Goodbye, kids’ backpacks. Ciao, glittery manicures. Adieu, kicking balls into the stands and forcing the kids to fetch them. Hasta luego, rookie rites of passage.
The NBA put an end to the tradition of rookie hazing last week when it sent a memo to teams outlining a long list of hazing and bullying behaviors that will not be tolerated. In response to alleged harassment and racially insensitive behavior on the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, the NBA outlawed even the more innocent forms of initiation that many teams employ, including the Jazz (exhibits A and B).
So do we care? There hasn’t been much discussion about this piece of NBA culture going away. In fact, Portland rookie CJ McCollum wasn’t even aware of the memo when TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott mentioned it to him a week later. Here’s some food for thought on the tradition, its merits, its liabilities and more.
The risks – Hazing gone bad
Hazing, like most things, is a phenomenon that exists on a spectrum. Few people try to defend severe types of initiation that include abuse, criminal behavior or psychological trauma. Somewhere way at the other end of the spectrum you have college guys in diapers and NBA rookies in backpacks. But harm can be done even by these innocuous forms.
The first and most obvious risk is that we don’t all have the same sensitivities, which makes it easy for me to think I’m firmly in the good-natured fun part of the continuum when I’m actually crossing the line. That’s what happened in Miami. In his post-suspension interviews, Dolphins guard Richie Incognito has basically said, Oops, I was just having fun with a friend and teammate, and may have gone too far, but I shouldn’t be suspended. (In fact, he formally appealed his team-imposed suspension.)
Another risk is that it could actually erode team trust (instead of building it) and gnaw at a player’s confidence (instead of building it). This last point should be particularly troubling for a team like the Jazz which needs its current rookies to play a pretty impactful role on and off the court. Think about Trey Burke, who sometime in the next month or so will be asked to lead the Jazz’s sputtering offense and try to turn things around. If his peers view him as a punchline because of his veteran-imposed underclass status, can he lead like the Jazz need him to?
Bill M‘s response to this thought on Twitter made me laugh: “If I was Jabari (Parker) or (Andrew) Wiggins on Jazz next year after a 10-72 (season) and JL3 pulled out the Miss Kitty backpack I’d laugh at him… Trey should hand his back.”
Neil added, “Nobody on this team has the the pedigree to pull rank on any rookie.”
Aaron agrees: “I was thinking about this and no way would I carry a pink backpack around. I’ll bring donuts and bagels, and look for a mentor and respect the vets, but no way would I carry the backpack.”
That’s my point about how hazing could actually derail a young player’s legitimacy as a leader. Wouldn’t fans want Burke to arrive at camp and thoughtfully tell the vets, “I’ve thought about it and I need to be viewed as a leader. I can’t be seen that way if I have pink fingernails and am forced to retrieve balls from all over EnergySolutions Arena. Respectfully, I can’t do what I need to do for this team and be your punching bag for the sake of tradition and fun. Now let’s go over those sets together so I can learn them.” Isn’t that exactly the type of response you’d want a franchise player to proffer?
Are there benefits?
Most people who respond to my rants about rookie rites of passage respond with some variation of, “But it’s harmless!” I would argue that harmless isn’t the same as beneficial, and I want to know — are there actual benefits that come from this less rigorous end of the hazing spectrum?
I have talked to players about this before — albeit casually — and the prevailing answer has been that it’s fun for the broader team and an entertaining way to get to know the incoming players’ personalities.
I posed the question on Twitter and got some good responses. The ever-savvy @Lord_Chadeous and I had a lively debate wherein he recalled his initiation week experiences at college. He said the experiences were some of his fondest memories, and pointed specifically to the way the ordeal gets candidates out of their comfort zone.
Other answers I got from the tweeps included building camaraderie, establishing mentor relationships, and giving new players a sense of credibility. Additionally, I found some interesting stuff online about theoretical benefits, including a Cornell study where they looked honestly at the pros and cons of hazing; some of the key themes here were establishing discipline and a respect for the structure of the organization.
All of those answers are probably correct. What I wonder is if there’s a better way to achieve those benefits without incurring some of the risks described above. Yes, it’s fun; aren’t there other ways to have fun as a team? Yes, a culture of discipline can be vital; aren’t there other ways to teach discipline and adherence to a system? Yes, it might bring the group together; Mike D’Antoni and his Laker rookies say that they have been focused on different types of team-building.
And specifically in response to the comfort zone point, I wonder if the time being invested in expanding a player’s comfort zone in completely irrelevant ways couldn’t be applied more meaningfully. I’d definitely like for Rudy Gobert to expand his comfort zone, but I’d rather he expand his offensive comfort level rather than get comfortable wearing pink nails to practice. Does the latter make him a better pro?
Enes Kanter was cited as an example of how hazing actually helped mold a better basketball player. The theory is that his unique big brother-little brother relationship with Al Jefferson actually sped up his learning curve. I’m not sure I buy the premise. Is there any evidence that Kanter would have learned less or at a slower pace if Big Al hadn’t denied him chicken? The man was picked third in the NBA Draft, presumably because he already possessed some basketball skills and a desire to improve; how do know his growth as a player (which, by the way, was fairly modest from his rookie year to year two) has anything to do with Jefferson picking on him in good fun?
I get that the NBA is an exclusive fraternity, and I get that earning your place in an elite club of 400-450 requires building some credibility. But the NBA isn’t just a fraternity; it’s a job, and these guys are professionals.
Imagine you just got hired with a new company because they saw your résumé and skills and thought you were someone who could help the organization reach its goals. You’re excited to contribute and you show up for your first day of work.
You arrive to a group of coworkers that excitedly tells you, “We’re happy to have you, but you have to prove you belong. You’re required to bring donuts every day. We’re also going to throw staplers all around the office and make you run around and retrieve them. Your colleague Joe here will be your mentor and on-the-job trainer, but he will also be allowed to tease you mercilessly and require you to run errands, carry his stuff and tote embarrassing accessories. After about a year of this, we’ll finally respect you as our coworker and our equal, and then you’ll be able to do the same to the next set of new guys. Here’s your cubicle.”
Would anybody stay at that company? I wouldn’t.
Yeah, there are probably some positive things that come out of the more innocuous brand of rookie ribbing: fun, camaraderie, expanded comfort zones, etc. But aren’t there other, more productive ways to team-build that don’t bring the risk of non-productive submission or worse: blatant abuse, like what happened in Miami and other, more severe cases? There are a variety of team-building ideas and methods to welcome new aspirants into the NBA brotherhood other than demeaning them in ways small and large. There are other ways to have fun and bond. Most obviously, there are certainly other ways for a rookie to earn their place in the basketball community that have nothing to do with backpacks and donuts.
To me, it’s just not worth it. Let rookies prove their worth in the 94 feet between baselines, and let teams build camaraderie by actually building camaraderie. We’ll miss the cutesy features about backpacks, but maybe this will make it easier for young players to establish themselves quickly as credible leaders, something that could help the Jazz now and in the long haul.