Hazing culture in college sports far from history
By Timothy Liam Epstein
With last week’s opinion from the 1st District Appellate Court in Joseph Mulvey, et al. v. Carl Sandburg High School, et al., 151615 (1st Dist. 2016) laying out relevant case law on high school sports’ hazing, it may be useful to look at courts’ treatment of hazing in collegiate sports.
The University of Virginia is facing a legal challenge from a former football player who claims he was bullied and mocked over a learning disability and forced to participate in a hazing ritual that left him with a broken eye socket. Howard v. University of Virginia, et al., 2:16-CV-01576 (W.D. Pa.).
Aiden Howard, a recruit from Monroeville, Pa., filed a 21-page complaint in the U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania on Oct. 14. The complaint names several defendants, including the University of Virginia, President Teresa Sullivan, Athletic Director Craig Littlepage, wide receivers coach Marques Hagans, graduate assistant Famika Anae and two upper-classmen players, Doni Bowling and David Eldridge.
According to the complaint, Howard was subject to Virginia’s general “culture of bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination.”
The complaint alleges that the hazing was done primarily by the two upper-classmen defendants, but claims that the coaches were aware of the hazing and did not intervene.
Howard asserts in the complaint that his teammates called him “slow” and “retarded” in front of coaches when he could not quickly comprehend plays due to his learning disability. In addition to verbally abusing Howard, the complaint states on Aug. 12 Bowling and Eldridge forced Howard to fight a fellow 2016 recruit to prove his “manliness.”
Bowling and Eldridge allegedly used athletic tape to mark off a fight area in the locker room and forced Howard and the other football player to enter the “ring” to flashing lights, loud music and announcements to simulate a “prize fight.”
According to Howard, roughly 100 people watched the fight, including Famika Anae, while several other people in the football program recorded or attempted to record videos on their phones. Howard sustained a blow to the head that resulted in a concussion and a broken orbital bone, which has since required surgery.
After the fight, Howard withdrew from the team and the school and has since transferred to Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania. However, due to his injuries he will not be able to play football at Robert Morris this season and may not be able to ever play again.
Despite greater awareness of the issue, the suit is proof that hazing is still prevalent in college athletics. Unfortunately, suits such as Howard’s are all too common, and this says nothing of the number of hazing cases that go unreported each year.
In fact, this is not the first publicized hazing incident at U-Va. in recent years. Earlier this year, five former members of Virginia’s men’s swimming team settled a lawsuit that stemmed from allegations that they hazed underclassmen in 2014. Marcantonio v. Dudzinski, 155 F. Supp. 3d 619 (W.D. Va. 2015).
A freshmen recruit filed suit in federal court stating his initiation during “Welcome Week” involved threats of sodomy, forced consumptions of milk, prune juice and a live goldfish.
While the defendants denied liability, their attorneys stated that the events in 2014 were merely a continuation of an annual tradition for the swim team. The defense attorneys said that the events during welcome week “mimicked in every respect what had happened in 2011, 2012 and 2013.” The attempt to normalize and justify the behavior is particularly concerning.
While Virginia has faced hazing allegations at an alarming rate, such occurrences are not unique to the school. In May 2015, two freshmen on the women’s softball team at St. Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania filed suit alleging they were the victims of hazing and sexual misconduct. Jane Doe c/o Derek E. Jokelson, Esquire Jokelson Law Group P.C., Plaintiff, v. Saint Joseph’s University, and Terri Adams, defendants, 2015 WL 2405298 (E.D. Pa.).
Both women stated they were forced to demonstrate sexual positions on other players, call upper-class members of the team and sing to them, simulate sexual intercourse and learn derogatory chants.
Both women were at the school on athletic scholarships and withdrew from the school after becoming depressed and suicidal as a result of their teammates’ actions.
The lawsuit was eventually settled in the fall of 2015, and the school canceled the team’s three remaining softball games. However, the school-hired investigator found no staff members violated the school hazing policy and all coaching staff members remained at the school.
In September 2015, former University of Connecticut women’s hockey player Shannon Godin sued her former coach, accusing him of allowing hazing and being a bully himself. Godin v. MacKenzie, TTD-CV-15-6009629-S (Conn. Super. Ct.).
The complaint alleges that Christopher MacKenzie knew about the culture of hazing on the team and made inappropriate remarks to the players. The lawsuit accuses MacKenzie of telling Godin she would not fit in with the team, discussed his European style underwear and being aware of a culture of drinking, including one night in which Godin was “egged on” by upper-classmen to drink so much alcohol she was hospitalized.
MacKenzie became head coach of UConn’s women’s hockey team in 2013 and remains with the program. Godin’s scholarship was later revoked. An internal investigation by UConn revealed that an unsanctioned hazing event did occur during the first weekend that the team arrived on campus, but determined that the hazing was limited to that one night. The school’s investigation also determined MacKenzie was not at fault.
Despite schools’ extensive hazing policies, and the real threat of litigation over such incidents, hazing remains prevalent and new lawsuits are being filed every year. The reality is that a hazing culture still permeates collegiate athletics. Schools and their athletic departments in particular must do more to enforce their anti-hazing and anti-bullying policies and reform the culture. These school must also hold coaches responsible and players accountable.
If the claims in the Howard case are, in fact, true, it is troubling that neither of the players named in the lawsuit have been disciplined, by either the team or the school, and the coaches remain on staff.
If the pattern holds true for the Howard litigation, Virginia is likely to settle, and the case will go away quietly. The hope, however, is that the culture of hazing similarly disappears.