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A College President Makes a Bad Call Upon Leaving Office: Why Iowa’s Ruling on a Baseball Initiation Must Be Overturned

By Hank Nuwer (reprinted from Stophazingorg)
The state of Iowa’s definition of hazing clearly states that a hazing crime can occur even if the rookies, pledges or club initiates participating in an act do so with apparent full willingness.
Under Iowa’s hazing law, “forced activity” is defined as “any activity which is a condition of initiation or admission into, or affiliation with, an organization regardless of a student’s willingness to participate in the activity.”
Yet, on June 2, a University of Iowa panel investigating an incident in which the school’s baseball team first-year players were required to get naked and to sing the “Iowa Fight Song” ruled hazing did not occur.
Why did the panel so rule and why are its members mistaken?
Because, according to Iowa’s official news service, UI’s investigating panel ruled that the first-year players “were not forced to take part in the activity depicted in the photograph.”
Thus, panel members Fred Mims, associate athletics director for student services and compliance, and Elizabeth Altmaier, Iowa faculty representative to the Big Ten Conference and the NCAA, made an incorrect ruling based on opinion, not fact, that needs an instant replay here and now.
Just as no means no in a court of law when certain sex crimes have occurred, “yes” by rookies or pledges in a hazing act required by veterans is the same as a “no” under Iowa law.

Hazing, the lawmakers opined, is a case of domination where informed consent is not possible. Rookie athletes who refuse to participate in an athletic hazing at other schools have been shunned, or beaten, or shamed or physically restrained until they comply. Those courageous enough to resist get shunned or at least regarded as “different” from their teammates.

That very vulnerability of the athlete, plus the atmosphere of shame and yet raucous camaraderie during such an initiation, makes it not only unlikely that a newcomer will resist, but also that he is unlikely to fully cooperate with an investigating body from the same institution that humiliated him in the first place. That’s why educators familiar with hazing have urged for years that allegations of hazing be looked into by outside investigators such as law enforcement officers and local prosecutors.

Moreover, schools need to open up an investigation, not wrap it up as soon as possible, since college and university athletic departments have a vested interest in putting an initiation in the past as soon as possible so as not to lose an edge while recruiting the next crop of high school athletes. Instead of putting a lid on a case, investigators need to find out when did coaches know about this or other hazing incidents, and what did they do about it.

Part of the problem is that the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) too long has dragged its heels on the problem of athletes hazing.  Belatedly, under NCAA assistant director for education outreach Mary Wilfert, the governing body has stressed anti-hazing education. But it has resisted attempts to mandate a single definition of hazing—one that might result in scholarships lost or games suspended—and that reluctance has led to the incorrect decision by Iowa to call an obvious case of hazing a non-hazing case.

This isn’t the first school to make a similar bad ruling. Going back ten years, the University of North Carolina then-athletic director John Swofford (now ACC commissioner) ruled that an alcohol overdose of a rookie named Gregory Danielson was not a hazing. (This was a ruling that also became ludicrous when 20-some photos of the initiation surfaced that showed rookies, drinking, putting on women’s skimpy briefs, and parading around in public under the direction of team veterans and captains.

So when Iowa President David Skorton says, “I now consider this matter to be closed,” I respectfully beg to differ.

Here is why the case must remain open: Recent postings of photos of athletic hazings on Internet private pages clearly show that athletes and coaches all over the country have the wrong idea that an initiation cannot be hazing if rookies are not “forced” to participate. Not only does this Iowa ruling by President Skorton reinforce that wrong notion, but the ruling flies in the face of what Iowa’s lawmakers intended when they wrote the hazing law. This Iowa ruling sets a bad, if not actually illegal, precedent.

Following the incorrect North Carolina ruling, former player Danielson said that
he felt he had been “victimized twice”—once by his teammates and once by his university athletic department itself.

With all due respect to President Skorton, Professor Altmaier, and Mr. Mims, this case isn’t over. If similar behaviors had been asked of fraternity pledges, make no mistake that this incident would be labeled hazing and appropriate sanctions would be levied against the chapter and the older members—regardless of  the “willingness” of pledges to participate.

Skorton, of course, has left the Iowa presidency to take the presidency of Cornell University, a school well known for scholarly research on hazing. Even with Skorton gone, the stigma of this bad decision will stay with Iowa unless overturned.

The Iowa legislators who passed this bill need to send a strong message that not even a college president can interpret the hazing law to suit his own purposes.

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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