Greeks have more fun — and the occasional death

When I was first a college student – back in the Second Age of the Middle Earth – I had an experience with some fraternity boys that firmly cemented an opinion already forming in my callow mind: Fraternities and sororities should not be a part of our civilized society because they promote uncivilized behavior and attitudes.

I lived on Pleasant Street in Boulder, several blocks from the University of Colorado campus in a barren basement room next to the furnace. Between me and the campus lay a Sigma Nu fraternity house that catered to fair-skinned jocks, who were often in the front yard displaying their athletic prowess – throwing a football or practicing wrestling holds on one another – as I passed by.

And because I looked a little different than these crew-cut steroidal hulks – long-haired, bespectacled, intense and skinny – they started making sport of me, calling me names and even threatening my little dog. All in good fun, I’m sure they told one another, but I finally went to the Dean of Students and angrily whined about this affront to my anemic dignity.

The next time I walked by there was only a surly silence and scowls, which made me feel rather triumphant, but the incident was a prime example of snobbish students banding together and excluding others who didn’t fit a particular mold — say white, wealthy and willing to lick the boots of those who came before. My low opinion was confirmed again and again as my education proceeded.

But that’s the way Greek organizations have always acted. (You know, like the one in “Revenge of the Nerds” — geeks vs Greeks.) All in good fun, of course.

Consider the recent incident at the Chi Psi house in Boulder, where a few weeks ago a prospective pledge was forced to drink so much booze during his initiation that he passed out and never woke up. As part of their hazing, a practice that is widespread even though it is not “officially” condoned and is in fact against state law, Lynn Gordon Bailey, Jr., and the other pledges were taken blindfolded to a campsite in the mountains and told they couldn’t leave until a large supply of whiskey and wine had been finished.

When they finally returned to the frat house, as Bailey sank into a coma from alcohol poisoning, his would-be brothers decorated his face and body with Magic Marker graffiti — probably the same sort of inane male-bonding ritual that had been inflicted on them when they first joined the privileged drinking club.

The art work included racial and sexual slurs and lewd drawings, his father was informed by the coroner who examined the 18-year-old’s remains. (The nature of the graffiti has attracted little attention in the wake of the larger tragedy, but I think it adds weight to my judgment, proof of the contemptible attitudes and arrogance fostered among Greeks.)

When the merry pranksters found the dead pledge on the floor in the fraternity’s library the next morning, they figured they had to call 911 and that police would likely be involved, so one desperately tried to wipe off the nasty remarks that had been scrawled on the victim’s face. (Like “It sucks to be me,” and “F–k me,” thereby demonstrating the keen, superior wit of frat rats.)

“This reinforces the nearly unbearable pain of the whole thing,” his father told the media. “Was he dying while they were writing that?”

Gee, Mr. Bailey, can’t you take a little joke? It was all in good fun, after all. They were just testing the mettle of your son to see if he measured up to their high standards and time-honored traditions.

Now, of course, CU officials pretend to be up in arms about all the booze that flows at the Greek houses and all the risky business pledges must undergo to gain acceptance — as though they were unaware that such has always been the case. Which they weren’t, since there have been myriad similar incidents at CU in the past.

So smooth talk from public-relations flacks, mixing just the right amount of outrage and grief, is of little comfort to the shattered family.

Pauline Hale, one unctuous CU apologist, told reporters the administration is “continuing to work with the fraternity and sorority leaders to assess all aspects of Greek life, including the role of alcohol in social activities.” (Yeah, they’ll get right on this comprehensive assessment now that the true nature of Greek life has been revealed.)

In fact, CU has a long and ignoble reputation as a party school, always ranked at or near the top of the heap in those inane surveys, and a large part of that debauchery goes on at the Greek houses that ring the campus.

But the problem isn’t confined to CU. Nationally, there has been at least one hazing-related death every year since the 1970s, according to expert Hank Nuwer, and the great majority involved excessive drinking.

Just this year three other college students have died from consuming too much alcohol at fraternity bashes, one at Colorado State University, one at the University of Arkansas and one at the University of Oklahoma.

Nuwer, who’s written several books on the subject, says nothing is likely to change as a result of the latest death.

“There’s not a nationwide movement against (hazing),” he told The Denver Post. “There are no adult role models against it.”

And, boy, has he got that right, since any alleged adults still involved with the fraternity/sorority system have got to be just as immature as their offspring, and no doubt fondly recall being similarly “tested” during their salad years.

“It fits into the culture of humiliation,” Nuwer added. “It’s expecting someone to be your entertainment as they go through these things.”

But it’s not just the hazing and alcohol that’s the problem here anyhow. It’s the whole archaic notion that really classy young men and women should join exclusive clubs made up of their “own kind,” then make sadistic rules that essentially torture wannabes for their own amusement.

But then again, there are probably many things about fraternities I don’t understand – the dedication to higher principles they assuredly tout in their mission statements – stuff about service to the community, good citizenship and so on. Right, that’s what it’s all about – service to the community.

Like snuffing out the lives of a few potential Greeks, for instance. (Can he really say that?)

Hey, it’s all in good fun.

David Grant Long finished his college career at the University of Southern Colorado and never joined a fraternity.

From David Long, November 2004.