The hazing scandal at Northwestern University is far away on a U.S. map, but it behooves all high school and UFA administrators and coaches to pay attention to the stark lessons this sad episode reveals.
The grim facts were spelled out Wednesday in our sports pages, and I learned more from reporters who interviewed me today because my scholarly expertise is hazing in national and international education, occupational hazing, and military hazing. I’ve been writing about hazing ever since 1975, plus keeping a database of hazing deaths in U.S. schools. To me, the recent most newsworthy trends have been the involvement against hazing by parents whose children have died in hazing incidents (usually accompanied by crazy amounts of alcohol chugging), and the proliferation of violent and often sexually repulsive hazing incidents involving underage boys on sports teams.
While a few violent and sexually repulsive hazing incidents involving college teams have been reported in the U.S. and Canada over the last quarter-century, those numbers have been dwarfed by the number of similar hazing incidents involving high school athletes on a great many different sports teams. Not surprisingly, the number is far higher among boys than of girls, and also that the majority of brutal episodes — including savage beatings, bullying, racist targeting of victims, and rape by definition — are connected to high profile team sports, most notably high school football squads, and occur most often in team locker rooms, buses, and sports camps. The fear of coaches who actively are aware in hazing awareness and education efforts is that those high school hazing perpetrators who made it to graduation without being caught are going to bring their revolting tactics to college campuses and create or exacerbate a hazing culture.
In the Northwestern case, which was rare or even unprecedented, a coach was punished with a two-week suspension and then, to his shock, was fired. In a letter to the public and Northwestern University community, President Michael Schill said he fired longtime alum and head football Coach Pat Fitzgerald because of “what he should have known” about hazing and bullying going on for many years on his watch. Firing Fitzgerald was the right thing to do, but it was too late, although not too little, to protect Schill from widespread criticism from sports commentators. Also in response, Schill finally did what he should have done all along: hired a neutral observer for the locker room and mandated anti-hazing training for all.
However, in reading over Schill’s letter accompanying Fitzgerald’s firing, I strongly feel the president has glossed over his own failure to address “what he should have known” about hazing. Northwestern University’s hazing incidents go back many years. The 1921 disappearance and subsequent drowning death of Leighton Mount was associated by many critics with freshman hazing, although the university issued denials.
And in 2017, the parents of Northwestern University female basketball player Jordan Hawkins at 19 blamed her depression from hazing in Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority as the trigger that drove her to suicide. Hazing incidents involving fraternities and sororities at Northwestern go back many decades. Given all the evidence that Northwestern at times had a hazing problem, Schill upon his hiring in 2022 needed to mandate campus-wide hazing education programs in sports, Greek social groups, and clubs. As he now has learned, hazing is not a problem unless it happens on your campus and on your watch. As of yet, Schill has not acted with the transparency he needs to demonstrate, and now the ball is in the court of Northwestern University’s Board of Trustees to discuss Schill’s handling of the football team debacle and, in particular, did he do enough to uphold the university’s obligation to provide a safe educational experience for athletes and the general student population. Anchorage’s Dimond High School had its entire season suspended in 2018 after sexual abuse and hazing allegations surfaced. The lesson is clear that the unthinkable can happen anywhere. With the fall semester rapidly approaching, it would be prudent for Fairbanks local high schools to see if their own locker rooms are properly monitored and that male and female coaches make it clear that no hazing, particularly any involving alcohol or sexualized attacks, will be tolerated.