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Dismantling the sexual hazing culture of male athletics beyond Northwestern

It’s an issue larger than Northwestern football.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Purdue at Northwestern Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Pat Fitzgerald’s firing isn’t about Pat Fitzgerald; it’s about a no-tolerance policy and prohibiting a culture that enables a degrading hierarchy and misrepresents claims of “brotherhood” and “masculinity.”

And, yes, I am not a college athlete, nor am I a male. But, it’s no secret hazing is bad. It’s definitely not a secret that unwanted sexual acts are illegal. It’s unfathomable to understand how these so-called rites of passage that don’t just humiliate, but brutalize others have come to be. Yet, here we are, with widespread sexual hazing in athletics within and beyond Northwestern.

When considering stereotypes surrounding male athletes and male sexual assault survivors, sexual hazing evokes a particularly toxic culture. I’m not saying that other demeaning hazing activities, in general, are valid. I’m not even saying that freshmen and senior players should immediately be placed on the same caliber. I’m addressing how sexual hazing, specifically, draws on vulnerable aspects of society to further undermine and isolate young men in an atmosphere that is supposed to embrace toughness and, if you will, manliness. Those notions of athletics are why, even in 2023, sexual hazing somehow is a point of contention, debating what is and isn’t sexual assault, what explicit activities are jokes and whether someone should be able to take it.

I’ll say it again, forced and unwanted sexual acts are crimes. That’s why allegations need to be taken seriously. That’s why athletes need to know they can come forward and will find solace — this isn’t about athletics. As of late, that safe environment hasn’t been solidified.

The Northwestern whistleblower is still being characterized as a player with a personal vendetta against Fitzgerald. Never mind the investigation that found evidence of hazing and received acknowledgments of its existence from 11 current or former players. Add in the verifications found by reporters.

Look at the two New Mexico State basketball players who were sexually assaulted in their freshman seasons. They detailed in their lawsuit how they were attacked and physically silenced in locker rooms and buses, where they were stripped and received painful, unwanted touching. During that season, teammates never helped stop them, and coaches shrugged off the reports. To illustrate, head coach Greg Heier was informed on three separate occasions by one victim and was pressured by another coach to act but never did anything.

Look at Isaiah Humphries, a former Penn State football player, who claims he and others were sexually harassed in the 2018 season. He alleges in his complaint unwanted touching of genitalia, being the recipient of simulated and real sexual acts and receiving verbal threats that referenced Jerry Sandusky. His federal lawsuit has been complicated, with Penn State filing paperwork to have it dismissed, and while two players have corroborated some of Humphries’ allegations, others were disputed. Nonetheless, the controversy surrounding this case could on one hand induce fear for other victims, and on another, undermine victims if the allegations are seen as intangible.

In all three of these recent incidents, there has been a hesitancy to believe and to act. Yes, investigations are needed and evidence is crucial. But, this process has not been as simple as letting there be a thorough investigation to look into alleged sexual violence. It has not been as simple as understanding others are affected by experiences differently. It has not been as simple as realizing anything like this should not remotely exist in the first place.

For whatever reason, sexual hazing has been prominent, and for male athletes in major programs, it’s not difficult to comprehend a fear to be vulnerable.

It’s difficult enough to come to terms with sexual assault, beyond it being from teammates. Only recently did the sexual abuse perpetrated by physicians Larry Nassar at Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, Robert Anderson at Michigan and Richard Strauss at Ohio State come to light. It’s difficult enough for one to reveal hazing, beyond the realm of sports. Well, sexual hazing is the pretty damning intersection of both, and because of the culture surrounding sports teams, this physical and emotional degradation that would once again be considered illegal in any other scenario is occurring.

Think about New Mexico State. What happened there was blatant, and the head coach chose to ignore it and focus on basketball.

Think about Northwestern, which is a school where athletics are not everything, and perhaps why the allegations were taken so seriously and why there were so many public condemnations of Fitzgerald. It’s then worth wondering what would happen at institutions where their sports are a universal way of life.

At what point do allegations be taken seriously? At what point does a ritual turn into sexual assault? Is it when high school basketball players in the thousand-person town of La Vernia, Texas are penetrated with a cardboard rod, a shampoo bottle, and a flashlight, among other things? What about when Mepham High School football players are held down and forced to sodomize with a broomstick, a pine cone or a golf ball?

Those two incidents were over ten years removed. The Mepham sexual assaults took place in 2003; the scandal in La Vernia was revealed in 2017. That’s a large time difference, and an even bigger one is two decades. Twenty years later, the experiences of those freshman high schoolers who were horrifically abused and forcefully deprived of their innocence as a rite of passage are still relevant.

In trying to undermine the allegations of Northwestern football, the seriousness of sexual hazing as a whole is also undermined. This has nothing to do with Fitzgerald and his character, it’s about sexual assault occurring and establishing that it must be forbidden. Instead, there are claims that it never occurred, when it was proven to, and debates about its severity and nature, when again it was found to have occurred.

Time after time, sexual assault has proven to exist in athletics, on behalf of both staff and teammates. At this point, it shouldn’t be so difficult to comprehend sexual hazing is sexual assault and should be treated as such.