This has to be said. College swimmers: stop hazing and initiation drinking events for new members of your teams. Or you’re not going to have a team much longer.
The issue is almost reaching epidemic levels in the sport of swimming over the past few years. This summer/fall alone, three Division I programs were in the news for hazing-related issues.
Dartmouth canceled its entire fall meet schedule and its winter training trip in response to a 2016 event in which the first-year team members were required to create a “sexualized PowerPoint” for their teammates. (Is there a dumber reason to give up half a college swim season than a sexualized PowerPoint? That’s the hill you want to die on?).
East Carolina’s teams went under investigation over alleged hazing activities just last week, and though the teams themselves have been cleared, the school said it could still dole out punishments for specific athletes.
Just this week, Bucknell put it teams back on probation after an initiation event supplied underage team members with alcohol. (Bucknell’s teams were just about to wrap up a previous two-year stint on academic probation for similar reasons, proving that alcohol-based initiation is apparently so important that team members didn’t have the self-control to survive two whole years without it).
And these teams got off relatively easy compared to what we’ve seen.
In 2014, five Virginia swimmers were suspended on allegations of hazing, and later all five were slapped with a lawsuit by a former teammate who says they hazed and threatened him. Drury’s head coach was forced to step back from coaching the team this past winter in response to a former swimmer who says he was hazed so severely it left him unable to swim while suffering from PTSD and Conversion Disorder.
And in 2015, Western Kentucky suspended its entire program for five years, terminating the positions of its entire coaching staff after a Title IX investigation into hazing concerns.
Swimming in a Precarious Position
That Western Kentucky program isn’t coming back, folks.
At least, that’s the sentiment among a number of onlookers. By 2020, the school will have a choice. Option 1: a lengthy search process to hire up to 6 new coaches, who will then start completely over with an entirely blank roster, hoping to recruit enough swimmers just to fill a lineup in year 1 and with at least three or four years before having any sort of competitive chances. Option 2: electing not to resurrect the program and saving a few million dollars in the process.
Swimming is in a horrifically dangerous position at the college level, and would-be hazers need to realize it. College swimming programs across the nation are dropping like flies. Athletic departments are hemorrhaging money. Most schools are losing money on almost every sport outside of football and basketball, and there’s not a swim program in the country making money for its athletic department.
Swimming is a notoriously expensive sport. Pools are effectively chlorinated money pits when you factor in maintenance costs on everything from pumps to tiles to air quality control systems to boilers to scoreboards to security. We need to understand this as a sport.
Typically, swimming has compensated by adhering very well to the NCAA‘s student-athlete model. By and large, swimmers do well in school. We volunteer in the community in droves. We graduate on time and most importantly, we don’t cause headaches for athletic directors.
Well, that’s all of us except these knuckleheads who are so attached to forcing some 18-year-old kid to binge drink until he vomits that they refuse to give up these initiation rituals.
The facts are clear: NCAA schools are looking for any way they can to save money. Cutting swimming is a very easy way to save several million dollars a year. If you give your school a reason to cut or suspend its swimming & diving program, your school will take it.
Everytime we cover a story like this, the comment section is flooded with connected individuals decrying “PC culture” or making bold statements about how hazing is the way it’s always been, that it’s an unavoidable part of our sport, or even that it’s somehow necessary for team-building purposes.
If hazing and alcohol-based initiation rituals are truly an integral part of our sport, then we’d better be prepared for our sport to exist no further than the club level. Because there will no longer be meaningful swimming at the NCAA level.
While it’s not typically our place as reporters to take sides or jump into comment-section arguments, many of the cases regularly made about these types of issues can be very, very trying on that policy. But here in our opinion section is the perfect setting to dispel some of these illogical counterarguments once and for all.
But hazing is the way it’s always been! – women not getting to swim the 1500 free at the Olympics used the be “the way it’s always been.” Heck, women being able to swim in college was at one point a change to “the way it’s always been.” In this case, “the way it’s always been” is bad. We can change it. Stop making this dumb argument.
People are too sensitive these days. PC culture is ruining everything. – People being sensitive to a college senior taking advantage of a scared, inexperienced 18-year-old freshman by forcing said freshman to drink themself out of consciousness, swallow a live goldfish or stumble around a basement blindfolded and wearing nothing but a diaper? That sounds like being a rational human being to me. Additionally, if your argument includes “PC culture” or “snowflake” in the derogatory, that’s a good sign you’re defending something objectively bad.
Drinking is part of the college experience. – Maybe it’s part of many peoples’ college experience right now. But it’s far from essential. The question is whether initiation drinking events with freshmen are more essential to the “college experience” than a winter training trip. Just ask Bucknell which they’d choose if they could do it over again. Or maybe the better question is whether hazing-related drinking is more “essential” than having a team, period. Ask the former members of WKU.
Let kids be kids. – This one, I actually agree with. Let kids be kids. Say, specifically 17- or 18-year-old kids in their first week at college who are nervous, out of their comfort zone and eager to do what they can to fit into a new environment. Let them be kids by giving them team bonding activities that won’t get them arrested (for underage drinking), kicked off the team (as some swimmers who receive minors find themselves) or worse, killed, something that happens to an estimated 1800 college students every year.
Related: Nothing Stays Secret in 2017
The raunchy and/or misogynistic e-mail chains and listservs (and that infamous sexualized PowerPoint) are a bit of a loose connection here, as they can often be disconnected from both hazing and alcohol. But it’s important to note that school athletic departments are prosecuting these activities just as harshly.
It’s valuable for us as swimmers to remember that in the modern era, nothing stays secret. Private e-mail chains are hardly private. Group chats are easily screenshotted, phones confiscated or computers left open. Anything you say or write in almost any online medium could be broadcast to the world tomorrow.
It’s a reminder to own what you say. If what you’re saying about your teammates, coaches, or the opposite-gender team from your same school could violate school or team policies (or simply cross ethical lines), be prepared to face the consequences of what you say. And know that, in the modern climate, those consequences could be a full-team suspension, a loss of meets or your training trip, or even a full-on elimination of your program. That’s not to mention the unwanted media attention and the lingering cloud over your program’s reputation, a cloud that can continue to smother recruiting efforts for years down the road.
Be Proactive – Find New Bonding Events
The important point in all of this is that we have to do more than just tell swimmers and divers to stop holding alcohol-centric initiation and bonding events. We as a sport need to be proactive and find new opportunities for team bonding that won’t get our programs axed at the NCAA level.
Get the leaders of your team together and brainstorm activities you can use to bring new swimmers into the fold without underage alcohol consumption. No one says this will be easy. But on a college campus, there are a wealth of event opportunities. You could ask your coach about booking an athletic facility to play games like Ultimate Frisbee or pickup football. You could organize mass video game tournaments or game nights or line up upperclassmen to cook massive team dinners. You could take over a movie theater or have NFL watch parties. One of the most fun memories I have of my college swim team is when we would pack the student section for volleyball matches and take great pleasure in heckling the opposing team.
If, as many proponents claim, the initiation drinking rituals are so essential from a team-building perspective, then there have to be ways to get the same team-bonding effect from an activity that won’t leave your team training at home in the cold when you should be in Hawaii. There have to be activities that shepherd in the younger swimmers without leaving them frantically looking for a transfer destination six months later when their program gets suspended in a hazing scandal. And there have to be events that help the upperclassmen show their new teammates the ropes without leaving both parties on opposite ends of a bitter and expensive lawsuit a year down the road.
Lets be proactive and take control of the future of our sport. College swimmers: you are carrying a torch once held by hundreds if not thousands of former athletes who built the programs you now lead. Don’t dishonor their legacy by allowing those programs to die in some sort of Mexican standoff meant to protect a tradition of orientation week binge drinking marathons.
Yes, maybe it’s true that for many years, this is what college swimming has been. But the headlines are proving that unless college swimming can evolve past this era into something better, then college swimming as a whole will die a quick and unceremonious death.