Between the Lines: Scapegoating and Demonization, Oh My
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Much of what there is to say about Vermont's hazing situation was covered in the last BTL column. The recent report by Vermont's Office of the Attorney General only confirmed what seemed obvious — that Vermont's administration mishandled the self-investigation into the party that led to hazing charges and a lawsuit by former walk-on candidate Corey Latulippe.
Within a couple weeks of the last column, in the face of mounting evidence, Vermont's administration became convinced players lied in the original investigation (no kidding) and canceled the rest of the hockey season.
But while many of my colleagues have been quick to condemn the players involved in this incident, and quick to support the university's decision, I find myself going against the grain.
Let's get this clear first: The last thing I want to be is an apologist for the players and their actions. And the last thing I ever want to do is add fuel to the fire of the moronic "Latulippe is a money-grubber who should suck it up like a man" faction.
But the rapid-fire demonization of the entire Vermont hockey team, in particular captain and party host Kevin Karlander, has forced me to take what seems to be an opposite position. It's not opposite at all: it's just less reactionary.
Vermont's administration had a similarly knee-jerk reaction to the unfolding events when it canceled the season in January. Was there not a better way to handle the situation, one that took into consideration UVM's obligation to the other members of the Eastern College Athletic Conference?
UVM President Judith Ramaley's decision smelled like an attempt to cover for the school's own failures. Players lied to investigators, yes, but that was pretty clear in November. The school didn't want to believe anything bad happened, and when it was so publicly clear that it did, they jumped in with an overreaction in order to show they were taking a stand.
The existing mentality that creates this kind of behavior far predates the 1999-2000 Vermont hockey team. But you'd have thought by the reaction of the Governor of Vermont that he's never heard of such appalling behavior before.
Let's not stick our head in the sand and make believe this kind of thing hasn't been going on for 100 years. If anything, these kinds of things have unquestionably subsided in hockey over recent years. The Vermont incident was clearly over the line and upsetting, especially because we thought progress was being made — and it is, in many places.
Had the powers that be just addressed the complexities of the issue and not resorted to political posturing, it would have been a lot more productive.
At the Feb. 3 press conference in the wake of the report, President Ramaley said:
"Some will encourage us to leap to simplistic solutions. As H.L. Mencken once said, 'For every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And it is always wrong.' We will find genuine solutions that will require effective strategies."
Perhaps a similar approach could have been used in early January.
Kevin Karlander went on to make a politically fatal move. He allowed his emotions to run wild during an interview with the New York Times.
"We would never do anything to hurt our own teammate," said Karlander to the Times. "The governor made a political move to end our season so he could say 'Hazing will not be allowed.' The governor? The attorney general? Are you kidding me? It's a college! We're getting hung out to dry. We're being made an example of."
On the face of it, you can say Karlander clearly doesn't get it. He doesn't understand the harm that's been done and what he did wrong. Maybe true. But he also doesn't get how to be a politician and make cover-your-ass, hollow statements to the press. And is it so far-fetched to think a politician was acting purely like a politician?
Karlander has been charged with a misdemeanor for serving alcohol to minors, as well he should. But I'm not going to be the one to sit here and pass judgment on Kevin Karlander. None of us know Kevin Karlander, except that he's captain of a team that a had a wild party, and that he's a young man about to graduate college who suddenly finds himself in a lot of trouble.
Does this excuse any of the behavior? No, it does not. Does it make it easier to forgive it? Yes, I think it does.
The argument that "boys will be boys" or "this is the way it's always been done" is silly. The same could have been said for slavery at some point. But just as silly is making UVM's players out to be high criminals. Saying "hazing has always been done" is not an excuse for the behavior to continue, but it does make it easier to understand how otherwise decent kids could participate.
We all speed, even though we know it's wrong. Why? Because it's accepted. In the hockey world, hazing is accepted, and even expected. It doesn't make it right, but it does make it easier to understand how it can happen without resorting to demonizing those involved.
The Board of Trustees Chair at Vermont, Frank Bolden, said it perfectly in his remarks at a press conference the day the report was released. In talking about the culture of hazing, Bolden exudes a rational understanding of the issue that goes beyond Vermont and a simple condemnation of those involved.
"Hearing the players talk, hearing of the humiliations they endured, how they pretended in some respects that what they were doing was not really happening — all of this was most sobering. Yet these same players talked more. We heard of the importance of tradition and other aspects of the value of the initiations they experienced and those they imposed on others. Consequently, just some of the challenges of effectively combating hazing came into focus.
"The freshmen have spent much of their lives striving to become members of an elite team. They want to be accepted. They want to show that they can be relied upon in times of adversity. It is their elders, established members of the group, who have asked or demanded that they undergo these trials, trials they have endured themselves. The rewards of acceptance far outweigh the pains of initiation. With graduation they will lose some members of their group. The team needs new members next year and the years following in order to survive and excel. They wish to do their part during their time to contribute to the life of the team.
" ... We have seen and heard of many actual examples of hazing in its many manifestations involving sports teams and social organizations from the high school level to well into adulthood. Reports have ranged from the silly to the deadly. ...
"The challenges to students and administrators at UVM and to many other Vermonters are clear: to learn from this experience, to take appropriate corrective actions and to work together to change attitudes and behaviors. Individuals must be empowered to become committed and fully contributing members of teams and organizations without having to pay such a painful price for admission."
For as repugnant as the description of events sounds, I wasn't there. I wasn't on the team. I don't know how the events went down, what the tone of them was, who were the ringleaders and who quietly went along. I was at many parties in my day that "got out of hand." And I've also seen overblown news reports of the events of those parties, not in the details, but in the tone.
No, I am not doubting the details in the UVM report. I think it paints a very clear and unambiguous picture of events. And I certainly am not doubting or belittling how Latulippe felt afterwards. Latulippe and all the rest of the freshmen have every right to be angry, mad, humiliated, scarred, pained ... and they have right to redress their grievances.
I do not condone these types of "bonding" exercises. I think they are totally unnecessary, and flat out wrong. I disdain the notion of publicly humiliating someone just for sport. I understand the sports culture, and I appreciate the sentiment of team bonding, but there are better ways of accomplishing this goal than via the "elephant walk."
But let's not be hypocrites in this situation. Let's not be so quick to brand a scarlet letter on the back of every Vermont player from the last three years.
I don't need to re-read Lord of the Flies to understand mob mentality. It's around us every day.
The mob mentality that leads to out-of-control hazing rituals is no different than the mob mentality that leads to the public flogging of those involved. Like the mentality that pictures our entire youth as Satan-worshiping pseudo-psycho mass murderers just because one kid who listened to German hardcore metal music decided to go on a school shooting rampage.
We live in a world where the highest-rated show on cable television is the profanity-laden and borderline pornographic WWF's Raw is War. Where daughters of boxing legends challenge each other to fights. Where fans boo the injured stars of opposing teams. Where Howard Stern is the King of all Media.
And I participate in plenty of it.
We raise our kids ... We make the laws ... We set the example. For Kevin Karlander to be made the whipping boy out of fears of our own failures is as abhorrent as the activities he participated in.
This issue is too complex to simply say the players should be punished, and then wash our hands of it.
In various news articles recently, players have come out defending their actions, saying it was just part of what you do as a team. Those players have been accused of "not getting it," of not realizing what they did was wrong.
But if these players, after all that happened to them, can still "not get it," then perhaps we need to ask ourselves, "Do we get it?" And instead of further admonishing the players, we have to ask, "Why don't they get it?"
That is the question that should be at hand, not simply whether they were punished enough.