Football resting in grass.

University athletic administrators all across the country are welcoming back their athletes for the 2023–2024 athletic season. Athletes and coaches alike will meet with compliance administrators for a refresher on National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) bylaws, nutritionists to discuss proper nutrition, and even media relations staff to discuss media obligations. What sometimes can be forgotten in the hustle and bustle of college athletics—and the desire to get to the practice field as quickly as possible—is the need to ensure that coaches, administrators, and athletes alike are being trained on proper behavior and reporting mechanisms. Though sitting through multiple presentations may not be as fun as hitting the weight room, a failure to appropriately train athletes, coaches, and administrators may have catastrophic impacts on an institution and individual employees.

Quick Hits

  • Currently, forty-four states prohibit hazing, all with various definitions and requirements relating to training and reporting.
  • A violation of Ohio’s Collins Law may result in a third-degree felony if the hazing results in “serious physical harm.”
  • Pennsylvania has one of the nation’s strictest anti-hazing laws, with individuals facing felony charges for their actions if an incident rises to an aggravated level, with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
  • Failure to understand both state law requirements and institutional policy may result in individual penalties.

Though the most recent collegiate hazing scandal may have brought the issue of hazing into focus again, hazing prevention is likely to be top of mind for every athletic administrator and coach. In addition to the NCAA’s issuing a hazing prevention handbook, over the last few years as the number of hazing incidents and media stories have increased, lobbyists and lawmakers at the federal and state levels have gained traction in implementing and updating laws relating to hazing. Attempts at enacting a federal law related to hazing have been unsuccessful to date. However, forty-four states now have new or amended laws prohibiting hazing. The regulations, penalties, and requirements vary significantly by state, with some imposing multiple responsibilities on groups of individuals. Failure to comply in some states could result in criminal penalties for individuals.

For example, in 2021, Ohio enacted Collin’s Law, which amended the state’s existing anti-hazing statute. The amendments expanded the definition of hazing, increased the penalties for hazing, widened the scope of those who could be punished for participating in or permitting hazing, expanded the list of officials required to report hazing, required reporting of hazing to authorities with penalties for failing to report, and required staff and volunteers at institutions of higher education to complete education on hazing awareness and prevention.

Specifically, Collin’s Law states that “[n]o administrator, employee, faculty member, teacher, consultant, alumnus, or volunteer of any organization … shall recklessly permit the hazing of any person associated with the organization.” Such a violation of Collin’s Law will result in a second-degree misdemeanor. If the hazing includes “coerced consumption of alcohol or abuse of drugs resulting in serious physical harm,” the violation is punishable as a third-degree felony. Similarly, Collin’s Law imposes a fourth-degree misdemeanor if an “administrator, employee, faculty member, teacher, consultant, alumnus, or volunteer of any organization … who is acting in an official and professional capacity … recklessly fail[s] to immediately report the knowledge of hazing to a law enforcement agency.” If the hazing causes serious physical harm, the failure to report constitutes a misdemeanor in the first degree.

Moreover, in addition to being subject to the reporting, policy, and educational requirements imposed by Collin’s Law, institutions must also specifically provide “all staff and volunteers that advise or coach an organization … and who have direct contact with students with mandatory training on hazing.”

Similarly, after amending its anti-hazing law, Pennsylvania is known to have one of the strictest anti-hazing statutes in the country. In addition to requiring annual reporting, mandatory training, and mandatory policies, the law subjects individuals to possible felony charges for their actions if an incident rises to an aggravated level, with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. Likewise, under Florida law, hazing may be considered a felony, and the law covers individuals who, though not physically present during an actual event, helped plan it. Certainly, there are scenarios in which administrators and coaches may be liable for potentially being complicit in such events.

Though not all anti-hazing laws contain the same strict responsibilities for individuals, states are continuing to amend their state laws. In fact, after news broke of the most recent hazing scandal, at least one Illinois legislator discussed the need to create even tougher anti-hazing laws and mandate the inclusion of an ombudsman to support individuals coming forward with complaints and concerns.

In addition to complying with state laws, athletic administrators must understand their own institutions’ policies and procedures. Though some states do not provide for the same levels of criminal and civil penalties, institutions may proactively enact policies and procedures imposing stricter requirements and penalties.

While having and understanding policies and procedures is critical, individuals are also called upon to be able to recognize signs of hazing and know how to report these incidents. Institutions may want to ensure that athletes and others experiencing hazing feel comfortable reporting such incidents. Administrators and coaches may want to discuss openly that the team’s goal is to maintain a respectful environment for all and reinforce the institution’s reporting mechanisms.

Key Takeaways

Athletic department administrators may consider the following items to prevent hazing, and questions that may help in complying with anti-hazing laws and policies.

  • Understanding state anti-hazing laws. Do all covered individuals have an understanding of what constitutes hazing and their obligations with respect to training and reporting?
  • Reviewing the institution’s policies and procedures. Do they go beyond the laws of the state where the institution is located? Should additional changes be made to proactively prevent hazing?
  • Training, training, training. This not only includes athletes, coaches, and administrators, but also athletic trainers, media relations staff, academic advisors, student managers, graduate assistants, and anyone else who regularly interacts with athletes, including volunteers.
  • Conducting a pulse check. Do athletes understand what constitutes hazing and do they know how to report potential hazing? Do administrators know how to recognize hazing as well as signs of hazing?
  • Reviewing existing reporting lines. Does the institution have anonymous reporting options so athletes and other staff members do not fear retribution?

As students and athletes return to campuses, ensuring compliance with policies, procedures, and laws are of utmost importance. Recent hazing scandals and increased media attention related to hazing are driving states to actively implement and amend anti-hazing laws related to prevention, training, and reporting. University administrators may want to ensure that they know, understand, and comply with institution policies and procedures, as well as state laws.

Ogletree Deakins’ Higher Education Practice Group will continue to monitor developments and will publish updates on the Higher Education and Sports and Entertainment blogs as additional information becomes available.

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Reprinted with permission from the August 2023 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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