Unveiling a Disturbing Hazing Scandal
On July 24, 2023, Lloyd Yates sued Northwestern University for being subjected to hazing that occurred on the football team. The hazing scandal dealt a career-ending blow to Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern’s football coach. Within the complaint, distressing allegations surface, describing football players enduring peculiar rituals dubbed “running” and “Shrek squad.” These rituals entailed degrading drills imposed on vulnerable, naked players. The reactions reported by listeners of Mr. Yates’ statement during his press conference was one marked by profound horror and shock.
However, Mr. Yates’ story is not so shocking to our practice. Sadly, hazing is nothing new, especially on sports teams where team culture often includes upperclassmen bullying newbies. Whether it’s verbal abuse, promoting large amounts of alcohol consumption or forcing naked calisthenics, these types of behaviors have gone on for years. The amount of attention the topic receives is what changes, based on the news cycle.
Experience and Nuanced Analysis
We have experience working on all sides of this issue. Some years ago, we provided legal representation for a member of a Greek organization facing hazing allegations. In this particular case, the accused individuals were non-traditional students, and the behaviors in question were what we considered to be relatively mild. Our client, who did not conform to stereotypical expectations, was deeply troubled about the hazing allegations, as he had intended to welcome new members with positive intentions. This case emphasized the significance of conducting individualized assessments, as not all hazing allegations are the same.
Advocating Against Hazing Practices
We have worked with a plethora of fraternity members equally shocked when forced to defend certain actions that occurred during rush, pledging or the activation process. What some students perceive as bonding or ritualistic, such as having pledges assist senior members with errands before member interviews, others regard as potentially demeaning. On the extreme end, certain behaviors are unequivocally unacceptable and classified as hazing under any school policy. For example, compelling pledges to consume dog food, confining them overnight without access to a cell phone, or subjecting them to nudity and paddling are clear violations. These actions are unequivocal “NOs.” The situation becomes even more complicated when the allegations involve group clean-ups after a party enjoyed by all members, or group exercises aimed at boosting health and morale. Like all matters, each fact pattern deserves individual analysis and a custom defense, as no two cases are the same.
Supporting Hazing Victims and Addressing Institutional Failures
Additionally, similar to the Northwestern case, we have filed Title IX, hazing, and other student conduct complaints on behalf of our clients when they have been the victim of hazing. We empathize with our clients as they recount their experiences of enduring long-term psychological consequences after being subjected to verbal and physical abuse by members of their cohort. It is disheartening that, even in an era of greater bystander training, witnesses often choose not to intervene or report these incidents. What’s even more concerning, we have worked on cases where we know that students deliberately hide the truth due to the fear of being retaliated against, not wanting to be perceived as a “snitch,” or simply wanting to protect fellow members or teammates. It takes considerable courage to stand up against groupthink and speak out against wrongdoing.
Ensuring Fair Investigations
As we continue to handle these cases, it’s crucial to bear in mind that our clients are often still in the process of transitioning into adulthood, and they may not fully grasp the consequences of their actions on others. Nonetheless, it’s distressing to see the impact of hazing on students. No matter who our client is, we see our role as attorneys and advocates as vital to making sure that the hazing investigation is fair. When cases are not properly investigated and proceedings are rife with procedural errors, we consider whether a matter needs to progress beyond a case handled at the school level to be reviewed in court. So, are we shocked by the Northwestern case? Not at all.