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Monday, May 22, 2006

Girls Gone Wild

I blog from time to time on various issues involving college sports, and I try to provide equal coverage on the good and the bad elements. Most recently, I've blogged somewhat extensively on the Duke lacrosse situation, where I've tried to separate the serious charges from a series of irresponsible behavior by a considerable portion of the membership of that team.

The Duke situation raises some very serious issues, as does the overall topic of hazing. Thankfully, none of the hazing situations that has surfaced recently is accompanied by charges of major felonies, but the issues that hazing raises are very serious. It wasn't too long ago that a town was torn asunder on Long Island for some horrible hazing rituals involving the sexual assualt of several young members of a football team. Instead of showing leadership and welcoming the youngsters into the fold, they were treated just horribly. All of this hazing has made me re-think, to a degree, whether I want my kids involved with serious, competitive team sports when they get older. The major reason for my concern is that while some hazing can seemingly start out innocently enough, it can transform into violent, seriously degrading/depraved episodes where everyone loses.

The most publicized of hazing incidents that recently has surfaced involves the Northwestern women's soccer team, the members of which have been suspended from the team pending further inquiry. Interestingly, while Duke's websites took pains to discuss all of the issues facing the men's lacrosse team, Northwestern has circled the wagons. I can't say that they've taken a "girls will be girls" approach, but if you were to Google "Northwestern Women's Soccer" you will get a link to the team's website. Because of the scandal, you can't link to the roster, but if you read the website you'll see that it's business as usual. There is no mention of the probe of the women's soccer team. (You can read the University's official statement -- from the Athletic Director -- here, but I didn't get this from the website).

The members of the women's soccer team have issued a public apology for their conduct today (this came several days after women's soccer alumni co-signed an e-mail in which they express their dismay and concern about the incident), while an assistant editor ofThe Daily Northwestern doesn't (totally) see what the fuss is all about and suggests that what happened on that "initiation" night was "relatively tame." At the same time, the editorial that appeared in the same newspaper states that hazing is a problem and suggests it should be eliminated.

And that's the right stand. Because as innocent as some rituals sound, they can morph into something like this. Something from which that particular affected community might never recover.

There's good clean fun and then there is fun at people's expense which involves humilation and other calumnies. Team leadership should show leadership -- instead of dragging themselves and their powerless newcomers into the cesspool to which events like these eventually lead.

Northwestern unfortunately bears the brunt of the hazing scandals at this moment because it's a prestigious university and because photos of the event made it onto a website (or two or three or four thousand). Before you sit back there and say, "this didn't happen at my school", don't kid yourself. The bet here is that stuff like this goes on everywhere and gets out of control because each year kids test limits and don't get called for testing them, further emboldening them to overstep the line progressively year after year.

Sometimes it's hard to take a stand, as no one wants to be the anti-fun police and all of us realize that college kids need to have their fun. That's part of the college experience, and there's enough serious stuff that goes on after college that at least kids should have some good and, yes, fun experiences while they are living away from home.

Fair enough.

But can't they be constructive -- without alcohol and drugs? Can't they be held in such a fashion that no one gets shamed, that no one gets ridiculed, humiliated or degraded?

And if you say "no", then ask yourself "why not?"

And then try to sell most of us on that answer, because right now I just don't get it.

The girls at Northwestern have more privileges than most people will have in a lifetime. They're bright (you can't get into that school if you're not), athletic (most people are not elite athletes) and some are getting significant financial aid if not full rides. Why can't they simply honor their privileges instead of acting that they're entitled to all that's come their way? Sure, they've earned the right to where they are, but where's the sense of community, the sense of true teamwork, the sense of humility?

Professor Dumbledore was right. While it takes a great deal of courage to stand up to one's enemies, it takes a great deal more to stand up to one's friends. What happened to the courage that gets summoned to maintain one's nerve in the final minutes of a tie game against Michigan? Where was that courage on that night, and where the leaders who should have said that what was planned was all wrong?

Those team leaders are captains in title only. Leaders they are not, and as part of the remedial actions Northwestern should take their captaincies away from them.

Hopefully all of these scandals will help re-focus colleges, their athletic departments, their teams, their coaches and their athletes on the appropriate priorities for all extracurricular activities. Instead of honoring old, worn out and just plain bad traditions, let's fulfill each school's published goal of advancing excellence every step of the way.

Before someone -- or some people -- get really hurt.

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