September 28, 2017

On Saturday, Sept. 23, ABC released reports of a letter sent by Wheaton College in November to the victim of the alleged hazing incident that led to felony charges for five Wheaton football players last week. This “Letter of Decision” followed the College’s investigation into the hazing incident and, according to ABC, says that the claims of the accused athletes were “consistent” and “more credible” than those of the victim. The letter accuses the victim of “not being forthright” in his account of the hazing incident, while crediting the five players with taking certain measures to ensure that the victim was not harmed that night.

The college has not commented on the contents of the letter, but has confirmed that the letter was sent in November 2016 to the victim. Director of Media Relations, LaTonya Taylor, stated the letter’s purpose was to summarize the findings of the internal investigation, the proposed sanctions resulting from the investigation and the victim’s rights regarding an appeal. Beyond that, the letter’s specifics are protected by federal student privacy protections.

These reports come in the wake of questioning of Wheaton’s culture regarding hazing. On Sept. 22, just a day before ABC reported on the letter, a handful of students gathered outside the Billy Graham Center to protest the “unhealthy cultures” that have been “condoned by the football team and ultimately by the Wheaton College administration.” The protesters distributed a written mission statement at the demonstration, condemning a culture of “disharmony, double standards and hazing” at Wheaton.

““The alleged actions shine a light on a culture that needs to be assessed,” said Matt Adams, one of the students who took part in organizing the protest. “

Hazing is defined by Wheaton as “any action or activity that recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of a person or that violates the dignity of another person.” The student handbook’s hazing policy goes on to characterize hazing as “any activity that is expected of someone to join a group or team that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers them, regardless of intention or willingness to participate.”

The current hazing policy — which all Wheaton athletes are required to sign — was authored in 2014 and includes provisions for yearly review with student athletes. The current policy was updated this summer for the 2017-18 school year.

Wheaton’s history of hazing extends beyond athletics; its earliest origins date to the 1930s, in a yearly rivalry between the freshman and sophomore classes. In 1933, Student Council officially approved a system of “organized torture for the incoming classes,” which included strict regulations on where freshmen could walk, specific dress codes for men and women on certain days of the week and an elected “sophomore court” tasked with calling before them any freshmen who broke the rules. Key to these rituals was the “dink” — a flat, floppy hat worn by freshmen at all times, except, according to a list of rules published in the Record in 1941, on Sundays and Fridays after 6:30 p.m. These class-based instances of “hazing” are entrenched in Wheaton’s history; an authentic “freshman hazing dink” can even be found in the memorabilia section of the special collections library.

Such school-wide rituals began to lose traction in the 1960s, following a shift in the national dialogue surrounding hazing in recent decades, as cases of traditions and initiations taken too far have surfaced at universities across the country. Wheaton’s 2014 hazing policy includes “initiations, responses to engagements [and] ‘kidnappings’” under the category of hazing, as well as “any act on or off Wheaton College property by one student acting alone or with others, directed against any other student(s), whether voluntary or involuntary, to subject that student or students to abusive or humiliating pranks or other activities.”

This definition draws a wide swath which touches not only athletic traditions, but also dorm and club traditions. Friday’s demonstrators, however, claim a uniqueness to the football culture that calls for concern. The demonstrators’ mission statement makes specific reference to “catcalling, money smeared with feces being mailed to fellow students, women ‘jokingly’ being chased home … intentionally misplacing bicycles” and “numerous other actions” by the football team which they claim perpetuate systems of “patriarchy, hypermasculinity and insensitivity.”

Football coaches and players were not available to comment on these statements. Protesters made it clear that they were “not protesting against the individual members of the team, nor against those accused,” but rather against the “unhealthy cultures” set forth in their mission statement.

As of last Friday, all five of the accused players had turned themselves in to authorities and been released on bail until their arraignments next month. According to the Chicago Tribune, attorneys representing the accused players, as well as legal experts drawing on experience with other hazing cases, have cast heavy doubt on the prospect of felony convictions for any of the five players, who all lack criminal records and have resumes that have the potential to impact prosecutors’ decision regarding plea deals.