Hazing News

Op-Ed piece by a former hazer/hazee: USA Today

Why frat boys like hazing, if they live through it

Naked, I stood shivering among my frostbitten pledge brothers on a February night.

“Drink! Drink! Drink!” the fraternity brothers chanted, warm in winter coats, forcing me to consume my 15th beer.

The entire fraternity cheered me on to run in bare, bloodied feet on snow and ice and then climb into a trash can filled with vomit and other bodily fluids.

Some call this hazing. We called it fun.

Each year, when another pledge is killed in a hazing incident, everyone asks: “How could this happen?” The question is coming up again after a Pennsylvania district attorney charged eight fraternity brothers with involuntary manslaughter in the hazing death of Timothy Piazza, 19, at Pennsylvania State University on Feb. 2. The fraternity he was pledging, Beta Theta Pi, is also being criminally charged.

Deaths we regularly read about in the news merely scratch the surface of what is actually going on behind some fraternity and, yes, sorority house walls. For every hazing-related death, scores more are psychologically and physically damaged.

Evidence prosecutors released Friday eerily reads like the screenplay to my feature film, HAZE: A Greek Tragedy, a fictional story inspired by my own profound pledging experience. It sickens me how predictable these deaths have become.

In an attempt to educate Greek Life students about the risks of hazing, the producers of HAZE are taking the film, accompanied by a workshop, to college campuses nationwide. Many screenings have led to productive conversations. But at some, after the film ends, many members, particularly male, walk out in protest claiming they don’t do the things depicted in the film. To me, this smacks of denial.

I can certainly understand. We don’t want to get caught. We know hazing is against every value our organizations openly espouse. But I think there is a deeper reason for this denial: We like it. We like hazing, and harder to imagine, those being hazed like it, too.

Take death out of the equation, and being hazed feels like a profoundly important, memorable, exciting time in my life. Why?

Because its roots are primal.

As humans, we are hardwired to require the fight-or-flight mechanism to engage when needed. In a modern society of luxury and comfort, we rarely feel that sensation. College students — among the most privileged of us all — manufacture it.

Just as we require the adrenaline rush of fight-or-flight, we also need to shrink our world, to feel a part of a tribe. We are social animals. We need the pack.

So we created fraternities and sororities. We invented rituals and secrets, and symbols and chants and cheers. It’s a way to say, “This is my village, and I belong.” We’ve always done it with religions. Now we do it with sports teams and colleges, law firms, country clubs, private schools and fraternities.

Just joining a group isn’t enough. We need hazing to make it feel like we are achieving something real (even if it isn’t). We have to feel that we earned it, that we went through a trial. It’s in every story: The hero must face trials and tribulations to grow in strength and knowledge to become all that he or she can be. It has to be hard. But how hard is hard enough?

In HAZE, rather than answering the question, I decided to lead the audience through a realistic, brutal pledge process and let them decide how hard is hard enough.

We can decry hazing. We can sanction fraternities. We can give lectures and use scare tactics. But the fact of the matter is fraternity hazing is not going away. To avoid its darkest outcomes, we must first understand that hazing serves a need, and then find better ways to fulfill that need.

Without some meaningful alternative, if put back in the same position as a teenager away from home for the first time, trying to find a place in the world, I would do it all again.

David Burkman wrote and directed HAZE, an award-winning movie that will come out in theaters, Blu-ray, iTunes and Video on Demand this fall. 

By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; 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 current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily-- and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

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