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This I Believe: Editorial by Hank Nuwer

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This I Believe:
Halting Deadly Rites

Hazing is a social problem going back 2,000-plus years, an atavistic throwback to foolish schoolboy practices written about by St. Augustine and Martin Luther. Hazing occurs when veteran members of a club put newcomers through demeaning, dangerous or silly ordeals.

Oldtimers may recall silly, non-life-threatening stunts like the wearing of strange getups, but those rituals have evolved into deadly pranks in this era of reality TV and extreme sports. For the past 35 years, dozens have died from hazing, most often from stupendous amounts of liquor. Others have been sexually assaulted.

While a graduate student at the University of Nevada-Reno, I could have prevented a death.

A fraternal group of athletes called the Sundowners held initiatory drinking marathons in public view. I chanced to observe two hazings as a bystander, and the second time I called for help to aid an impossibly drunken pledge who was frothing at the mouth after passing out. But I didn’t confront the frenzied, shouting members, several of whom were my acquaintances. Nor did I—a past president of the Graduate Student Association–take my concerns to school administrators who might have forced members to end the practice.

Consequently, members conducted a third initiation, one I did not witness. In 65 hours. five pledges drank sixteen gallons of wine, eighteen quarts of hard liquor, and untold bottles of beer. John Davies, a 23-year-old Wolfpack football player, died as his organs shut down.

Inspired by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a book that exposed injustices in the meatpacking industry, I set out in 1978 to write serious articles and later the book Broken Pledges to understand why some haze and others allow themselves to be hazed.

I believed my research would create public awareness to end hazing deaths, and I believe that now. But no longer do I think that my words alone can end hazing. All civilized people must unite to say “hold enough.”

The new century is witnessing a swirling movement to abolish hazing. New York and Florida have stiffened criminal penalties to felonies. The U.S. military has cracked down on hazing, and national fraternities and sororities all forbid it. The NCAA and high school athletic confederations have issued proclamations declaring hazing unsporting.

Today, I gaze at a photo of a Sundowner member pouring liquor down the throats of pledges. I, with two adult sons, think about John Davies. If alive, he might be a grandfather, might be living the full life his parents hoped for when they sent him to college.

John Davies died a foolish, needless death. But he cannot, will not, have died in vain.

I’ve now written four books on hazing and a fifth—on athletic hazing—is nearly complete. I didn’t do my part then when courage was needed to speak out, but I refuse to ever again be a silent bystander.

Hazing must end. I believe that, and I absolutely know it.

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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