UM suspends 3 athletes in hazing case

This story was published on Aug. 16, 2007 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Almost one month after photos of a hazing party involving the University of Maine softball team came to light on the Internet, the school has benched three members of the team for at least two games, suspended the team from practice for one week, and placed the program on probation for three years.

All three suspended players were found to have violated both the University of Maine student code of conduct and the school’s student-athlete code of conduct when they participated in the 2006 party.

“Through conversations with those involved, we determined that there was hazing in this situation, which isn’t allowed here at the university,” University of Maine athletic director Blake James said. “There needs to be penalties in line with the actions.”

The university began an investigation into the incident starting July 20, one day after a hazing watchdog group forwarded to the BDN an Internet link to photos of parties in 2005 and 2006 involving UMaine softball players. That group, ncaahazing.com, is not affiliated with the NCAA.

James said the investigation wrapped up Monday. Robert Dana, the dean of students, handed down the probation and team suspension and the athletic department was responsible for penalties to the individuals.

James would not specify the violations of the student-athlete code of conduct for which the three juniors were suspended. Federal privacy laws prohibit public disclosure of the penalties assessed under the student conduct code.

Likely violations in this incident may have included possession of alcohol by a minor, promoting underage drinking, and transporting alcohol by a minor. Although there are no stipulations for hazing in the student-athlete code of conduct, the general code of conduct does prohibit hazing.

Junior Courtney Gingrich was suspended for 10 games and fellow juniors Ashley Waters and Jenna Balent were each suspended for two games. Both Gingrich and Waters, who were slated to be captains in 2008, will also forfeit those titles. Those three are believed to be the only players still on the team who were at the 2006 party.

University officials would not say why Gingrich got a stiffer penalty.

University of Maine head coach Stacey Sullivan, a 1999 UMaine graduate who is entering her third year coaching the Black Bears, declined to comment Wednesday afternoon. James said Sullivan was an active participant in the investigation.

“I’ve been communicating with her throughout the process,” he said. “I think she felt that the consequences that have come down are fair.”

None of the three suspended players could be reached for comment Wednesday night.

Both the athletic department and the Division of Student Affairs were involved in the investigation. James conducted preliminary interviews to determine whether the student-athlete code of conduct had been violated. James also referred the incident to the university’s Office of Community Standards, which is part of the Division of Student Affairs.

Dana said he spoke to a total of nine current and former players during his investigation. Some of those interviewed admitted to Dana they felt some pressure to participate in the parties because the older players were there.

“The photos give a first-order indication that nothing was amiss,” he said. “But once you start talking to the students they give a sense that there were expectations being placed on younger students by older students. You get a sense that [rookies] were expected to do things to fit in.”

Still, Dana added, the interviewees said they could probably have chosen to not participate or leave the event.

Based on those interviews, as well as a review of two different sets of photos from parties in 2005 and 2006 which were posted in two places on the Internet, the university concluded hazing incidents had also occurred in 2004 and 2007.

The 2005 photos were posted on the ncaahazing.com site. The 2006 photos were posted on webshots.com, a site that provides users with a place to post photo albums.

In a July 21 BDN story, James said he was aware of the 2005 photos and had talked to the softball team about his concerns. The university didn’t know about the 2006 photos until the BDN forwarded a link to the webshots.com site to UMaine officials on July 19.

The players in the 2005 photos cannot be identified because they have thick black bars across their faces. There are no such bars in the 2006 shots.

In the latter photos, Waters and Gingrich are shown dressed in costumes and heavy makeup, holding drinking glasses. The captions under the photos allude to the then-freshmen drinking what may have been a mixed alcoholic beverage made with Jagermeister liquor.

Balent, who was an academic freshman in 2005 but still has two years of athletic eligibility because of a medical redshirt that year, also appears in some photos. Another photograph shows some of the older players, dressed in street clothes, with the caption, “watching us make fools of ourselves.”

Other photos depict players making lewd gestures or in lewd positions. In the background of another, a poster on a wall gives the instruction, “Impersonate Coach.”

There were 62 photos in the album. In one, labeled “group photo,” there are 13 softball players, five of whom were seniors in 2006.

“The photos are atrocious, ridiculous depictions of students doing stupid things, none of which the students were proud of,” Dana said. “I will say it was a common refrain of shame and a real sense of loss because these are capable, confident, bright students who are the elite athletes and here they are depicted as buffoons. It’s a real sorrowful moment for them because this buffoonery is not who they are.”

None of the participants appeared to be wearing clothing or accessories with the University of Maine logo, but in other albums posted on the webshots site there are photos of the UMaine team in uniform.

The photos were posted by a user called gin1500. The university would not confirm whether the user was Gingrich, who wore No. 15 for the Black Bears in 2007.

Dana said further hazing violations of the code of conduct in the three-year probationary period, which ends May 31, 2010, will draw a much harsher response from the school.

“While they may view this as a serious reaction, the reaction to further acts of hazing would be far more serious,” he said.

The weeklong suspension was meant to send a message to the team.

“I wanted to tell them that the actions of a few, unfortunately, are affecting the lives of many,” Dana said. “Not being able to practice is a serious consequence for a student-athlete. The expectation is they’ll lift their heads up, look around, understand, OK we’re still upright, walking, proceeding to the future.”

The softball team will start spring practices a week late because of the overall team suspension. The University of Maine typically starts its practices the Monday after students return from winter vacation, which this academic year is Jan. 14, 2008.

Dana said the team suspension was also a reaction to a state law, enacted in 1983, that penalizes organizations in postsecondary institutions that authorize “injurious hazing.”

Fall practices and the team’s traditional spring trip, which has taken the Black Bears in recent years to Tennessee and Florida, will not be affected.

Other penalties handed down Wednesday include team participation in 20 hours of community service before the start of the 2008 season, to be coordinated by UMaine’s Bodwell Volunteer Center, and participation in a mandatory anti-hazing and alcohol education program coordinated by the Division of Student Affairs.

The softball team will not face NCAA penalties because that organization does not have guidelines for hazing.

Waters, a second baseman, was the second-leading batter on the team in 2007 with a .348 batting average. She also earned academic honors from America East and ESPN The Magazine.

Gingrich, a third baseman, batted .102 in 32 games. Balent, a pitcher who was the 2006 America East Rookie of the Year, was 9-11 with a 5.12 earned-run average.

The university also enlisted the help of UMaine assistant professor of educational leadership Elizabeth Allan, a nationally recognized expert in hazing issues. Allan is on sabbatical and could not be reached for comment.

Dana said he believes hazing is the result of groups sticking with old traditions of developing unity rather than finding new ways for the group to bond.

“This will help this team and we believe this will help University of Maine students,” he said. “We want students to know hazing is dangerous and unacceptable so you need to look for better, more durable ways to come together as groups and as teams and to think much bigger than withered traditions.”

James and University of Maine president Robert Kennedy have expanded hazing awareness programs starting this academic year, the university said in a release. In addition to hazing education programs already in place, Kennedy and James have created a mandatory hazing awareness program for all head coaches and will require that coaches address hazing with their team before every season. The Division of Student Affairs also will conduct hazing and alcohol abuse education programs for each team.

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