Northwestern University’s athletics department finds itself in the big middle of a number of scandals breaking nearly simultaneously. Not a good look for perhaps the brainiest university of the fourteen (soon to be sixteen and perhaps more) schools in the Big 10. There are scandals everywhere one looks–in baseball, softball, volleyball, and even cheerleading–but we will focus on football.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald, a former star player at Northwestern and one of its most successful coaches ever, was fired unceremoniously on July 10, 2023 as a hazing scandal broke into the open. It’s early times and the facts aren’t completely known. There’s evidence that Fitzgerald knew of the hazing, but he strongly denies it. We will set out what appear to be the facts, relying heavily on a story reported in The Athletic (Kahler & Hamilton).
During every August since 1992, Northwestern’s football teams have traveled away from campus to Camp Kenosha to practice. Hazing appears to have begun early on. It has continued and worsened…until now. As is typically the case, upperclassmen led the hazing; freshmen were its primary victims.
The hazing took unseemly, often sexual forms. Victims had to do pull-ups in the nude. They were held face-down on the floor and “dry-humped” by older players. To get to the showers, they had to squeeze through a doorway stuffed with large, naked players lathered in soap. There was much more, but we will leave it at that. You do not want to know what a “flying squirrel” is. Trust us.
Needless to say, this is unattractive behavior. It is immoral and it obviously violates Northwestern’s official policies. The Northwestern players are generally considered the “brainiacs” of the Big 10. They didn’t need to be philosophy majors or to bone up on Kant and Mill to realize that what they were doing was wrong. They knew it was. As one player said: “I knew this day would come… [that if] someone were to run an investigation on us, we are f***d.” (Kahler & Hamilton)
So, again, as we so often do in our blog posts, we find ourselves addressing the eternal question: “Why do good people do bad things?” As usual, we will find the answers not in philosophy books, but in psychology research.
How did the hazing start? That is unclear, but players themselves have offered up some theories. One said: “When you take [players] off-site to a camp with no interaction, no women, sh** is going to get weird. You are in Kenosha, you have to be off the grid the whole time, what do you think is going to happen? Young boys messing around and doing stuff.” Another player agreed. “Dudes doing dude jokes,” he said. (Kahler & Hamilton).
According to Stanford’s late, great psychologist Albert Bandura, when people do things that they know they shouldn’t, they often resort to mechanisms of moral disengagement which enable them to separate their identity from the wrong they have done so that they can continue to think of themselves as good people. At least three mechanisms of moral disengagement are present in the Northwestern scandal.
First, there are rationalizations, which are excuses people give themselves for not living up to their normal moral standards. In this situation, the players rationalized their actions by choosing to believe that they were engaged in “team bonding activities,” not hazing. Said one player: “Stuff like that was seen in a very twisted way as team-building and character-building.” What could be wrong with a little “team building”? Corporations do it all the time. Sounds innocent enough, right?
A second tool of moral disengagement is the use of euphemisms to disguise what is really going on. Genocide sounds better if we call it “the final solution.” Tax fraud seems permissible if we call it “creative accounting.” As Bandura notes:
Language shapes the perception of events and the thought patterns on which people base many of their actions. The personal and social acceptability of given activities, therefore, can differ markedly depending on what those activities are called. Euphemistic machinations are used widely to detach and depersonalize doers from harmful activities. Cloaking detrimental activities in euphemisms can be a powerful weapon.
Dr. Elizabeth Allan of Maine University suggests: “You hear people say, ‘Oh no, that’s not hazing, that’s just a tradition.’” That little euphemism can morally sanitize and even ennoble hazing activities. Journalists Lourgos and La report: “some former players recounted a practice that was allegedly referred to as [here’s another euphemism for you] ‘running.’ In actuality, freshman players were being punished for on-field mistakes by getting restrained in a locker room by older players in masks, who would ‘dry-hump’ the new players.” Said one former player, “[i]t’s done under the smoke and mirror of ‘oh, this is team bonding,’ but no, this is sexual abuse.”
A third form of moral disengagement according to Bandura is dehumanization. If the victims of our wrongdoing are not really human, then it is permissible to mistreat them. The Nazis dehumanized Jews (“vermin!”) in World War II, for example. As one Northwestern player recently said of the hazing: “As soon as you start to dehumanize or degrade someone’s humanity, that is the tipping point where things start to not be OK.” (Kahler and Hamilton). It is unlikely that the degrading things that the perpetrators did to the victims of the Northwestern hazing amounted to actual dehumanization. They cannot be meaningfully compared to what happened to the Jews in Germany. But these acts were awful and moved in that direction.
Incrementalism, the slippery slope, also appears to have played a role here.
When you do a little thing that you shouldn’t and nothing bad happens, that becomes the new normal. Then it’s easier to do a bigger thing that you shouldn’t. “What might have started as crude behavior during Fitzgerald’s All-American playing days from 1993-96 under head coach Gary Barnett grew increasingly toxic across subsequent coaching tenures.” (Kahler and Hamilton)
As Lourgos and La reported:
Members of a group can become acclimated to hazing over time. “A player might join a team and, in order to be accepted by the group, the athlete is hazed; then they become a bystander as they watch other people get hazed,” [hazing expert Susan] Lipkins said.
“Then eventually they have senior status and they do unto others what was done to them, because they feel they have the right and the duty to repeat the ritual,” she said.
Hazing can be complicated because the perpetrators were often once victims and the victims might become perpetrators, she explained.
“They’ve usually gone through the same kind of hazing,” [Lipkins] said. “It is my opinion that each time a hazing takes place, the perpetrators want to leave their own mark, so they usually increase something about the ritual. If alcohol is involved, they might increase the amount. If paddling is involved, they increase the degree or the quantity of paddling.”
This sounds like incrementalism at work to us.
Most Northwestern players who have been interviewed say that there was not any punishment for football players who refused to participate in the hazing. So why did these victims not speak up? The conformity bias has a big impact here. People generally take their clues as to how to act from their peers. This is especially the case when behavior standards are not clear to them. And as freshmen, these players had no reference point.
As one player said: “No teammate I knew liked hazing. We were all victims, no matter what our role was at the time. But the culture was so strong that we felt we had to go with it to survive, to be respected and to earn trust.” (Sheridan and McCoppin)
Another observed: “It’s something where you say, ‘That’s not going to happen to me. I’m going to fight back. I’m going to do something. I don’t play with that kind of stuff.’ But when it happens, it’s uncontrollable. You’re dominated by the culture.”
As yet another player put it: “Can you say no? You can, for sure. Where does that leave you when you do?” (Kahler and Hamilton)
The conformity bias also explains why many teammates inflicted hazing on others—they had seen their older teammates haze, so it seemed like an okay thing to do.
Even obedience to authority—the natural tendency people have to defer to the wishes of those in command–had an impact here. The Northwestern coaches insist that they did not know that the hazing was going on. But many players believe that they did, that the coaches must have known. That belief, whether or not accurate, would have made it difficult for players to rebel against the hazing. Not only do most people have a natural instinct to wish to please those in a position of authority, one player said that several of his teammates feared that coaches would cut their playing time or cancel their scholarships if they didn’t go along with the hazing. So naturally they went along. It is very difficult even for tough football players to stand up to authority figures.
Whether or not the Northwestern coaches knew of the hazing, it is clear that they were largely absent at the camp, giving the players a long leash. Coach Fitzgerald spoke often of wanting a “player-driven” team culture. Studies show that people are more likely to do the right thing when they are being supervised and less likely to do the right thing when they are not monitored. The lack of transparency at Camp Kenosha undoubtedly contributed to the hazing.
As we have noted in other blog posts, moral emotions may well be the strongest force keeping most people doing the right thing most of the time. If we do wrong, we feel guilty. If others find out, we also feel embarrassment and shame. These simple facts led primatologist Frans de Waal to observe that “[w]atched people are nice people.” Studies show that children wearing Halloween masks are more likely to ignore orders not to take too much candy than children without such masks. (Diener et al.) The t-shirt saying—“In my own defense, there was a full moon and I was left unsupervised”—seems to apply here. Left largely unobserved, twenty-year-old boys acted like twenty-year-old boys often do: like eleven-year-old boys.
There are more behavioral ethics insights to mine from these unfortunate facts, but this will be enough for now. There will be more to learn from this scandal as the investigations proceed, but it’s likely that psychology more than philosophy will help us understand the moral train wreck that was Camp Kenosha.
Joseph Acosta, “Northwestern Football’s Shocking Hazing Scandal, Explained,” SBNation, July 10, 2023, at https://www.sbnation.com/college-football/2023/7/10/23789587/northwestern-football-hazing-scandal-explained-pat-fitzgerald.
Albert Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2015).
Nick Blumberg, “’You’re Overpowered’: Former Northwestern Players Allege Culture of Hazing, Abuse in Program and Beyond,” WTTW TV, July 19, 2023, at https://news.wttw.com/2023/07/19/you-re-overpowered-former-northwestern-players-allege-culture-hazing-abuse-football.
Frans De Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (2013).
Ed Diener et al., “Effects of Deindividuation Variables on Stealing among Halloween Trick-or-Treaters,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 33(2): 178-183 (1976).
ESPN, “Attorney Says Northwestern Hazing Existed within Athletic Program,” July 19, 2023, at https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/38035812/ex-qb-lloyd-yates-others-seek-damages-northwestern-scandal.
Ja’han Jones, “Northwestern’s Sexual Abuse Scandal Could Change College Sports Forever,” MSNBC,July 21, 2023, at https://www.msnbc.com/the-reidout/reidout-blog/northwestern-hazing-sexual-abuse-lawsuit-rcna95416.
Kalyn Kahler & Brian Hamilton, “How a Hazing Culture Evolved at Northwestern’s Camp Kenosha: ‘There’s a Significance to Ritual,’” The Athletic, July 20, 2023.
Anglie Leventis Lourgos & Vivian La, “Northwestern University had Many Anti-Hazing Tools in Place Before the Football Scandal. So What Went Wrong?” Chicago Tribune, July 12, 2023.
Nicole Markus et al., “Former NU Football Player Details Hazing Allegations After Coach Suspension,” Daily Northwestern, July 8, 2023.
Jake Sheridan & Robert McCoppin, “As 2nd Northwestern Football Hazing Suit is Filed, Fitz’s Attorney asks: Where’s The Evidence? Meanwhile, Other Sports Under Scrutiny,” Chicago Tribune, July 19, 2023.
Behavioral Ethics: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/intro-to-behavioral-ethics.
Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias.
Moral Emotions: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-emotions.
Obedience to Authority: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority.