A ritual that was once tolerated in the 20th Century—even celebrated in movies like Animal House—will be no more at one of the country’s biggest fraternities.
Pledging, also known as initiation, will now be abolished by Sigma Alpha Epsilon nationally across its 240 chapters. This is a very big deal considering that SAE has more than 300,000 initiated members and has been around since March 9, 1856.
So why the change?
Because thanks to the advanced technology we all carry around in our pocket—along with the expansion of media, particularly that of the social variety—the secrecy factor of fraternities and sororities is long gone. And with the curtain raised comes more scrutiny from the two types of people Greek members fear most:
Cops and lawyers…
In SAE’s case, the death toll is now at 10. And we’re not talking a death toll since 1856, but 2006, with all connected to hazing, alcohol and/or drugs at SAE events. According to Bloomberg, the number of fatalities at SAE is higher than at any other fraternity.
"We have experienced a number of incidents and deaths," according to the statement by the fraternity. "We have endured a painful number of chapter closings as a result of hazing. Research shows that hazing, which hides in the dark, causes members to lie.”
Make that what used to hide in the dark. Back in my day (we’ll just call them the ’90s); the only way anything was recorded behind the scenes at a frat was through a not-so-small camera. In order to share such a video, copies of hard tapes would have to be made. (Not that this ever happened.) In 2014, the game has obviously changed via cell phone video and pictures that—as we’ve all learned one way or another—can be shared via Twitter or Facebook or text almost instantly and easily.
Also consider that bullying is a topic many Americans have been more informed on recently, making hazing not the kids-just-having-fun-in-college mindset almost obsolete when it comes to pledging, and by extension, hazing. What used to hide in the dark is now out there for anyone to see.
Here are a few examples via YouTube. Definitely not suited for office viewing:
And it isn’t just limited to fraternities, either…
There’s even one instance of a pledge losing a testicle during the process (video thankfully not available).
But the most detailed behind-the-scenes footage can be found in this link fro the documentary called Frat House directed by Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland.(Best bet is to watch from the 35-minute mark on). The doc won two awards at Sundance and was supposed to air on HBO, but was pulled when allegations surfaced that some of the footage (at Alpha Tau Omega/Muhlenberg College) was staged. The directors maintain the film is completely accurate.
On college campuses, hazing isn’t exactly something new. According to Franklin College Professor Hank Nuwer, who has written multiple books on the subject, two Harvard students were fined and suspended for hazing…in 1657. According to his research, as of 2013, Nuwer tallies 104 deaths linked to hazing since 1970.
SAE’s decision to abolish pledging is likely also a financial one. One of the ten aforementioned SAE deaths was that of George Desdunes, who died after a hazing ritual at Cornell in February of 2011. Consequently, a $25 million lawsuit was brought against the fraternity on behalf of his mother. Desdunes’ blood alcohol level at the time of his death was .40—or five times the legal limit. Just how much of that alcohol was forced during the ritual and what was voluntarily consumed by Desdunes beforehand was what was argued in court.
In the end, the three SAE members named in the lawsuit were acquitted of all charges in 2012. But the threat of future litigation—although the fraternity will never admit it—is likely a big factor in the decision to ban the initiation process.
Threats of lawsuits (and all the negative press that goes with it) coupled with incriminating evidence via cell phone cameras—along with a decidedly-more weary society when it comes to any form of bullying—will (and this is just an educated prediction) make pledging at a majority of fraternities a thing of the past within the next decade.
SAE is just the first major fraternity to do it.
The domino effect will happen from there. And one-by-one, many other houses will see—particularly from a survival perspective—that the cons now outweigh the pros.
Animal House is considered one of the great comedies of the 20th Century; a classic that celebrated fraternities and the process that goes with getting into one. But the Delta House of 1962 would never survive in the 21st Century.
Too many eyes watching. Too many lawyers. Too much accountability.
And now…far too many deaths that could have otherwise been prevented.