Wade Davis knows all too well what it's like to be inside a locker room feeling the heat of hazing. Do you speak up or join in on inflicting pain and embarrassment upon fellow athletes?
The former pro football player hid behind an insecure facade of masculinity for years trying to protect his secret and avoid becoming the target of hazing.
Now he's openly gay and is devoting his life to tearing apart what he describes as toxic masculinity.
Davis is a self-described feminist activist. His paradigm and perspective couldn't be more different today than it was when he was in the throes of locker-room culture.
Davis describes the locker room as an asylum and says in a lot of cases it's the inmates who are running it.
"The locker room is a place absent of supervision. It's absent of mechanisms to protect people," Davis says.
Hazing in sport has been thrust into the spotlight again after former NHL player Daniel Carcillo came forward with his stories of hockey abuse, recounting days in the Ontario Hockey League and the horror stories that unfolded in the locker room.
"One of the most vivid memories that stands out is one of my teammates being taped to a table ass-up naked being whipped with his own belt by two veterans. He was screaming," Carcillo said.
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The emotional trauma has taken it's toll on Carcillo and many more — athletes who for years have suffered in silence with no one to turn to.
Davis understands Carcillo's years of silent fear, frustration and pain.
During his high school, college and professional football days, Davis says he was never on the end of hazing but saw it and did nothing about it. He didn't know what to do or who to talk to.
Davis spent time on NFL training camp rosters, including with the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks. He also had a stint in NFL Europe.
Davis was also more concerned about his safety and ensuring he wouldn't become the next victim.
"If you are part of the circle, then you will never become the target. That's what this is about," Davis said. "The thing you're worried about is someone hazing you. You participate hoping that it exempts it from happening to you."
Screams for help
What Davis says is at the heart of hazing is a man's desperate need for connection and not knowing what that looks like in a heteronormative setting.
"I think men think it's not acceptable for men to be vulnerable with each other," Davis said. "I think hazing is someone screaming out that they need something and they haven't been given the language or the freedom to ask for help."
Davis says in the hyper-masculine setting of the locker room, men are looking for ways to connect in all the wrong ways — in a lot of cases it manifests in sexualized hazing and abuse because men aren't able to express empathy, compassion and connection in a healthy way.
"What we really want is to connect," Davis said. "It's been framed as weakness but vulnerability in these settings could be the beginning of stopping this. "
And Davis says that means talking about things that for far too long have been uncomfortable topics to discuss in the open.
"We don't talk about mental health issues, male isolation, racism, sexism, homophobia. We use these other words to make ourselves feel good about something changing," Davis said.
"The only way you could have ended that culture is if you addressed it directly. And we haven't done that."
Power, privilege and protecting the establishment
University of Manitoba kinesiology professor Jay Johnson recently co-authored a study of hazing rates among more than 400 Canadian varsity athletes.
The study, published in the Canadian Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology this summer, suggests hazing is common in both women's and men's athletics. Nearly two-thirds of Canadian varsity athletes reported that they've experienced some form of hazing.
"I don't think things are really improving. I just think it's gone more underground," Johnson said.
Johnson says one of the biggest reasons hazing continues to exist is because those who are in positions of power were once in those same locker rooms and may have been also participating in hazing rituals.
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"Coaches and athletic directors are generally former athletes themselves. So they're also a part of that culture. And in terms of hazing, had it done to them and did it to others. And that really normalizes behaviour because everyone's doing it," Johnson said.
Davis echoes the thoughts of Johnson when it comes to the vicious cycle.
"Hazing is a situation that involves someone believing they have power and control and displaying dominance over people," Davis said.
He adds that in a lot of ways what happens when hazing is taking place in the locker room very much mimics what happens outside of it as well.
"The things that happen in the locker room don't stay in the locker room. If I'm allowed to dehumanize someone in a locker room, I might start to enjoy that. I don't ever want to lose that feeling. So this extends outside the locker room," Davis said.
"If you take any marginalized group, the world is their locker room where they get hazed and dehumanized."
Both Johnson and Davis agree on the difficult path ahead in changing the hazing locker-room culture because of how rooted it is in privilege, power and societal framework upholding its presence.
"It requires a lot of investment from the administration, coaches and by the team itself to change it. It's like turning around an aircraft carrier right in the middle of the ocean. It takes a lifetime and it takes a lot effort but it can be done," Johnson said.