After St. Olaf College’s announcement that its 2015 baseball season had been canceled due to hazing, school officials said they didn’t have a record of another incident like it.
But two former team members, including one who graduated last year, say the initiation rituals were an annual tradition.
Nicholas Cundy, who left the Northfield school after his freshman year in 2012, called it “ingrained in the culture.”
“You felt like if you wanted to be part of St. Olaf baseball, this was something you had to do,” he said.
Now, the school’s representatives won’t say exactly what happened on the weekend of Feb. 28, or why it warranted canceling the 2015 baseball season. But the hazing has stirred both the campus community and a close-knit alumni network, spurring disciplinary action and potential personnel changes. And it’s all happening as a new crop of student-athletes prepares to commit to colleges for the fall.
Head baseball coach Matt McDonald — who is also St. Olaf’s athletic director — declined to comment for this story. In a letter to baseball alumni, he said that some of what had been reported about the Feb. 28 incident was false.
“Though I am not able to share all the events of the evening with you, I will tell you that the report of ‘slave-like behavior with racial overtones’ is false,” he wrote. “There was no physical abuse to any player, and the only people at the event were members of the baseball team.”
School officials have confirmed the incident involved freshmen serving older teammates in the school’s cafeteria and activities off campus. A news release that described the incident mentioned “ridicule, harassment and public displays of servitude” as well as underage drinking.
In an interview, St. Olaf spokesman Steve Blodgett and Gray Plant Mooty attorney Carl Lehmann neither confirmed nor denied that any school athletics officials were aware of hazing on the baseball team. Instead, they referred to a statement that says St. Olaf is “pursuing personnel actions that for confidentiality and privacy reasons the college is not free to disclose.”
The college is also in the process of creating a full-time athletic director position.
The hazing Cundy remembers started after a Saturday afternoon baseball practice in late February 2012. The team headed to the college cafeteria, where he and other freshmen were told to serve the older players.
Once the older players had finished eating, they led the freshmen to the off-campus baseball house. There, things escalated quickly. It was called “The Scrimmage.”
Freshmen competed to see who could drink the most, at one point being told to down saucers of malt liquor and live fish. Later, there were “interviews” in which each freshman had to sit in front of the group and answer questions about his sexual history. Some had to call women they’d mentioned while everyone else listened in.
Cundy said he felt he didn’t have any choice but to participate.
“My main concern was just trying to just fit in with the team and be part of that team,” he said.
The 2008 National Study of Student Hazing found that more than half of college students involved in teams, clubs or other organizations experience hazing. In 25 percent of hazing experiences, students believe coaches or advisers are aware.
“A predominant reason is that many don’t see what’s happening as hazing,” said Elizabeth Allan, a University of Maine professor who co-authored the study. “If they don’t see anyone immediately getting hurt by it, they don’t always see how it can create a slippery slope where it can escalate and harm can come.”
The study also found that 95 percent of recognized hazing is not reported to campus officials. Reasons range from fear of getting the team in trouble to fear of repercussions from the team.
Cundy didn’t share the full details of the hazing incident with anyone for three years — although he did share details with college officials about what he said was repeated verbal and physical harassment from another player. Cundy said the other player hit him at practice and swung a field rake at him.
The school denies that the hazing and alleged harassment are connected. An investigation concluded that there was “insufficient evidence to indicate a finding of harassment,” after other players said they hadn’t seen it happen.
The accused player did not respond to calls for comment.
Hazing or not?
Student chatter on social media and elsewhere alerted school officials to this year’s hazing incident, Lehmann said. After an initial coverup by members of the team, the school canceled the season and disciplined players deemed responsible.
Moving forward, Blodgett said, there are plans for an educational campaign directed at all student activities, not just athletics.
“What we can do about anything like this is deal with the now,” he said.
Yet there are some who say the school’s reaction was too harsh.
Kendrick Paulson, who graduated last May, was on the baseball team his freshman and sophomore years. He also played volleyball and football. He remembers a baseball initiation similar to what Cundy went through, though said he doesn’t consider it hazing.
“What I went through was not, I didn’t think, over the top,” he said. “I played multiple sports, so I went through initiations with other sports as well. Those were worse, in my opinion, than the baseball one.”
Paulson and other alumni said they were shocked to learn that the season had been canceled.
Bob Klefsaas, who played both baseball and football and graduated in 1982, said he never heard of an initiation like Cundy and Paulson described. And he doesn’t think of what he experienced as hazing.
“Those drinking games, those parties, those traditions were very, very relevant in building team camaraderie and building a concept of team when we walked out on the field and competed,” he said.
Cundy left St. Olaf at the end of his freshman year primarily because of the bullying he experienced. He played baseball for a while at his new college in Oregon, but found he no longer had much of a passion for it.
He has started coaching, though.
“The game of baseball — it’s a great game,” he said. “Playing it was sort of spoiled for me, but coaching I have an opportunity to make sure that stuff like this doesn’t happen.”