Hazing embroils Vt. hockey program

X-rated initiation brings end to season

February 28, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- They skated with abandon, these University of Vermont hockey players. After a disappointing record last year, they took to the ice this season with the hope that their teamwork would lead to a string of victories and a bid for the playoffs.

But soon after the Catamounts played their first league games, the X-rated details of a preseason hockey team party embroiled the university in a hazing scandal. University athletic officials were accused of not doing enough to try and stop the Big Night party, despite a warning that rookie team members would be ordered to consume excessive amounts of alcohol.

The now notorious party -- and the pact by team members to cover it up -- cost Vermont's celebrated hockey team the remainder of its season. The event Oct. 2 at the off-campus Hockey House featured an initiation rite that bordered on the homoerotic:

Nine freshmen, who arrived in togas and women's thong underwear, paraded in an "elephant walk" that involved touching each other. That preceded the drinking of hot beer until they vomited, and nude push-ups over a strategically placed cup of beer.

The scandal led to an inquest by the state's top prosecutor that confirmed the salacious nature of the hazing and criticized the school's inquiry into the allegations after they surfaced last fall.

Hazing common in sports

It has bolstered efforts to make hazing illegal in Vermont, joining Maryland and 40 other states. The hockey team controversy at UVM, known for its skiers, bucolic hilltop setting overlooking Lake Champlain and its environmental sciences program, reacquainted the nation with the phenomenon of hazing and its prevalence in intercollegiate sports.

A study last year by Alfred University in New York found that 75 percent of the 325,000 NCAA athletes who played sports in 1998-1999 were hazed in some way.

The players are being remembered now not for their skill in the rink, but their antics off the ice. Team aspirations, players' dreams, have been dashed.

"Missing a season at this level means the difference between maybe getting your big break and maybe not," said Joe A. Flammia III of Woburn, Maine, who hoped to catch the eye of a professional hockey scout.

"When you take away a season for a player," said Chris Hills, a sophomore forward from Columbia, Md., "I have no confidence right now."

UVM coach Mike Gilligan and eight players have been sued by the rookie goalie who alerted officials to the party in a bid to stop it. Corey LaTulippe was dropped from the hockey team, ending his years-long drive to skate for the hometown stars.

The team's captain has been charged with providing alcohol to minors, the only criminal case to be brought so far.

And Vermont hockey fans? They were stunned, angry, disbelieving, supportive and robbed of their Friday and Saturday night entertainment.

"These guys are like Cal Ripken here," said Gordon Woodworth, UVM's director of sports information. "They're as big as it gets in this town, in this state."

Even the lawyer who sued the university on behalf of goalie LaTulippe appreciates the significance of hockey in Vermont.

"To me, there's nothing finer than going to a UVM hockey game. It's glorious. It's larger than life," said Mary Kehoe, who represents LaTulippe. But she added, "Had [they] canceled that Big Night party, you would not have had to cancel the UVM season."

A chance to educate

For nearly six months, UVM officials have grappled with the hazing charges, the team's deceit and the fallout from the school's inability to discover the truth on its own. The school wants to learn from the experience and become a national model on anti-hazing programs.

"The opportunity is here to educate," said Enrique Corredera, a university spokesman. "If our situation can be a wake-up call. The awareness is just not there. Maybe hazing is where sexual harassment was 20 to 25 years ago."

Last week, as the hockey team practiced in Gutterson Fieldhouse for games they would never play, a university panel proposed strengthening UVM's anti-hazing policy. The recommendations include a requirement that student athletes sign a contract to report hazing and the development of "team-building" initiatives to promote bonding among athletes.

Despite the apparently humiliating nature of the hazing, several players said they were having fun. No one was forced to participate, they argued. But their feelings, experts say, underscore the need to educate students, parents and others on the dynamics of hazing.

The UVM incident reminded school administrators, athletic directors and coaches across the country that the strongest anti-hazing policy -- and UVM's was long-standing -- won't necessarily diminish the power of the group or an athlete's desire to belong to it.

"The group is decisive," said Lionel Tiger, a Rutgers University anthropologist and author of "Men in Groups."

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