Yesterday on one of my other blogs (Genesisfix) I posted a commentary on the case of some Wheaton College football players accused of violently hazing a fellow student. The account published in the Chicago Tribune was harrowing. The football players kidnapped a freshman from his dorm room, strapped him up with duct tape and carried him to a vehicle where they sexually assaulted him while making reference to the Muslim religion. When he resisted, they beat him physically and then dumped him on a dirty softball field with few clothes on in forty-five degree weather. They also stole his cell phone, and then returned with another student they’d abducted. The kidnapped freshman has required surgery to repair to tears to his shoulders.
Close to home
This all happened 10 miles from where I live. It took place at a Christian college that prides itself on a no-drinking, no-smoking, no-anything-but-root beer (apparently sugar is an acceptable vice) white-bread campus in the suburbs of Chicago.
In other words, these were not hillbilly rubes getting crazy in some tossed out section of North America where people have nothing better to do than rape and beat up people they consider different. These football players participate in the nation’s fourth-ranked Division III program in the country.
I know. Just another football scandal. One more bad scene on a college campus. It’s everywhere these days thanks to the rapidity with which media and social media report on violent behavior. Sometimes, the rush to compete for story precedence gets overheated, such as the Rolling Stone magazine University of Virginia rape case story, an article that was ultimately retracted and has led to lawsuits being filed against the publication.
Playing out in the media
So the story of the Wheaton College football players could still turn out to be something different than what has appeared in the media. But the prosecutors in this case took their time digging up details, conducting interviews with victims and witnesses over a period of nearly a year. The incident happened in 2016. So it’s likely much of the story is well corroborated, and will stick. Which means these students may well be punished more severely than the 50 hours of community service and eight-page paper they had to write as dictated by the authorities at Wheaton College. If that sounds a bit soft for the crime, you are likely correct.
Hazing is obviously prohibited at the college, and students take a particular oath at Wheaton, where moral values are a high priority based on the school’s Christian tradition. Despite these strong convictions, these students breached the Code of Conduct and went whole-hog tying up this kid and abusing the heck out of him.
So let’s all engage in some confession here. Many of us reading that story have been either perpetrators of hazing or victims thereof. I can personally attest to being on both sides of hazing rituals. In high school cross country we administered team justice for those who were too mouthy or obnoxious by ‘hog-tying’ them with athletic or duct tape. We’d set the appointed day, bring along the supplies and do the deed quickly and with stern warnings about why the act was being conducted. It often involved dropping the shorts of the targeted victim so that their “moon” was exposed. Then we’d leave them and finish the rest of the workout.
Typically this ritual was designed to correct some sort of continuing transgression going on within the squad. Someone constantly being negative, or simply blabbing on for days in some annoying fashion could result in the prescribed treatment.
It happened to only two runners my senior year in the high school program. One we left on the yard of an elementary school and another we tied to a tree in a forest preserve where the cross country workouts were held.
That guy was so incensed and so strong he broke free of the tape within minutes. He ran hard and literally beat us back to the school. We were shocked. And as I recall, that was the last of the hog-tying rituals. Something about that guy’s determination snapped the ritual in two.
The Short Ride and Long Ride
It can take that sort of incident to demonstrate how wrong certain traditions can be. Yet many of us went on to experience hazing rituals in college. I joined a fraternity at Luther and one of the rituals was a quasi-kidnapping routine called the Short Ride and the Long Ride. For the Short Ride, fraternity members would show up at your dorm door, blindfold you without warning, and drive you 10 or 12 miles into the country outside Decorah, Iowa. They’d leave you in your underwear with a 12-pack and dare you to get back home.
But the Short Ride backfired with us when my college roommate and I were dumped by the roadside. We had our running shoes on and knew exactly where we were thanks to our long experience training on Decorah’s roads. So we stashed the 12-pack in the ditch and started running back home. Both of us were fit as hell from doing 80-90 mile weeks. And while we’d already done two workouts that day, we slid into a running grove and were back in the dorm in just over an hour. In fact, we slipped back into our dorm room before the rest of the fraternity boys got back from the bars. They pounded on our door and we laughed at them. “Tough luck, boys,” we yelled back.
When the time came to take us on the Long Ride, my roommate and I got serious. “You are not taking us 20 miles out in the country,” we both answered when they showed up on a Friday night. “We have a meet tomorrow, and it’s an important one. So you will not mess with us.”
And they left us alone. They weren’t happy about it, and some grumbled they’d be back to get us. That never happened.
The rest of the class being hazed was ceremoniously driven into darkness and distraction far from the college campus. I don’t recall how they got back. Some of them got very drunk while others kept their wits and navigated to a farm house to beg a ride back home. Probably farmers around college campuses see all sorts of things over the years.
Leaving it behind
I stuck out membership in that frat for another year. But by the time I was a senior it all seemed too juvenile and mean. The humor had leached from the fraternity anyway. The rituals seemed tired and strained. Perhaps the times were changing. In any case, I was largely glad to be done with the whole thing. We grow up. We move on. If we are healthy…
Those Wheaton College football players will likely regret this mistake in their lives for a very long time. It is hard to find a legitimate way to explain away such stains on our curriculum vitae. Many of us are probably fortunate to have avoided such public shaming. But when you bring it upon yourself, there is a price to pay.
The hazing tradition
In the article I published on my other blog, I make the case that the Christian religion on which Wheaton College bases it tradition has a bit of a “hazing” tradition of its own. The most extreme expressions of the Christian faith have a long history of imposing horrific penalties on those who oppose it. These include acts of genocide on cultures that won’t submit to conversion. The Old Testament rather frankly documents the mass murder of entire peoples right down to scrawling babes.
Is God the ultimate hazer?
That anger and abuse carried through to the implicit philosophy of Manifest Destiny in America, the belief that white European settlers had a God-given right to the lands and resources of the continent. A genocide of Native Americans took place even as black slaves were carted over from Africa to serve as free labor. All were supported by twisted versions of Christian scripture that were used to justify the racist, imperialist approach of cultural domination.
Traces of history
Is there a trace of that history coming through those Wheaton football players who issued threats against Muslim people while carrying out their hazing? It is hard to separate some of this from childish stupidity. That’s the problem with hazing and rape and racist protests. People can too quickly hide or excuse their actions behind a crowd dynamic supported by people who insist “there are bad people on both sides.”
There is no more convenient way to garner devoted, loyal followers than to cover their sins with power. There are rumors that the Skull and Bones Society employs such embarrassing hazing rituals that they can forever hold members to account. Pun intended.
Such secrecy can play out on a broad scale when unleashed on the world. A similar method may be used in the practice of Scientology, where it is rumored the deep secrets of practitioners are held against them if they seek to leave the cult. Ask John Travolta. Tom Cruise. And Beck? That’s depressing.
Rite of passage
It’s all confusing when some sort of rite of passage is common to societies all around the world. Even the normal, everyday gathering of distance runners on a college campus typically involves a bit of teasing that can border on hazing. And who can say that a twenty-mile run in intense heat on a Sunday morning in September is not a punishing ritual in which to engage?
But the line is drawn where people come away with permanent harm. This is true among both the victims and the perpetrators. Those who commit violence are in some ways as viciously scarred as those who are targeted. Those scars and the pain they cause may not be so readily visible. But they are there. Think of the Catholic Church and its Inquisitions. Think of the German people and the Nazis who took over the country. Think of South Africa with apartheid, the Middle East with Islamic fatwa and the United States and the torture and death it imposed upon Iraq.
All of it is a brand of hazing. And as those Wheaton College kids demonstrated, everyone is capable of it when caught up in some false cause that seems so important in the moment.
And all of time, we might remind you, is just a moment.