If you’re surprised hazing happens in collegiate sports, you probably don’t know that collegiate sports are a thing, they’re fertile ground for a sad, athletic bravado, and that attitude too often augurs heartbreaking results. And by too often, I mean more than never.
More than never may have happened in January 2011, according to a lawsuit filed last month in South Carolina. That’s where Haley Ellen Hunt, then a freshman soccer player at Clemson University, alleges she was woken up in the middle of the night, blindfolded, and crammed into a car trunk before being disoriented and told to sprint, blindfold on, until she ran into a brick wall.
The brick wall, presumably, wasn’t in the plan, but it allegedly caused “lacerations and abrasions to both hands, serious lacerations and abrasions to her face, a concussion, and a traumatic brain injury.” Teammates wanted to call an ambulance. The coaching staff said no, saying (as attributed to head coach Eddie Radwanski), “if you care about your job and our [team], then you will not tell anyone about this.”
Did I mention that the hazing was conducted with the full knowledge of Clemson’s coaching staff? According to the lawsuit, the staff knew the players had keys to Riggs Field, where Hunt was led to a dark room next to the field, spun around and yelled at to the point of disorientation, and told to run out of the room unsighted until she hit that wall.
Hunt, unable to attend class or practice after the incident, would eventually need the attention of a neurologist and plastic surgeon, all of which would go down as one of the worst incidents in hazing history if Radwanski hadn’t called Hunt before she enrolled to bully her, saying she’d never play for Clemson. Allegedly, Radwanski, who had taken over as head coach from Hershey Strosberg, told Hunt and other freshmen not to bother showing up, telling Hunt “in two years when I look at you sitting on the bench and you are crying because you are not playing, I’m going to laugh and say, I told you so.”
Heard enough? Because I’m glossing over a lot of other, gruesome details from the complaint, like a pattern of verbal and emotional abuse that continued even after Hunt sustained her injuries. There’s the allegation that hazing has existed in Clemson’s soccer program since the 1990s, with the administration continually failing to pay more than lip service to written measures designed to eradicate the practice from the university’s campus.
Hunt eventually red-shirted her freshman year and would only make 17 appearances (five starts) for the Tigers. She earned the Bill D’Andre Tiger Paw Award in 2013 for “outstanding commitment and selflessness within the team culture”, but she only played 65 minutes last season.
According to the lawsuit, her vision is permanently impaired. She requires neurological treatment, physical therapy, and has to take daily medication. After two years of headaches and difficulties with school following the incident, she sought the help of a specialist who said her soccer career was over. He also questioned why Hunt was ever allowed to resume play without a proper neurological evaluation. As a result of the incident, the specialist said, Hunt has suffered “substantial decreased cognitive function.” Hunt’s only 21 years old.
Ultimately, this story isn’t about hazing, the disturbing use of authority in sport, the ridiculous choices imposed on collegiate athletes, or a grotesque environment that cycles freshman victims into positions to perpetuate abuse (all of Clemson soccer’s 2011 upperclassmen are named as defendants in the suit). It’s about an 18-year-old from South Carolina who, recruited under one, promising set of circumstances, may have had her life irrevocably changed by a person and school that created a system of abuse. They didn’t see her as a woman who still had a full life to live beyond Clemson. They saw her as a commodity.
Even while writing this, I regret the feedback that’s going to come – the sliver of people justifying these customs, as if they’re life affirming experiences. The strong survive this, the strong say, as if that doesn’t pervert what strength can be. The strength can be getting into that trunk. Strength can be putting up with the abuse while thinking the best of those around you. Strength can be sprinting out of a shed into darkness, believing faith in upperclassmen, coaching staff, and administrators will keep you from becoming a headline on some soccer blog. Strength can be misplaced.
If even a small percentage of what Hunt alleges is true, that strength was misplaced; naively, but understandably so. But think about how many 18-year-olds around the country are putting themselves in the same situation, knowing any show of defiance — of common sense — could see their scholarship revoked, their education denied, and their dreams destroyed.
What kind of world have we created where some people choose between a blindfold and a wall on one side, forgoing education and soccer on the other?
Hopefully, that’s not the world we live in, but I wasn’t surprised to hear about this story. Whether we’re talking about the Miami Dolphins, Clemson University, or Vermont High School, hazing and bullying exists at every level or sport, and beyond. And tacit support for it exists in every sport, and beyond. It’s part of the culture. It’s part of the problem.
Whether Haley Ellen Hunt’s allegations prove true, there are more Haley Ellen Hunts out there. This won’t be the last time we’re left asking: How did this happen? How did we get here? And how can we stop it?