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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Big Trouble for St. Joseph's University and Potentially All Colleges -- Hazing Scandal Lawsuit

Imagine that you are a freshman athlete. 

You played all sorts of travel ball, invested in private hitting, fielding or pitching lessons, got up at very early hours on weekends for long drives to remote fields on hot days, played three games in a day, got yelled at, got dirty, used Port-a-Potties that sometimes were reminiscent of the sewer pipe that Andy Dufresne had to crawl through during his escape from Shawshank Prison, and your reward was that at some showcase tournament, a college coach came up to you and said, 'Hey, I like your game, would you consider coming to our school?'  Imagine the excitement, the rush -- I tried hard, and someone noticed.  Someone wants me!  And hey, there could be some need-based aid, merit money, other aid, this could help pay for college, too.  Maybe, maybe not, on the latter point, but then again you get to play a game you love at the college level.  Most people don't get that chance. 

You get to the college, and then all of a sudden it's like you're entering a new school in a bad neighborhood where the older girls act mean because, well, they are in charge and they can.  They force you to do humiliating things in the name of tradition and team bonding,  very humiliating things, things that go against your values and sadly the values of the Jesuits who run the school.  Things that would draw tabloid attention. 

If you speak up, you're finished.  You'll get ostracized.  You're a whiner, complainer, not a team player, a loaner, the weird girl, you don't get it, you're not part of the band of sisters, whatever.  And why?  Because you have good values and you have morals.  And God forbid, you tell your parents and they complain, well, that's just as bad if not worse.  What, are you not tough enough to stand up for yourself -- you have to go crying to mommy and daddy?  Omigod, you are such a wimp, why should we want you as a teammate.

It is this backdrop that freshman softball players at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia seemingly entered into.  And now, one of the players who was hazed is suing St. Joe's.  You can read the link to the article here

This is a troubling lawsuit.  Presumably, the plaintiff either left school out of anger, humiliation, embarrassment or being ostracized.  She will have a variety of claims, and the school will have to answer them.  St. Joe's does not want to get to a jury.  Where was the Athletic Department?  Where was the coach?  Was there training of coaches as to how to prevent hazing, teach against it, educate on it, recognize it?  Was there training of upperclassmen?  Many jurors will be parents.  Many also will have read headlines about how various dioceses dealt or failed to deal with allegations of abuse by priests (not the same topic, of course, but perhaps representative of a culture). 

If this were to go to a jury, the award could be devastating, as could a judge's opinion as to what the standard should be for a school to educate on and prevent this type of behavior.  Both could be very costly, both financially and to a school's reputation.  The damage to the victims has been done.

The plaintiff and those like her had to muster courage routinely to challenge and defeat opponents.  This time, they have to summon even more courage to challenge a school that was supposed to protect them and teammates that were supposed to be their friends. 

Once upon a time, they were young girls in pony tails, singing cheers from the bench, stealing bases and grinning on base hits or good plays in the field.  College ball was supposed to be the crowning experience, a reward for their dedication.  It shouldn't have to be an exercise in growing up way too fast and experiencing things that one should not be forced to experience. 

This case looms more largely than just a hazing incident at a relatively small, regional Catholic university.  If it is litigated, both the award and the findings could have widespread implications for athletic programs everywhere.  If institutions are smart, they'll examine their programs, policies and training to help ensure that hazing of any form does not occur.


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