Full Court Press
One by one, they trudged into a conference room on the campus of Houston Baptist University, all of them at least slightly nervous, whether they'd admit it or not.
Four young men -- three current or former HBU basketball players and an assistant coach -- took a turn entering and facing various lawyers and a stenographer. The lawyers were there to take sworn depositions about just what happened during the first half of the 1997-98 HBU season.
Matt Wohlfahrt, another former player, claims those months four years ago were "probably the worst time in my life." A freshman who saw scant playing time, he says he was pressured to attend a team party, forced to drink ten or so shots of liquor, had his head shaved against his will, and then injured himself when he fell near a pool. There were other incidents, he says: a wrestling match where an upperclassman jumped him unexpectedly in the team bus, to the delight of an onlooking coach; being tossed into a freezing pool on a road trip; being forced to run late one night in his underwear through the women's dorms; and, most oddly, being subjected to teammates regularly flicking their fingers at his genitals, perhaps necessitating future surgery.
"I went through a hazing experience. I suffered multiple injuries," Wohlfahrt said in his own deposition. "Every day I dreaded going to practice. It just mounted up. I was seeing my friends at other schools talk about how much their college life was like the best time of their life, and I was just dreading it. I never experienced anything like that -- it was like I was alone."
He complained to university officials, who conducted an investigation. That just made him "the guy who turned all the basketball team in," he said. None of the players was suspended, and as far as Matt or his mother could tell none did the recommended punishment of ten hours of community service.
"The school treated the whole thing like a joke," Lynn Wohlfahrt says.
It was something close to a joke to the players, judging by what they had to say to the lawyers. Matt Wohlfahrt, they said, was a benchwarmer who wasn't really good enough to play for the HBU Huskies, a team that regularly made it to the postseason tournament of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the small-college version of the NCAA's March Madness.
Sure, he got teased like all freshmen, they said, but he was a willing participant in the drinking and other pranks. And what's so bad about flicking someone in the balls, anyway?
"It's a game. It's like guy bonding. It's fun," said Shane Wells, another HBU freshman and Wohlfahrt's former roommate, who went through some of the same things.
Wohlfahrt -- and his pushy mother -- had been constantly bitching about his lack of playing time. His mother had even told the coaches that her freshman son was better than the team's starting point guard, Yadorian Perham, and Perham had led the nation in assists, for crying out loud.
So sure, there were some high jinks. It's been going on in team sports since the first freshman had to carry a senior's bags.
Most players just accept it.
But Matt Wohlfahrt didn't. Instead he got a lawyer.
HBU's attorney, Walter "Trey" Williams III, is confident the school will win the lawsuit that is scheduled to be tried in November. " I think it's pretty clear that Mr. Wohlfahrt's characterization of events is not accurate," he says. "We're comfortable with the facts, and the facts can't support the allegations."
The head-shaving incident occurred at a private off-campus party, not a "team meeting," he says. He also disputes that Wohlfahrt suffered any lasting injury while he was on the team.
Even if they win, however, HBU's name will be associated with tales of prodigious underage drinking and claims that the university wanted the whole thing whitewashed. The 2,200-student school in southwest Houston prides itself on its Christian philosophy, but at a time when the harmful effects of hazing are becoming more and more clear, it stands accused of turning a blind eye to some very un-Christian-like behavior.
Matt Wohlfahrt came to play basketball at HBU in the summer of 1997. He'd grown up as the third of four sons of Lynn and Douglas Wohlfahrt, an OB/GYN. His mother worked at his father's office, and the family lived in far west Houston and in Fort Bend County.
The boys were athletes. Matt, his mother says, was somewhat quieter than his brothers and spent a lot of time working out, playing basketball and running track in high school.
He didn't have a highlight-reel career at Stephen F. Austin High in Sugar Land, but played steadily. On his 18th birthday, he sank two late free throws to seal a win against The Woodlands in the Conroe Christmas Classic tournament.
He thought about attending St. Edwards University in Austin but was also interested in nearby HBU. According to HBU coaches, his mother was a dedicated lobbyist on his behalf.
"Matt's mom called me on several occasions asking if I would be willing to have a tryout for Matt," longtime HBU head coach and athletic director Ron Cottrell testified in his deposition. Lynn Wohlfahrt even came to the "open gym" sessions where HBU staffers informally judged potential players, "which I would consider to be an unusual situation," Cottrell said. "Matter of fact, that may have been the only time it's ever happened in my history here."
The team had a quarter-scholarship left, worth a couple of thousand dollars. It was designed to be used for the post of student manager, but they gave it to Matt and let him be on the roster.
Matt Wohlfahrt's understanding was that there were no full scholarships available until the following year, so the quarter-scholarship was an interim measure. The jobs he did in connection with it -- team laundry, wiping the floor -- were "freshman duties," he said. "They weren't training duties, because all the freshmen did it."
Wohlfahrt thought that with some hard work he could play pro ball in Europe or the NBA's minor league. In his deposition, he rated himself highly -- on a scale of one to ten, he gave himself a ten for his defense and eights for "quickness and speed" and as a rebounder and all-around point guard. He noted that he regularly played pickup games against current and former NBA stars, including one who plays for the Seattle SuperSonics.
"One of my friends, Rashard Lewis, who came out of high school to the NBA, I played against him and I did well," Wohlfahrt said.
HBU's coaches disagreed with Wohlfahrt's assessment of his skills. "His talent level was extremely low," assistant coach Greg Grissom testified.
Wohlfahrt was a stubborn kid, and even the coaches who denigrated his talent praised his work ethic. ("Matt tried hard," said Grissom. "I have never said that Matt didn't try hard. He just didn't have the physical talent.") He spent much of his time in the gym or the weight room.
It was perhaps a perfect recipe for how to invite grief: an end-of-the-bench freshman with a touch of straight-arrow goody-goodiness, someone who thinks he might play professionally one day and therefore is better than the guys ahead of him.
According to Wohlfahrt, the grief began in earnest on September 18, 1997. That night he went to what he was told was a "team meeting" at the off-campus apartment of two players.
Wohlfahrt swore under oath that he never drank in high school or up to that brief point in college; another player, Blane Vincent, swore under oath that on the way to the "team meeting" Wohlfahrt gave him 20 bucks to buy beer.
(Lawyers for both sides wouldn't allow interviews with their clients -- and Wohlfahrt's parents would speak only in general terms -- so this article is based primarily on court documents and depositions.)
At the apartment gathering, Wohlfahrt said, he was immediately led to the bar area, stocked with Jack Daniel's, Drambuie, Sambuca and beer. Two teammates poured him something that tasted like licorice.
"Dan and Jeremy were behind me with their hand on my shoulder telling me to drink these shots," Wohlfahrt said. "I am not a drinker so they were -- they were pretty much forcing me to do it. I didn't want to."
While it wasn't physically forced down his throat, Wohlfahrt said, he felt pressured. "I am not stupid. I am a freshman. I know there is going to be consequences if I don't drink," he said.
And within ten minutes, he said, he had done a half-dozen shots. He had to drink more as the night went on, he said.
His teammates don't recall Wohlfahrt resisting. And according to a report on the allegations prepared by HBU, "evidence surfaced that throughout the course of the party Matt kept asking for beers." Vincent, the report said, told officials that Wohlfahrt was "acting a fool" and fondling some of the women at the party.
Vincent, a sophomore, decided that the freshmen would have their heads shaved. Wohlfahrt said he didn't want to submit but saw no choice. Shane Wells, his more easygoing roommate, didn't hesitate.
"And they sat both of us down. And as for me, they asked me, 'Can we shave your head?' And I returned, 'Hair grows back. Go for it.' And I believe Matt said 'Yes.' " (HBU's internal report paraphrases Vincent as saying "at first freshmen didn't want their heads to be shaved, but after a few drinks agreed to have it done." In his deposition Vincent denied ever making that statement.)
Wohlfahrt passed out at the party, according to the HBU report, and then both he and Wells ended up in the complex's pool. "All I can remember," Wohlfahrt said, "is somebody said to jump and I was so intoxicated I think I jumped in. All I remember is trying to get out and how scared I was and how frantic I was to get out and somehow I got out."
One of the players who hosted the party, Dan Wilson, said he saw Wohlfahrt throw patio furniture into the pool and then he "went in after it to sit on the chair on the bottom of the pool."
Wohlfahrt said he incurred a head injury at the party but doesn't remember how or when. He had a small knot on the back of his head the next day, he says, although his teammates say he never mentioned it then or in the weeks after.
While this was going on, Wohlfahrt's mother -- who is excitable, by all accounts -- was calling her son's dorm room every 20 minutes. She knew he was at a meeting, but as midnight passed she grew worried. She finally drove over to his room at seven the next morning to see her son. "He smelled of alcohol, was all gray and had no hair," she testified.
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.
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.
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.
Yarabeck called Cottrell and told him to investigate. He began calling players into his office, but as the weeks went on there seemed to be little desire to dig very deep into the matter, Lynn Wohlfahrt says.
Unimpressed with Cottrell's reaction, she continued to call Yarabeck and President Hudo's office.
Meanwhile, she says, her son got harassed by teammates who now thought of him as a squealer; his playing time was nonexistent; and the school's reaction seemed to be a general shrug of the shoulders. "John Yarabeck told me, 'Boys will be boys,' " she says.
Any punishment would have to be decided by the school administration, and Yarabeck submitted a formal report on January 14, 1998. He determined players were guilty of hazing by encouraging freshmen to drink and shaving their heads.
Head coach Cottrell and assistant coach Steven Key knew nothing about events, Yarabeck concluded (although Key admitted he sometimes wrestled with players who were juniors and seniors); he found that assistant coach Grissom admitted he heard players' heads might be shaved at the party, and assumed there'd be alcohol involved.
Yarabeck's report recommended that the team be required to do ten hours of community service, with some doing an extra ten. (Vincent's extra ten was reduced to five "because of his cooperation during the investigation.") Coach Cottrell was to schedule a hazing clinic for coaches. ("It was clear to me," Yarabeck wrote in his report, "that coaches were not certain what constituted hazing.")
Lynn Wohlfahrt insists not one of the punishments was carried out.
In their depositions, players could not cite any community service they had done, and assistant coach Key admitted he doesn't have an understanding of the current HBU policy on hazing. Although Texas has an antihazing law on the books, no law enforcement officials were notified about the allegations.
Williams, the school's lawyer, says punishments were handed out. "What needed to happen happened, and all that will come out in court," he says.
Lynn Wohlfahrt says the school never apologized to her son, either. And she's not sure, at this point, whether it would make any difference.
"Matt lives with this every day," she says. "If the school would have shown some remorse, I'm not sure how big a factor that would have been in Matt's mind."
Her son still has nightmares over the incidents, she says. He's now a junior seeking a business degree the University of North Texas in Denton. A neuropsychological study done by psychiatrist Robert Borda shows Wohlfahrt still has problems with word generation and retrieval that "should at least raise the suspicion of an organic personality disorder stemming from the reported head injuries " "I am very concerned," he continued, "about how Matt will do after he leaves the highly structured academic environment."
Matt's father, Douglas Wohlfahrt, says his son still suffers from a shoulder injury he got while being wrestled on the bus and that he may face testicular surgery. "And if he gets another head injury, he could wind up like Muhammad Ali," he says.
HBU's lawyer disputes the existence or severity of Wohlfahrt's injuries; players testified that Matt never complained about blows to his head or lasting shoulder pain. Williams, the defense lawyer, hints at baser motives for Wohlfahrt when he notes that "we are very far apart on what any settlement would be."
He and the Wohlfahrt family wouldn't say how much Wohlfahrt is seeking in damages.
Financial awards are not unheard of in such suits. Two years ago the University of Texas settled a hazing suit for $1.65 million. A fraternity pledge claimed he had been beaten, spat on, urinated upon and shoved into a wall at the Kappa Alpha frat house, causing head injuries that trigger short-term memory problems.
Wohlfahrt's suit against HBU and Cottrell -- various players have been dropped as defendants since it was filed two years ago -- says the school and coach were negligent for inadequately supervising the athletes. The defendants should have known what was going on and failed to enforce HBU's code against hazing, says the suit, which is before state District Judge John Devine.
As might be expected, the relationship between the Wohlfahrts and the school did not end amicably.
Matt played at the tail end of two games -- just enough to cost him a year's worth of athletic eligibility at another school, the Wohlfahrts contended. (The NAIA eventually gave him a waiver restoring full eligibility, partly through the encouragement of HBU.) The Huskies didn't miss a beat as they went on to a 25-6 record and a Top Ten finish in the final NAIA rankings.
Lynn Wohlfahrt says the coaches never had any complaints about Matt's ability until after she requested the hazing investigation. Things got ugly fast when she and her son met with all three coaches on December 14, 1997.
Matt said he doesn't remember that Sunday-night meeting, although when asked if his mother was yelling as she walked out of it, he answered, "Knowing her, probably."
Others said Matt hardly spoke a word during the ten-minute session. "My general feeling was she was objecting to Matt not playing as much as she felt like he should, that his skill level was that of one who should be starting," head coach Cottrell said. "I explained to her that Matt was a long way from being that type of player and may never be that type of player."
"I believe the gist of the conversation was that, you know, 'Look -- you have to understand that you're not as talented. You're not as good as the other players. That's why you're not getting the playing time,' " assistant coach Grissom said in his deposition. "Matt seemed to understand. It was his mother that started crying and ran out of the room saying that her son was great and that we were the devil, I guess."
The coaches "were just mean and spiteful, and they were angry and just as evil as could be," Lynn Wohlfahrt said. "[They] all agreed that Matt was a lousy player and he was never going to play basketball at HBU. He was there only as a water boy, a trainer, a helper, whatever."
Matt Wohlfahrt left HBU soon after that, but there was a strange coda to the family's dealings with the university.
A month later, St. Edwards University came to HBU's Sharpe Gymnasium to play the Huskies. Matt's brother John played for St. Edwards.
Lynn Wohlfahrt was at the game with a family friend. Coincidentally, HBU president Hudo was sitting right behind her, although she didn't recognize him and he didn't introduce himself. But as both of them watched the game, they heard the crowd begin chanting "Wohlfahrt" louder and louder.
"It was humiliating and shocking," Lynn Wohlfahrt said. Eventually, she said, a security guard escorted her and her companion out, expressing concern for their safety.
Hudo said he heard the chanting but didn't think much of it. "I thought it was all in good jest," he said in his deposition.
"Would you be surprised if Mrs. Wohlfahrt didn't take it that way?" he was asked.
There also have been some momentary flare-ups, she said, when Matt or one of his three brothers runs across any of his former teammates.
"I don't think it's ever going to end," she says. She and her husband say Matt's become a different person from the "easygoing" son they remember.
"It's obvious that he's developed problems with getting easily frustrated at things," Douglas Wohlfahrt says.
For his part, HBU lawyer Williams says his clients have been equally affected. "Coach Cottrell, candidly, is a guy who I'd want to be my son's coach if my son played basketball," he says. "He's just a very good fella and I'm so sorry that he has had to endure something like this."
The trial will certainly go far when it comes to putting an end to the unhappy meeting of the Wohlfahrts and Houston Baptist University. One side or the other will convince a jury to believe their version of the truth.
The scars on both sides, however, are likely to last a long time.
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