we have to face,” Hazing Prevention Executive Director Tracy Maxwell said. “To artificially make up something for someone to go through in order for them to prove their worthiness to a group doesn’t make sense.”
Yet it continues, in part because athletes are sometimes unwilling to speak out for fear of crossing teammates. A 2008 study by the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention reported that 69 percent of students said they were aware of hazing on campus.
Students do not “go to other people for help unless it’s dire circumstances,” Taylor said. “I was a part of that problem and in many ways we perpetuate that.”
Coaches can play a crucial role in the fight against hazing, Maxwell said. Ultimately it is their responsibility to make sure the behavior ends before it begins.
That’s difficult when coaches are unaware of the problem, Taylor said. He said he was hazed out of earshot of his coaches at Maryland.
“Even if you have a diligent coach who is doing the right things there are still unmonitored spaces within athletics,” Taylor said. “There are parts of the locker room or places where the coach isn’t going to be there 24/7.”
When coaches were present, the problems were minimal, Taylor said. Former Maryland wrestler Joseph Gilpin said Maryland wrestling coach Kerry McCoy actively strived to create a competitive environment for his wrestlers while emphasizing team chemistry and respect for others.
“Once you characterize what is hazing behavior, you have you put a stop to it,” McCoy said. “There’s no room for that, there’s no tolerance for that. You treat people with respect and try to get the most positive experience for everybody.”
Many student athletes experience hazing before they even get to college. Each year 1.5 million high school students are hazed, according to a 2000 Alfred University study.
Mitch Mallary, who wrestled at Erie High School in Erie, Ill., said he was one of them. After he was kicked off the wrestling team in December 2011, his family appealed the decision to the school board, claiming that some members of the coaching staff were active participants in hazing activities, according to Mallary and local media reports.
Mallary, a seventeen-year-old senior at the time, told the school board that some members of the coaching staff sprayed wrestlers in the genitals with a garden hose and poured buckets of ice on them while they were corralled in the corner, according to Mallary and a report in Sauk Valley Media, a local newspaper.
The school board met in January and decided to reinstate Mallary to the wrestling team.
Erie High head wrestling coach Tod McCullough said in an email that he was “unable to comment on past allegations that have been investigated by the school district and determined unfounded” because of student privacy issues.
Mallary now runs track and field at Judson University in Elgin, Ill. He said he’ll never forget his difficult experience.
“It taught me that it takes courage and guts to stand up and defend what’s right,” Mallary said. “You won’t be amongst the majority. You might be all alone.”
Hazing isn’t just limited to sports. Robert Champion, a member of the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University’s marching band, was killed during a team hazing ritual just over a year ago.
Champion was beaten to death by his band members while on a parked bus after a football game, according to court documents.
Florida officials charged 11 people with felony hazing and two others with misdemeanor hazing. The university suspended its marching band director, who retired in May. FAMU president James Ammons also resigned. The university will require each student to sign an anti-hazing pledge before they return from winter break.
Champion’s death also inspired a movement for national anti-hazing legislation. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) proposed a bill that would deny financial aid to students convicted of hazing and deny federal highway money to states that do not implement anti-hazing laws.
In Maryland, the state defines hazing as “any act or causing of any situation which recklessly or intentionally subjects a student to the risk of serious bodily injury for the purpose of initiation into a student organization.”
Violating the law can bring a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail.
Taylor doesn’t want to wait for legislation to curb hazing, he wants to swiftly stop it altogether his own way.
Tired of the culture hazing promoted, he became an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights and anti-hazing causes.
“Eventually I got to a place where I was a very successful wrestler,” Taylor said. “I felt that I wasn’t held hostage by other peoples’ opinions of me anymore.”
During wrestling matches at Maryland, Taylor began to wear a Human Rights Campaign logo on his wrestling helmet.
After receiving much publicity, Taylor received thousands of emails from open and closeted members of the LGBT community, praising him for his support.
After he graduated in 2010, Taylor decided to create Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization that promotes equality for all sexual orientations and works to end the sort of verbal hazing that Taylor experienced.
The organization helps student athletes across the country talk with their athletic directors about ways to curb hazing. Taylor also travels the country talking about the issue.
“Slowly but surely, we are taking proactive steps toward making athletics safer and more inclusive,” Taylor said. “What’s going to change the culture is ground up activism.”