PHILOMATH, Ore. — The scoreboard at the edge of Philomath High School’s football field is dark. The stands are empty. This year, there are no varsity games that brought together many of the town’s 4,500 people.
Hazing inflicted by upperclassmen on 11 freshman players at a conditioning camp has led to the season’s cancellation, investigations by authorities and the school district, and calls for healing and for the tradition to stop.
Studies show more than half of college students in sports teams, clubs and organizations have experienced hazing. Many were hazed in high school. Just last week in California, three varsity high school football players were charged in a separate incident.
Breaking the cycle is difficult, but Philomath is tackling the issue head on.
“The school district is paying attention to both what happened and what could prevent this from happening again,” Superintendent Melissa Goff told The Associated Press. “We’re paying very close attention to the mental health needs of our students and how we, as a community, can pull together.”
Philomath is a small, sleepy town. Traffic barrels past shuttered businesses on Main Street, a highway heading into the Coastal Range to the west. Corvallis, home to Oregon State University, lies 3 miles to the east.
The town formed around Philomath College, which existed from 1865 to 1929. Its name is Greek for “lover of learning.”
Philomath has little in the way of entertainment, and several people said the loss of the football season will be a blow.
“It’s a little bitty town, and there’s not much else to do, so there was usually a pretty big turnout there,” said Rhonda Lewis, a waitress at the C D & J Cafe, on Main Street. “I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”
Pastors representing seven churches have made themselves available “to listen, pray for and offer counseling to local students, parents and school district personnel,” said Jim Hall, senior pastor of Living Faith Community Church. They’ve had conversations with a broad spectrum of townspeople, Hall said.
The school district contracted an independent investigator, Goff said. That probe is ongoing. The Oregon State Police also investigated, because the incident happened at a state-owned camp.
Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson said 11 freshman players had intimate parts of their bodies targeted during an initiation.
In court Thursday, one of six upperclassmen charged with misdemeanors pleaded guilty to harassment. As part of his sentence, he will speak out against hazing and stand up for the victims.
Haroldson, who advocated for the term, said victims are being blamed for the football season’s cancellation and some students’ expulsions, and instead should be recognized for their courage.
The hazing existed for years, “instilled as part of the institution,” and had gotten worse, Haroldson said.
“The coaches didn’t stop it,” he told Circuit Court Judge Locke A. Williams. “They chose not to stop it or couldn’t stop it.”
The judge noted hazing isn’t isolated to Philomath and said there must be an “understanding that this is a practice that cannot continue.”
A 22-year-old volunteer assistant coach stands charged in the county where the hazing occurred. All the coaches are on leave, Goff said.
The decision was made to cancel the varsity season after other athletes and coaches evaluated the readiness of eligible players. The junior varsity season remains on track.
Brittany Dryden, manager of Wilson’s NAPA Auto Parts store, feels the cancellation is “a little harsh.”
“I understand people make mistakes … but I don’t see why we have to punish the whole football team, and punish other people that weren’t involved, had nothing to do with it,” Dryden said. “It’s just not fair to those kids.”
Goff has a rebuttal: “High school football in Philomath is important, but it is not as important as our kids.”
Hazing might be part of human nature, and “it definitely goes back to ancient Greece and Rome,” said Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and an expert on hazing.
Victims take the experience to college and the military, primed to be hazed again and again, Lipkins said in a telephone interview from Port Washington, New York.
Over time, they often become perpetrators, feeling they “have the right to do unto others what was done to them,” Lipkins said.
Ending the cycle requires breaking the silence.
Philomath seems to be handling its case right so far, Lipkins said. To prevent hazing, schools must encourage victims to come forward, using clearly established methods like the internet and even reporting abuse anonymously so they aren’t labeled wimps.
But few high schools and colleges follow through on promises to eliminate hazing, Lipkins noted.
“They react,” she said. “They don’t prepare for it and don’t have a system in place in any meaningful way.”