The week of September 22-26 has been declared National Hazing Prevention Week, with the purpose of raising awareness of this destructive and frequently dangerous practice. Young people endure emotional and physical abuse because they believe it will make them part of an elite team, school, or fraternal organization. Many sustain life-threatening or long-lasting injuries as a result, and the process disrupts their academic progress and other social relationships. Hazing is a form of bullying, in which those who have power assert it within the group and mark the boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Victims look forward to the time when they will have that power over others.
Press Play (Running Press, October 2014) draws from an actual hazing incident in author Eric Devine’s area, one characterized by extreme physical violence with sexual overtones that resulted in the suspension of a football team for the entire season. In Press Play, the champion team plays lacrosse, and the entire upstate New York town is in awe of its feats. Protagonist Greg Dunsmore, though, is the last person to become involved with the “lax bros.” He weighs more than 350 pounds and for most of his school career has been the socially isolated target of bullies, who call him Dun the Ton. Greg, however, dreams of making films and has decided to chronicle his weight loss, directed by rebellious bodybuilder Quinn, for his class assignment.
While working out, Greg and Quinn hear disturbing sounds that lead them to the part of the gym where the lax bros work out. Unseen by the team, they witness physical and sexual violence perpetrated by the team’s upperclassmen on the freshmen—all of it approved by Principal Callaghan who is also the team’s coach. Greg films the hazing, which leaves one freshman with broken ribs and another with a broken nose. Going to the authorities with what he has seen only makes him the target of violence. His newfound allies—not only Quinn but also the equally fat Ollie and Ella, a transfer student with a secret in her past—are also attacked verbally and physically. Greg is an outsider in the community, and he has a reputation for distorting the truth with the films he has made. All this makes it harder for people to believe him.
Readers, including those who see themselves as reluctant ones, will want to read on to see how Greg gets himself out of the mess he has made by challenging the code of silence, masculinity, and power that rule the town. Often acting before thinking, he is the kind of imperfect person with whom teenage boys will relate, whether or not they too struggle with weight and body image. Although the lax bros are portrayed as bullies, Devine treats them with complexity and understanding. They, too, have been victims of abuse. They face the loss of privileges for which they suffered, and the adults who should be showing them how to grow up to be honorable men instead pressure them to assert their power without responsibility and to win at all costs.
Shortly after National Hazing Prevention Week ends, National Bullying Prevention Month begins. Press Play is a thoughtful, gripping, and important story for both these campaigns—and for the rest of the weeks and months of the year as well.