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Hazing in the Locker-Room: The Neepawa Natives Investigation

By Carter Anne McGowan

While the sports airwaves here in the U.S. are filled with stories of unfolding sexual abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse, Canada is doing its own soul-searching due to a hazing incident in junior hockey which has resulted in a just-closed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) investigation, an ongoing league investigation into the involvement of the assistant coach, issues of minor consent, and questions about the legitimate boundaries of humiliating initiation rituals.

In September of this year, up to five rookies on the Neepawa Natives of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL) were made to engage in several hazing rituals. Veterans on the team made one 15 year old (Player One) walk around the locker room with a water bottle rack tied to his scrotum as other players tossed towels on the rack to add weight to it. Other rookies were tasked to engage in a locker room striptease, on which they were rated and for which the lowest-rated players were penalized by doing pushups over tubs of ice water.

Soon after these events, Player One left the team. His story became public when he shared the facts of the incident with his girlfriend, who told her father. Word of the hazing made it back to Player One's father, who confronted the Natives' head coach, and informed him that not only were players in the locker room during the hazing, but so too was assistant coach Brad Biggers.

While the Natives did inform the MJHL of the hazing incident, team management told Player One that if he desired to return to the team, he must first apologize to his teammates because he didn't seek to handle the situation internally but instead spoke to outsiders about the situation. Player One did apologize to the team, but management then requested that he stay away from the team during the investigation. As of now, Player One has not returned to the team but is instead making plans to play in the U.S.

After the MJHL completed its initial investigation - during which the members of the team were interviewed and informed the MJHL Commissioner that Biggers was not in the room - the MJHL handed down a $5,000 fine and issued 18 suspensions: five games for assistant coach Biggers; five games for the team captain; three games for each of the assistant captains; two games for the head coach; and 12 one-game suspensions for 12 other players.. These were the most suspensions and largest fines ever handed down by the MJHL.

Yet the story was not over. After the completion of the MJHL investigation, the team's board of directors engaged in its own investigation of the hazing incident. During this second investigation, four players stepped forward to admit that they had lied about Biggers' involvement in the hazing, stating that he was in the locker room when the hazing occurred. Biggers resigned; the MJHL reopened its investigation, suspended Biggers from the league indefinitely (which operates to ban him from all coaching in Canadian junior hockey leagues), and appointed a retired Winnipeg detective to serve as an independent investigator.

Unlike many U.S. jurisdictions, Canada - where criminal law is an exclusively federal body of law - does not have an anti-hazing statute. This incident naturally raised the question of whether Canada should have a federal anti-hazing statute, as the law available to the Crown Attorney is the law of assault, which, unlike anti-hazing laws, carries with it questions of consent. Under the Canadian Criminal Code (RSC, 1985, c.C-46 ยง265):

(1) A person commits an assault when
(a) without the consent of another person, he applies force intentionally to that other person, directly or indirectly;
(2) This section applies to all forms of assault, including sexual assault [...]
(3) For the purposes of this section, no consent is obtained where the complainant submits or does not resist by reason of:
(a) the application of force to the complainant or to a person other than the complainant;
(b) threats or fear of the application of force to the complainant or to a person other than the complainant;
(d) the exercise of authority.

The Neepawa Natives rapidly moved to establish a consent defense in its apologetic press release of November 3rd:

First and foremost, no player was forced or threatened to take part in anything they were not comfortable doing, this was and remains a team policy from the start of the season. The victims of the incident participated in the events that took place in the month of September on [sic] their own will and were not pressured in any way by any member of the team. We are truly sorry for allowing this kind of immature behavior to happen in our dressing room.

Taking the statute at face value, there are several reasons why consent, even if given, would seem to be of dubious validity: the minority of the hazed players; the questions of force applied; the exercise of authority (captains/veterans have at least informal authority over rookies; assistant coaches obviously have authority over all the players). Yet Canadian legal commentators felt the issue of whether consent had been granted was a significant barrier to prosecution of any locker room hazing under the assault statute. This week, the Crown Attorney appeared to agree, and the RCMP announced that no criminal charges would be filed arising from the hazing incidents. The MJHL's second internal investigation is ongoing and is likely to be completed within a week, and according to reports focuses on Assistant Coach Biggers and his involvement. If nothing else, this incident serves as yet more evidence - as if after the last several weeks North America needed more evidence - that the culture and power structures exhibited in too many sports locker rooms are in need of significant overhaul.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 28, 2011 8:11 PM.

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