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Penalty Kicks: Off the Field 

The soccer season’s over but not the controversy

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It's been just over a week since Humboldt State University President Rollin Richmond canceled the upcoming men's soccer season, and players and their parents are still grumbling about the decision, wishing they had a referee to officiate what they're calling campus politics. Rumors are swirling and athletes are unwilling to talk on the record, frightened of further discipline.

"Not without my lawyer," or "I don't want to comment" was what current soccer players consistently said when pressed for details about an Aug. 4 off-campus party attended by all but one player. A campus-led investigation, which began when someone called university administrators two days later, concluded the party involved underage drinking and hazing. Anxiety still reverberates from the locker rooms and into the classrooms as members of the women's soccer team, facing similar accusations, await the fate of their upcoming season. A decision is expected soon.

Parents of players have been exchanging emails among themselves and with the administration, saying a stern probation would have sufficed, instead of the president's "draconian" decision to cancel the season. But the administration, well aware of hazing tragedies across campuses nationwide, says it wants to send a clear message that hazing won't be tolerated at HSU.

As a practicing attorney in Sacramento, Mark Swartz believes everyone is entitled to due process. He feels his 21-year-old son, Austin Swartz, a junior midfielder, was robbed of a fair hearing, the victim of an administration that did not justify its decision and was all too willing to play judge, jury and executioner. "Why is your punishment so harsh?" Swartz asks rhetorically, as if he were speaking to the president instead of on the phone to the Journal. "He's never answered that question. Period."

Swartz is primarily a civil attorney now, but when he was a deputy district attorney, prosecuting first-time offenders who didn't inflict bodily harm, they typically got probation and a second chance, he said. He wishes the school would act more like a court of law. "Everybody screws up, and you get a warning that if it happens again there will be serious consequences. This was a knee-jerk reaction."

But Richmond worries that there might not be a second chance. "How would I have liked to call a father or mother and say, ‘Sorry, we didn't do a good enough job to stop hazing, your son is dead?'" Still in the president's mind is a 2005 incident at nearby Chico State University, where a man died after drinking too much water as part of a fraternity initiation which also required dancing in raw sewage. As of February 2010, hazing has killed 96 people, with 82 percent of the deaths involving alcohol, according to the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention.

HSU administrators say the Aug. 4 party put the lives of two students at risk from alcohol poisoning. But since the investigation didn't begin until two days after the party, and since neither student received any medical treatment according to campus authorities, it was unclear what information the college relied on to determine lives had been at risk.

HSU athletic director Dan Collen, who helped lead the investigations along with the student affairs department, said canceling the season was a painful decision for the president. "He certainly agonized over it. There were a lot of conversations. I do support it though. [Hazing] can't be tolerated."

Richmond said that there were some differences of opinion on what the appropriate level of disciplinary action should be. "But I made the ultimate decision, primarily based on the fact that people's lives were put in danger."

What makes the university's decision particularly frustrating, said Swartz, is that parents can't see the investigative report or details of the interviews on which it was based. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act requires that schools have a student's consent before disclosing of educational records. Swartz said several athletes have asked to view the reports but haven't seen them yet.

With the athletes' refusals to talk and the investigative report still under wraps, it's impossible to say what exactly happened at the Aug. 4 party. But it seems clear that there is, and has been, what Collen described at a press conference as a "tradition" of hazing.

Swartz has heard about rowdy, embarrassing initiation parties -- but he says it's not hazing because attendance is not required in order to win a spot on the team. "What I've heard is that this has been going on for years. It's a tradition. My son went through it, and he said it was silly and kind of funny, but not a big deal to him. My son said you don't have to sit there and pound alcohol. You can stop or take a break. Or not show up," Swartz said.

What about the rumors swirling about past year's parties, the diaper-wearing and penis pacifiers for new team members, the penalties for those who didn't drink enough, including forced streaking or dildos taped to a hand?

Swartz hadn't heard anything about dildos or pacifiers. The diapers, he said, that has happened. It's just not hazing, as he'd define it.

But that was a past party, and details of the most recent one are hard to come by. Michael Streck-Woodward, a member of the football team, said he briefly stopped by the infamous Aug. 4 party. "It was a typical college party, loud music, dancing, alcohol. But nothing in gratuitous amounts that would cause harm." Student athletes in other sports are standing by the soccer players, he said. "It's mostly a sad situation. I wish they had their season so we could all support them."

The soccer players haven't lost any scholarship support because their season was canceled, but for most, soccer was a vital part of campus life. Parents are steaming because they haven't been able to schedule a meeting with the president, Swartz said. And he's lashing out at Peg Blake, who largely conducted the investigation, saying her own record of drinking and driving makes her a hypocrite.

Blake, vice president of student affairs, did not return multiple phone calls from the Journal, and university president Richmond tried to deflect the attack on her, saying HSU knew about her past when it hired her, and that she has contributed to student life.

In 2005, when Blake was the vice president of student affairs at Boise State University, she was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol with her 8-year-old child in the front seat, according to the school's student newspaper. Police stopped her for driving the wrong direction down a one-way street, and her blood alcohol content registered three times over the legal .08 limit, the paper said. The university suspended Blake and she later resigned. Blake pleaded guilty to driving under the influence, Idaho state records show, and was given probation and six months in jail, with at least 165 days of the jail time suspended. The charges were later dismissed after she completed court-imposed requirements. Blake has "engaged in far worse behaviors than these kids," Swartz said. And yet, "She got a second chance in the court system. The criminal court system gave her probation and didn't take her kid away," he said.

Richmond sees Blake's past as an asset to HSU. "She has been punished and she sees the importance that making sure people understand that it's not tolerated and to send a strong message when it is violated."

With soccer on hold for this academic year, administrators say they're trying to ensure that athletics at HSU will change fundamentally. As a result of the hazing allegations, the athletic department plans to start random drug and alcohol testing for student athletes. The new test, to be administered by the university, will be in addition to testing already conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The athletic department will also require student athletes to sign a non-hazing agreement each year.

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