Season 1 of ABC’s drama “American Crime” traced the lives of those affected by a murder, reliable subject matter which the show deftly handled to the tune of critical acclaim and 10 Primetime Emmy nominations. This season, however, the producers made a bold shift, tackling the difficult topic of high school hazing — a narrative that somehow feels both ripped-from-the-headlines and mutually under-publicized.
Michael J. McDonald, one of the executive producers of “American Crime,” said the decision to cover hazing was made partly to put a spotlight on the perpetrators in hopes of curbing such issues. “There are so many more men that have had some sort of hazing incident that they carry the shame [over],” McDonald told The Washington Post in a phone interview this month. “The people who did this to them should be shamed.”
To McDonald’s point, the show follows a working class student who attends a party with his Indiana upper-class private high school’s basketball team, after which he wakes up disoriented and with the realization that he’d been raped by his classmates. The victim doesn’t share what happened to him, but social media reveals his secret when photographs of him drugged and with his pants down circulate on the Web and eventually land in front of his mother. His explanation to her?
“I was ashamed,” says the character, Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup).
McDonald said the first episodes of the season, which began airing on Jan. 6, elicited confessions from two of his friends, both straight and with their own families now. Both men revealed to McDonald they were sexually assaulted under the guise of hazing and had never told anyone before. McDonald hopes the show will continue to empower people — both those who have survived these types of events and those going through them now — to come forward. That’s the only way these incidents will stop, he said.
“My friend who talks about what happened to him 20 years ago can have that conversation with his son who is 11 or 12 right now so it’s better when he goes to [high] school,” he said. “He doesn’t have to wait 20 years for it to get better. It needs to be better now.”
That urgency feels particularly poignant now, as a Tennessee basketball team was forced to cancel its season amid a disturbing hazing incident allegedly involving a pool cue last month.
McDonald points to the 2012 incident at Steubenville High in Ohio, in which two football players posted a video on social media showing themselves raping a 16-year-old girl, as the spark to taking on this subject. While he said the network was at first “cautious and a little bit afraid” to depict a male-on-male incident, it didn’t take as much convincing as he thought.
“They were willing to do it because I think they knew the passion with which we came to them, and they also knew that we were going to give it an incredible, smart spin,” he said. “It was more like they grabbed our hands and jumped off the cliff with us.”
B. Elliott Hopkins, the director of Educational Services at the National Federation of State High School Associations who travels the country to speak out against hazing, told The Post that he agrees the only way to confront the problem is to make it visible. He said he’s “glad” to see network television tackle the issue.
“Now, you can’t go a week during sports season without two to five hazings involving young people,” Franklin College professor Hank Nuwer told Al-Jazeera America in July. “And a lot of those are sexual assaults involving sodomy, improper touching [and] putting buttocks in their faces.”
It’s a widespread issue. A 2008 study that analyzed survey responses from 11,482 post-secondary students spread across 53 different college campuses in the United States found that 47 percent of high school athletes have been hazed. A previous study, completed in 2000, revealed similar results. And hazing affects both genders, as well.
“The studies that have been done show that it’s fairly equal between men and women,” said Emily Pualwan, the executive director the advocacy organization HazingPrevention.org. She added that incidents perpetrated among males, however, tend to be more violent and aggressive.
Sports teams also aren’t the only groups that engage in hazing. There have been reported instances among members of high school military programs such as the ROTC, high school bands and even church youth groups, though sports, according to studies, tend to perpetuate the behavior more. McDonald thinks that’s because of the extreme focus many in certain parts of the country put on sports programs.
On this season of the show, “we wanted to talk about the predominance that sports played in American culture and how forgiving we are of sports figures’ indiscretions because they are our heroes,” he said, noting this idea often starts in high school where “how well you can play on the field” portends how popular you might be among your classmates. “It defines children,” he said.
This defining identity could be what makes these groups more vulnerable to hazing.
“Suddenly, after years of involvement in youth sports, they are expected to do something dangerous or humiliating in order to be part of a team,” Norman Pollard, director of counseling and student development at Alfred University, told Education World. “For a young person, choosing not to participate in team sports is a horrible alternative. To give up sports is to give up identity. For them, [to be humiliated] is a better alternative than to be isolated and ostracized.”
Ironically, hazing doesn’t actually foster team bonding, according to Pualwan, who said student-athletes who are hazed tend to have high higher rates of depression and are more likely to drop out of the activity or even school.
To McDonald, this means sports themselves aren’t the problem, which he believes “American Crime” makes clear.
“There’s so many great things about sports, so many great things about what it can teach you,” he said, adding neither he nor his show would ever discourage children from participating in sports.
“I would just say keep your eyes open,” he said. That seems to be the mission of this season of “American Crime” — opening eyes to the issue of hazing.
Correction: A previous version of this post mistakenly referred to Hank Nuwer as Frank Nuwer.