LINCOLN — Blindfolded. Forced to wear black and carry an egg at all times. Forbidden to talk to men.
When new members of a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sorority were subjected to these and other hazing rituals in the fall of 2012, the sorority — Sigma Lambda Gamma — wound up with a yearlong suspension.
Hazing often conjures up images of excessive drinking, whipping and physically harmful activity. But tough punishment for hazing activities that once might have seemed tame illustrates that colleges take hazing seriously and continue to try to stamp it out. UNL officials said initiation rituals on campus aren't allowed to include any form of hazing.
“To try to put this into a perspective, if that happened in the workplace or with Boy Scouts or anything else, the public would be up in arms,” said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana who studies hazing. “It is a serious matter.”
A UNL fraternity bust last month has focused new attention on hazing. Members and officers of the Sigma Nu fraternity were cited on suspicion of 62 fire code violations after firefighters, responding to an alarm, found the fraternity house in disarray. Wet leaves, broken bottles and other trash were scattered throughout the house, exits were blocked by broken furniture, and detergent and household cleaners had been poured on floors. The plan was apparently for pledges to clean up the mess.
Formal hazing charges have not been filed in the incident. But the university has already suspended the Sigma Nu chapter for the school year. Freshmen cannot reside in the fraternity house during that period.
Anti-hazing groups have recommended that the university establish a task force to prevent future incidents. They define hazing as any forceful action required for someone to gain membership into a club or chapter.
“Essentially, you have a newcomer who is asked to do something silly, dangerous or demeaning in order to get into a particular chapter, with the expectation that once he gets into that chapter, he'll be able to turn the abuse to someone else,” said Nuwer, who has written several books on the subject.
The psychological effects of agreeing to be hazed, he said, can be destructive. Once pledges play into a smaller form of hazing — even as simple as wearing a particular shirt or carrying an object all day — chapter members might be led to act on a more dangerous scale.
Nationally, according to Nuwer, at least one hazing death has been reported every year since 1970, despite numerous laws that restrict the practice.
Nebraska's current hazing law dates to 1994, a year after a UNL student suffered severe head injuries after being hazed at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. According to court documents, Jeffrey K. Knoll fell three stories while trying to escape a “pledge sneak” ritual in which he was kidnapped, handcuffed to a radiator and given 15 shots of brandy and whiskey as well as three to six beers over 2½ hours.
Nebraska's law defines hazing as any activity that intentionally or recklessly endangers a person's health for the purpose of initiation or affiliation with a particular organization.
Since 2008, UNL police have dealt with five cases of possible hazing. Only one has resulted in criminal charges: a 2009 Sigma Chi incident that was settled out of court. Court records indicated that some pledges were forced to take shots of Tabasco sauce and vodka until they vomited, and some were sexually assaulted.
Many hazing rituals are much less extreme — although they still may cross the line of what's allowed.
One morning in August 2012, Claire Wieger walked into a UNL astronomy class to find a goldfish swimming in a water jug on the desk next to hers. Wieger quickly learned that her classmate had agreed to carry around the live fish and an inflatable one with protruding, buglike eyes all week for a swim team initiation.
She found the stunt funny at the time. She even tweeted about it. But looking back, she said, she now wonders if that sort of initiation ritual might go too far.
“They're making them do something that's obviously taboo,” said Wieger, a sophomore advertising and business student. “I don't think it would be considered a dangerous type of hazing, but I don't think it was 100 percent right, either.”
Charles Hall, executive director of hazingprevention.org, pointed to the recent controversy involving Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito as proof that a hazing culture persists today in some places such as professional sports or colleges — even though that behavior wouldn't be allowed elsewhere.
“You compare it to a business organization,” Hall said. “You've got a sales team for a computer company — when a new member comes into that sales team, they don't get hazed.”
Wieger, who is a member of the Chi Omega sorority, said she wouldn't have joined if members participated in any form of hazing. In her experience, she said, she has never seen hazing at any of UNL's sororities. But that doesn't mean it doesn't happen, she said.
At Chi Omega, new members are required to participate in an online education program that warns about the dangers of initiation rituals.
“I think all houses should have to do it,” she said of the program. “If you're in an organization that is going to make you do things that you feel uncomfortable with, you shouldn't be affiliated with that organization. If they don't accept you without having to do those things, then that isn't the right place for you.”