Sullivan | Everybody out of the pool at WKU
There is no happy medium with hazing. There is not one line that can be crossed with impunity and another ringed with barbed wire and guard towers.
All of it is objectionable. All of it is degrading. All of it warrants the harsh rebukes and stinging sanctionsWestern Kentucky University has delivered to its swimming and diving teams.
Faced with evidence of hazing, sexual assault and sexual harassment, and an investigation that concluded coach Bruce Marchionda had been aware of the “pervasive culture” for several years, WKU President Gary Ransdell dropped a neutron bomb on the Bill Powell Natatorium on Tuesday: a five-year suspension of the entire program.
Short of dropping the sport permanently, the five-year suspension represents one of the most thorough housecleanings in the history of college athletics. SMU football, the last Division I program to receive the NCAA’s repeat-offender “death penalty,” was shut down for just two seasons, the second of its own volition. When San Francisco and Tulane voluntarily dropped their basketball programs in the 1980s, those self-imposed bans lasted three and four years, respectively.
WKU has set a precedent here and, also, a tone.
“I never heard of a suspension like that occurring in college athletics,” said Western New England law professor Erin Buzuvis, co-founder of the Title IX Blog. “I think it’s a sign of increased awareness, attention and focus on the problems of sexual assault and hazing.
“Without assessing the specific facts, I’m happy to see that universities are not shying away from situations when (stern) responses are warranted. I’m happy to see that, in the abstract, that’s on the table.”
The backlash has been predictable. Powell, the former coach for whom the natatorium is named, told the Bowling Green Daily News that the university’s decision amounted to “overkill.” Numerous complaints have been lodged on the speculative theory that a non-revenue sport was singled out for sanctions that would not be applied to football or men’s basketball. Others have complained that the innocent have been punished along with the guilty.
This much is a matter of interpretation. It’s not just the ringleaders who bear responsibility when initiation rites turn demeaning or dangerous; when binge drinking leads to lewd photographs of passed-out students or worse; when sharing a secret means complicity in a crime.
Anyone who allows such a culture to persist assumes some of the blame when things go bad.
No one wants to spoil the party. No one wants to turn on teammates after gaining their trust through group bonding. Still, any athlete who fails to see the lesson in the Western Kentucky case is not paying attention. The standards have been raised for campus conduct and the penalties are more permanent. If you want to behave like a barbarian now, you can put an entire program in peril.
Some of this is the product of a fear of liability in potential lawsuits. In those cases that involve sexually hostile environments, an offending institution can also run afoul of Title IX requirements and put its federal funding at risk. And when coaches and administrators are aware of issues of this nature and fail to act decisively, the repercussions can be severe, as Ohio State marching band director Jon Waters learned last summer.
“Greater liability is a risk when you don’t take action,” Buzuvis said. “(But) even above and apart from that, I think that shows if you’re concerned about student welfare and wellness, you have to make sure students aren’t doing things that are dangerous.”
Slippery Rock professor Brian Crow, one of the NCAA’s registered anti-hazing speakers, says part of the problem “is there’s a big disconnect between what constitutes hazing and what 19-year-olds think of as hazing.” A 2008 University of Maine study found that nine out of 10 students who had experienced hazing behavior in college did not consider themselves to have been hazed. In 95 percent of the cases in which a student identified an experience as hazing, they did not report it to campus officials.
Crow says warning athletes about the criminal penalties or civil actions that could result from hazing has less impact than the potential loss of eligibility, playing time or the cancellation of a season.
“This is often why victims go along with hazing,” he said. “They feel the suffering of hazing is probably not as bad as having their teammates get punished in that manner.”
Western Kentucky’s message is to speak up before it’s too late.
This article was selected for educational purposes only.