Full Court Press

Was it a harmless HBU jock initiation -- or hard-core hazing -- that shattered a freshman's hoop dreams?

She called the school administration and demanded the school look into what happened that night. And that, no doubt, didn't help Matt's standing with the team.

Maybe he got a few more flicks in the genitals than anyone else; maybe he was the reason some team members rounded up all three freshmen for midnight underwear runs or dunks into cold hotel pools as the season wore on.

Such antics might sound like harmless fun to some, but not to Norman Pollard, director of counseling and student development at Alfred University in New York. Alfred has been one of the leading institutions studying hazing, putting out a series of reports and statistical studies that are cited nationwide.

Freshman basketball players got their heads shaved at a team party.
Hadley Hooper
Freshman basketball players got their heads shaved at a team party.

Eighty percent of college athletes, according to a 1999 Alfred study, were subjected to initiation rites that were alcohol-related, dangerous or at the very least questionable, such as humiliating or degrading activities. More than one-third of both male and female athletes reported participating in a drinking contest as an initiation activity.

"When you talk to coaches, athletes or alumni, it seems that hazing is getting worse and that it is becoming more dangerous and even lethal in the types of behavior," Pollard says. "Especially forced drinking."

As Pollard sees it, that type of drinking can involve little more than peer pressure, especially when it comes to athletes.

"The hard part as concerns athletics as opposed to fraternities," he says, "is that with a fraternity you may have a choice of eight or nine or so, and if it's not the right fit you can move on. But many high school athletes go to a particular college to continue their career, so if they bring it out in the open they can jeopardize their scholarships."

Players at smaller NAIA schools may even feel the pressure more, he says. "Their whole identity is grounded in being an athlete, and you go to an NAIA school usually not because you're going to go pro after it but just as a way to continue being an athlete for two or three more years or so," he says. "And they are often willing to do anything to remain in that sport."

He says he's often contacted by parents dismayed at a school's lackadaisical response to hazing complaints. Some sue and settle out of court, but no real figures are available.

Schools should conduct serious orientation programs describing the hazards of hazing, he says, and they should encourage other forms of initiation.

"It's important to understand and to look at the students' behavior," he says. "These things are not done out of viciousness, but rather a sincere desire to create a rite of passage. There is a strong need to belong for these kids, so it's important for a school to provide positive team-building initiation rites to meet that need."

Hazing is not a problem at HBU, according to school officials. University president Edward Hudo testified he had never heard of a hazing complaint until Wohlfahrt's, and none had been reported to him since 1997.

Then again, his definition of "hazing" might not match Pollard's.

Asked about the HBU hazing "culture," Hudo said that as a "Christian-slash-Baptist school, we would hope and expect that that would be diminutive." "But I'm a realist," he continued, "and I realize that, as we would hope that there's little to no alcohol and little to no intersexual relationship and little to no drugs, it's still here."

As to whether any of the alleged activities counted as "hazing," Hudo took a rather relaxed view.

A late-night underwear run? "Marginal," he said.

Shaving the heads of drunk freshmen? "As it relates to the head-shaving, I could understand why that would not have been a cataclysmic event…As it relates to the alcohol being present, I would have hoped that [a coach] would have discouraged it."

Throwing players in an icy pool? "Probably."

Flicking them in the genitals? "I struggle with that answer. I struggle with an answer in light of the fact that I'm aware that that activity goes on among athletic teams regularly and has for a number of years. If a person objected, then yes."

(HBU's internal report said what it called "scrotum slapping" was not hazing because "the practice occurs throughout the team" and freshmen were not singled out.)

Hudo also apparently was not intrigued by a statement in the HBU internal report attributed to main head-shaver Blane Vincent. "The guys are freshmen, so this type of thing is going to happen to them," Vincent was quoted as saying. "Lots worse happened to me last year."

In his deposition Vincent denied making that statement, too; John Yarabeck, the official who conducted the investigation, testified he didn't press Vincent for details. "[H]e just seemed to not want to pursue that," said Yarabeck, now an administrator at a small Pennsylvania college. "And since we weren't investigating that, I didn't pursue it either."

That comment is, to Lynn Wohlfahrt, emblematic of HBU's entire attitude toward the allegations. "They just never took it seriously," she said.

The morning after the pool party, she called HBU's administrative offices and was directed to Yarabeck, then the school's associate vice president for student affairs. She demanded he find out what happened.

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