Aug 5, 2023 - Sports

College sports hazing in spotlight after Northwestern football scandal

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald of the Northwestern Wildcats reacts against the Ohio State Buckeyes

Pat Fitzgerald of the Northwestern Wildcats in Nov. 2022 in Evanston, Illinois. Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

High-profile college sports scandals in recent years have illuminated the ways entrenched power structures and hazing practices can contribute to a culture of abuse.

Why it matters: College sports is a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S., but athletes often feel discouraged from going public with allegations of abuse.

  • When it comes to hazing in college sports and Greek life, both suffer from a "culture of silence," Elizabeth Allan, a professor of higher education at the University of Maine, told Axios.
  • The practice encompasses any activity committed against someone joining or participating in a group that is "humiliating, intimidating or demeaning, or endangers the health and safety of the person," according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
  • A 2021 University of Maine survey of five NCAA Division III schools found that nearly 41% of athletes had experienced hazing compared to nearly 25% of non-athletes.

Driving the news: In July, Northwestern University fired its head football coach Pat Fitzgerald over reports of widespread hazing on the team, including "nudity and sexualized acts of a degrading nature."

  • Fitzgerald has said he had "no knowledge whatsoever of any form of hazing" within the football program, and the university's independent investigation did not find credible evidence that Fitzgerald knew it was happening.

Meanwhile, the Chicago-based school is facing multiple lawsuits from students regarding the hazing culture at the school, including from a former women's volleyball player.

  • “This is the ‘MeToo’ moment in college athletics," civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of former Northwestern football player Lloyd Yates, said in a statement in July.
  • Yates, who played on the team from 2015 to 2017, said at a press conference last month: "Upon arrival to campus, we were thrown into a culture where physical, emotional and sexual abuse was normalized."

The big picture: Hazing among student athletes — who are often on-scholarship, under a close eye of professional staff and surrounded by rigorous training — has key distinctions from Greek life.

  • "Rocking the boat" in any way carries a lot of perceived risks, Allan said.
  • Some college athletes could feel that their "entire college career may be on the line if they can't afford to pay for their tuition without that scholarship."

State of play: Within a peer group, students can fear being ostracized if they publicly call out hazing practices. Some survivors of hazing might blame themselves or feel shame around their experiences, Allan noted.

  • "They often even mistakenly think that everyone is going along with it, that everyone is in support of it, when they're not," Allan added.

Between the lines: Data about attitudes on or experiences with hazing in college sports are lesser available than those for Greek life, as it's typically most associated with college fraternities.

  • Of the 14% of U.S. adults who'd completed some college and were part of a fraternity or sorority, 10% said they'd experienced severe hazing and 43% said they'd experienced minor hazing, according to a Dec. 2022 YouGov poll.

Zoom out: Schools including Baylor University in 2020 and at Wheaton College in 2016 have seen sports-related hazing scandals.

  • In June, New Mexico State agreed to pay $8 million to settle a hazing lawsuit involving two basketball players.

The bottom line: Allan recommends more education about hazing overall, saying many people still don't understand the entire scope of behaviors and practices behind it.

  • Often, hazing rituals are minimized as a school or group "traditions" or excused by saying that students are given the option to participate — irrespective of the role of peer pressure in those decisions, she said.

"We're still in the early stages of really shifting the culture around hazing," Allan said.

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