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Newsletter > April 2000 > "BEYOND THE FRATERNITY HOUSE – ATHLETIC TEAM HAZING EXPOSED"
BEYOND THE FRATERNITY HOUSE – ATHLETIC TEAM HAZING EXPOSED
Gary E. Powell
Within the past year, the popular press has paid a great deal of attention to hazing occurring in the context of athletics. In August 1999, Alfred University released a comprehensive, empirical study on ”initiation rights and athletics.” The Alfred study defined hazing as:
“any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate. This does not include activities such as rookies carrying the balls, team parties with community games, or going out with your teammates, unless an atmosphere of humiliation, degradation, abuse or danger arises.”
[The Alfred study found that 80 percent of the 2,027 anonymous, NCAA student-athlete respondents “reported being subjected to one or more typical hazing behaviors as part of their team initiations.”]
Under this definition, the Alfred study found that 80 percent of the 2,027 anonymous, NCAA student-athlete respondents “reported being subjected to one or more typical hazing behaviors as part of their team initiations.”
During the 1999 fall semester at the University of Vermont, the findings of the Alfred University study hit home. A member of the UVM hockey team reported that for several weeks during September, upperclass hockey players taunted freshman players about an upcoming “Big Night.” For example, they were warned that they would be required to have sex with sheep at the party. During the weeks leading up to the party, upperclassmen made sheep sounds to them in the locker room. The freshmen were directed to wear togas and thong bikini underwear to the party, and to paint their nails and shave their pubic hair. Prior to the “Big Night,” university officials were informed about the event. Despite specific warnings from athletic department officials, the hockey team went forward with the party.
The party was held on October 2, 1999 at a house rented by one of the team’s captains and other members of the hockey team. At the party, the freshmen were required to engage in a variety of sexually suggestive activities, forced consumption of alcohol and were required to eat a seafood quiche with ketchup and barbecue sauce on it, resulting in several players vomiting in a communal bucket. According to reports, the sophomores played the most active part in directing the evening’s activities.
Several weeks after the party, an attorney representing the player who originally informed the University about the planned event delivered a letter describing the events of the October 2nd party to the president of UVM. The letter indicated that the player had sustained emotional and financial damages and indicated the desire to meet to discuss a financial settlement of his claims. The University then decided to conduct its own independent investigation into the player’s allegations, established a university committee to oversee the investigation and retained outside attorneys to conduct the investigation. The attorneys were to interview the hockey team members and certain athletic department officials.
Prior to the interviews, each member of the hockey team received a memo indicating a time and place for the interview and informing the players of their obligation to “provide truthful and accurate information” to the investigators and that the failure to be truthful would result in their removal from the team. The players were also advised that they should not discuss the matter with their teammates either before or after the interviews.
The interviewers were informed that the party had in fact taken place and that much of what was alleged by the freshman player had occurred at the party. The UVM committee investigating the hazing determined that hazing had taken place in conjunction with the October 2nd party and decided on a rotating one-game suspension for each of the team members. On December 3, 1999, the University publicly announced the suspension. The hockey coach was interviewed by the local press about the University’s findings and said in one interview:
“Oh, I don’t think it is serious at all. The boys were guilty of a couple of things that most of the athletes on all college campuses are and we’re addressing that right now. So, we’ve found some violations of my team rules and that’s what we’re taking care of presently.”
Initially, the coach denied that hazing took place but subsequently acknowledged that hazing had in fact taken place.
On December l 0, 1999, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the freshman player against UVM, the hockey coach, the university president and the hockey team captains. On December 11, 1999, the Vermont Attorney General was requested to look into allegations of hazing incidents involving members of the UVM hockey team and the University’s response to the allegations. Prior to the conclusion of the Attorney General’s investigation, UVM canceled the last 15 games of the hockey season after it was determined that the entire team had lied to University investigators about the October party. On February 3, 2000, the Vermont Attorney General issued a report following his investigation finding that hazing had indeed taken place and criticizing the University’s response to the initial allegations and its subsequent investigation. The Attorney General concluded that while University officials did not cover-up the investigation, they did not pursue the investigation as thoroughly as they should have. In fact, the investigation found one other hazing incident in September 1999 and that similar hazing incidents occurred at least as far back as 1996. The attorney general’s office decided to prosecute several individual hockey team members for their role in furnishing alcohol to minors. In addition, the Attorney General recommended that the state legislature “consider enacting anti-hazing legislation providing for a range of punitive sanctions, civil to criminal, depending on the severity, risk and outcome of the hazing activities.”
On February 25, 2000, a committee appointed by the UVM president released its report on the prevention of hazing in intercollegiate sports at the University of Vermont. The committee, representing a cross-section of the university community, issued a comprehensive report on its findings and made recommendations for the University to consider in dealing with hazing. In its report, the president’s committee made a variety of conclusions that have been apparent to the fraternity world for some time, such as the fact that “[h]azing in its many and varied forms, permeates diverse settings throughout our society (e.g., social clubs, athletics, the military, places of employment, etc.); it is deeply embedded in and reflective of pervasive cultural norms, making it difficult to eradicate” and that “[h]azing activity ranges from potentially harmless and humorous to highly humiliating, criminal, dangerous and even fatal.”
While emphasizing that UVM is first and foremost an educational institution, the president’s committee found that the university’s current definition “appears to students (and many faculty and staff) as so ‘all-inclusive’ that they (particularly students) find it both confusing and difficult to take seriously” and that “most athletes with whom we spoke do not feel that many of the behaviors that are defined as ‘hazing’ according to UVM policy are actually ‘off-limits’.” As a result, the president’s commission recommended that a consistent definition of hazing be adopted for the entire campus community, that the University describe hazing in a way that more clearly differentiates why particular behaviors and situations are of concern and that sanctions for hazing violations vary based on the severity of the hazing activity. Among its 53 specific recommendations, the committee urged the University to improve the way it communicates UVM’s hazing policy to all segments of the community, including at first-year student orientations and during the athletic recruiting process. A number of the recommendations also focused on improving the University’s ability to respond to allegations and incidents of hazing.
If the public reaction and the media coverage of the UVM Hockey Team hazing and other recent athletic team hazing incidents are any indication, the issue of hazing in general will be brought more into public focus. While universities have had to deal with hazing by fraternities, bands and social clubs on campus for years, unless a death or serious physical injury was involved, the level of public attention was relatively small and short-lived. The efforts expected to be made by colleges and universities to prevent athletic team hazing may help fraternities get the message across to those students who have refused to follow the fraternities’ policies against hazing. With colleges and universities fearful of losing all or part of an intercollegiate athletic team’s season as a consequence of hazing incidents, there is likely to be an increased emphasis on campus about the negative consequences of hazing and funding for education about ways to bring new members onto teams or into groups without hazing. This will hopefully bring a greater awareness to all college students. Unless individual students realize that there are potential serious, personal consequences associated with hazing others, they will likely continue to haze. Education is the best way to show these students that hazing is wrong.