Haut Takes

I write about music, politics and pop culture.

Fraternities: America's Farm Team

Hey Everyone!

It’s unclear what would possess someone to eat tuna salad on an airplane. It is even more unclear why you wouldn’t even attempt to muffle the offensive smell between two slabs and eat it as a sandwich- and instead enjoy it directly from a 6 o.z. Tupperware. It is perhaps the most unclear why you would choose to do so moments after the flight attendant asked you to dispose of or pack up any service items because the descent into NYC would be quite bumpy. But yet, one man felt it necessary to demand that his wife, Nancy, pass him his fragrant dinner to enjoy directly after the attendant’s request. Nancy reiterated the announcement and encouraged her husband to wait, but he didn’t want to. They continued to bicker about it for a good 30 seconds, one party in the window seat, one in the aisle. All the while, the tuna salad remained hovering between them, precariously teetering over the lap of their middle seat companion. Eventually, the unnamed husband snatched the fishy feast and openly savored it, impervious to those around him who tucked their noses in their sweaters while simultaneously bracing themselves against the turbulence. After finishing the salad at an inhalation rate of six bites per second, husband tossed the emptied container back across the middle seat companion’s lap while demanding, “Nancy, take this.” Nancy silently absorbed this demand and stuffed the trash into her own carry on. Husband sat back, clasped his hands over his belly, satisfied.

If you haven’t put two and two together, the lap that served as the staging ground for their display of marital power dynamics, and potential landing pad for spilled salad, was mine. Earlier on my flight home from San Francisco, husband (who predictably was a white man in his 60s) had also looked over at my laptop screen, read portions of the paragraphs below and openly rolled his eyes. So for his explicit disapproval of the topics covered in Haut Takes and his egregious dismissal of social dining norms, I dedicate this week’s Haut Takes to husband as he copes with the downfall of others like him.

Times Talk: "Exposing Male Abuse of Power"

This past Thursday, I had the privilege of attending a Times Talk entitled “Exposing Male Abuse of Power”. If you don’t know, Times Talks are an event series sponsored by the New York Times usually featuring a panel of Times journalists and editors, moderated by another journalist or editor, discussing their processes for reporting on a specific topic. Thursday’s Talk was an all-star lineup of the three NYT writers/ heroes responsible for three watershed articles exposing the harassment allegations wielded against two powerful men and one powerful industry: O’Reilly, Weinstein, and Silicon Valley. The articles these women penned are credited for blowing open the floodgates of allegations that have befallen some of the most influential men in entertainment, business, and government. In other words, they are credited with America’s decision to finally give voice to some victims and hold some men accountable for their disgusting actions.

So this week, in lieu of a personal essay, I am going to recap much of the incredible insight and commentary these women provided about their work and our current cultural moment. Much is paraphrased, but I would love for their most poignant words to speak for themselves, so direct quotations are obviously denoted by quotation marks. Enjoy!

Who they are: Below are brief bios of the three women and why we should listen to them. The panel was moderated by Jessica Bennett, the Times’ new gender editor and author of Feminist Fight Club.

  • Meghan Twohey: Twohey is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist who joined the Times in 2016. She previously wrote for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune. As part of the Times’ presidential politics team, she gave voice to the first 2 women who publicly accused Trump’s of assault in this article from October 2016. She, along with Jodi Kantor, investigated the allegations against and wrote the original Times article exposing Weinstein (Important aside: She also began this investigation while she was still on maternity leave #boss). The article was published on October 5th, the same day as Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker piece, within 3 days Weinstein was fired from his own company- and we all know what has happened since.
  • Emily Steel: Steel joined the Times in June 2014 as a business and television industry reporter. She previously wrote for the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal where her reporting on a Facebook security breach became the paper’s most trafficked article of all time. She, along with Mike Schmidt, investigated and reported on the colossal settlements Bill O’Reilly reached with five women who accused him of sexual harassment and assault during his tenure at Fox News. The article ran in the Times in April of 2017. O’Reilly has since been fired by Fox News and blamed God for his troubles. She also exposed the $32 million settlement O’Reilly reached with legal analyst Lis Weihl just before Fox News renewed his contract. This article ran on October 21st of this year. 
  • Katie Benner: Benner is a technology reporter for the Times. She primarily covers venture capitalism and tech start-ups. She has previously written for Bloomberg, Fortune and The Information. She has extensively reported on the rampant sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. Her most recent coverage, conducted with Nathaniel Popper, published in October exposed the “frat” culture at psuedohip loan lender So-Fi and the predatory behavior of its now disgraced former CEO Mike Cagney. She also reported on Ellen Pao and her brave, but ultimately failed, efforts to hold her VC Kleiner Perkins accountable for supporting a culture of harassment.

How they did it: Too short anecdote filled summaries of their investigative processes that barely do justice to the hours, months, and years these women put into carefully, credibly, and accurately crafting their stories.

  • ES: Steel had previously investigated O'Reilly's exaggerated claims about his past war reporting. Throughout this investigation, Steel heard rumors (if we can even call them rumors since he frequently straight up bullied and degraded female guests on air almost every night) of O’Reilly’s abusive treatment of women while at Fox News. Her editor encouraged her to dig deeper. She did a little bit of digging- (Actually I’ll call it raking, because these facts were hovering below a fairly transparent surface) and stumbled upon a settlement O’Reilly reached with a Fox News staffer in 2004. (Steel also noted that much of her subsequent reporting has “started backward from a settlement.”) She and Schmidt combed through the legal documents associated with the settlement and began reaching out to lawyers, plaintiffs and network staff. In their raking, Steel and Schmidt discovered a number of additional settlements and accusations. Steel began contacting the plaintiffs and accusers, often conducting three-hour long phone calls where they recounted the harrowing details of O’Reilly’s abuse.  Despite her successful contact, Steel struggled to convince these women to come forward publicly, since most feared retribution or were legally barred from speaking. Steel’s editor assured her that the story would not be published without at least one on-the-record source. Steel was set on that source being a woman named Wendy Walsh, a former guest on The O’Reilly Factor whose invitation to appear had been rescinded after she refused to join O’Reilly in his hotel room. Walsh was hesitant to come forward. In one of their many phone calls, Walsh mentioned that she enjoyed Pilates and went to a class nearly every morning. Steel, in a stretch of the truth, also claimed to be a Pilates enthusiast and joined Walsh for a class. After the quivering agony of an hour of Pilates, Walsh agreed to go on the record. The story was a go. You can read more about Steel’s process in this Marie Clare article.
  • MT: When reporting on Trump, Twohey and her team chased a lead involving one woman who had accused Trump of assault in the early 2000s. This led them to discover and interview another woman who alleged Trump either assaulted or harassed them. That number has climbed to 16. (The most vocal of the women, Jessica Leeds, was in the audience that night as a guest of Meghan’s. I chatted with her before the panel began about seating arrangements and room temperature, having no idea who she was. Twohey introduced her almost immediately. Her introduction was met with a resounding round of applause.) Twohey was quick to note that without Steel’s April 2017 article, her reporting on both Weinstein would not be possible. The O’Reilly story cemented the Times as a force willing to reckon with the powers that be. Of course, these women were reluctant to come forward for the famous fear of retribution. Twohey leveraged Steel’s story as proof that the Times took stories about sexual harassment very seriously. While on maternity leave, Kantor contacted Twohey about reporting on Hollywood’s worst kept secret, Weinstein. Twohey agreed, and the two journalists compiled a list of women whose stories of harassment had leaked into the whisper network. Some of these women were famous actresses, others were former employees of Weinstein’s companies. Kantor and Twohey spent months combing databases for email addresses and phone numbers with which to contact these women. They were able to contact many, and many agreed to share their stories on the record. You can read more about Twohey and Kantor’s process in this Marie Clare article.
  • KB: Benner’s stories tend to focus on systems that protect abusers, rather than on individual abusers. Benner chose to pursue the many allegations that were reported to her through the lens of dismantling the cycle of abuse present in Silicon Valley- particularly between Venture Capitalists and female business owners. Benner is incredibly literate in the workings of the Valley, and became a trusted confidant for many of the industry’s very few women and concerned men. In talking with these sources, Benner became aware of patterns of abuse. She, like her fellow reporters, had trouble convincing her sources to go on the record. One woman, who Benner said served as her “shepherd” through the ins and outs of the legal workings of the industry named the source of her reluctance as, “I’ve seen what happens to these women- how they are dragged through the mud and how their lives are ruined.” Those who went on the record, many of whom were doing clerical work at VCs and start-ups for minimum wage, knew they would never work in the industry again but felt that speaking out was worth it if only to kink the cycle. Benner noted that like many industries, Silicon Valley is based mostly on the power of reputation and quoted an industry lawyer’s explanation of why this harassment has been routinely swept under the rug:
“Ours is a system that protects a men’s right to make money, not a woman’s right to have a job and live her life.”

The Fallout: The journalists describe the threats and insults they’ve faced in the wake of their articles.

  • ES: After publishing the war reporting article in 2015, O’Reilly called Steel on the phone. He spent most of the conversation asserting that the settlements were made to protect his children from hearing lies about their father. Steel repeatedly stated that they were going to print, to which O’Reilly responded: “Everything you’ve printed in the Times up until this point has been fine, but if you publish anything I find untoward- I will come after you with everything I have. You can take that as a threat,” before hanging up on her. Just before this year's settlement story went to print, Steel and Schmidt met with O’Reilly and his lawyers at the lawyers’ office on 40th street. O’Reilly refused to make eye contact with Steel and directed all conversation to her male colleague. O’Reilly continued to reiterate that the settlements were meant to protect his family, and that all allegations are untrue. He also asserts that their coverage is both politically and financially motivated. In other words, the Times, together with all liberal media, had been plotting his downfall for years. O’Reilly eventually lost his temper, shouting at the two reporters and assuring them that they are responsible for any harm that may befall his children. Audio of the on the record conversation can be heard on the October 23rd episode of The Daily.
  • MT: After the Trump story was published in 2016, Twohey and Kantor received a number of letters from readers. Most were thankful and supportive, but others were threatening. Twohey paraphrased many as saying, “You deserve to be raped, murdered, and thrown in a river.” Trump also famously threatened to sue the journalists and all the women their article featured, calling them different iterations of filthy liars. Kantor also was one of the journalists tailed by Weinstein’s investigative agencies, covered here in Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker expose.
  • KB: One VC that Benner’s article threatened to expose warned her that if she did publish, he would cease to serve as a source to other Times journalists. Knowing this man’s influence, Benner was worried about impeding her colleague’s future reporting. She called her editor and conceded that she was reluctant to name him, her editor’s only response, “call him back and tell him we don’t bow to threats.” After summoning the energy, and practicing a number of times in the mirror, Benner did just that.

The Impact: The flood of coverage has usurped many powerful men in the month since the Weinstein story (The Roy Moore  and C.K. stories had just broken that day, and a few of the panelists had yet to even read them). Here, the journalists describe what they see as the impact of their reporting.

  • KB: Benner is seeking a change in behavior. She hopes her work dismantles the systems that keep abusers in power. She has already seen their foundations begin to crack. She noted that Silicon Valley sees itself as a liberal, progressive place and that their products serve a social good. Often, they would bury the shameful actions of one man because they believe his contribution to the “greater good” was paramount to his mistreatment of a few. In the wake of her reporting, Benner has seen VCs attempt to professionalize and create safe work spaces. Mostly because they are desperate to rid themselves of their reputation as an old boys’ club.
  • MT: Twohey and Kantor keep a spreadsheet of the number of women and men who have contacted them to tell their stories of harassment and abuse since the publication of the Weinstein article (which reminds me of the public Google Doc actress Asia Argento created to host the 104 recorded allegations against Weinstein) . She promised that they will respond to each and every person.
  • Non-Disclosure Agreements: Twohey and Steel’s reporting, along with that of other journalists, exposed the colossal settlements Weinstein and O’Reilly reached with their accusers (O’Reilly’s disclosed settlement sum sits at $45 million). All three women on the panel noted that these provocatively large numbers were not the norm. Many women they talked to also reached settlements and signed NDAs that resulted in paltry payouts of a couple thousand dollars. These NDAs gagged these women, preventing them from every speaking of the settlement or the allegations that led to it-until some did. As a result, Congress is considering making NDAs that serve to protector the abuser illegal.

Lastly, does it matter that they themselves are women: Yes and no. All three women noted that their sources often felt more comfortable opening up to them than their male colleagues, but not always. Benner told us that Nathaniel Popper actually spoke with most of the victims, while she handled the business reporting incorporated in their stories. Twohey said that while businesses with female CEOs are less likely to tolerate harassment, this isn’t a given. All three noted that the majority of HR executives are women and that many of the people who protected Weinstein are women. Their thoughts were a good reminder that women can certainly be complicit in and even enable a system that protects abusers. They can also certainly be sexist. These exceptions are discussed at length in the 10/27 episode of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend entitled “Loophole Women”.

90 minutes listening to these women was nowhere near enough. I am incredibly grateful for their rigorous reporting and relentless bravery. They have made it safer for others to come forward, and I am certain that we wouldn’t have seen the fall of Spacey, C.K., Toback and others without them. The audience agreed, a standing ovation swept them from the stage.

More in related coverage:

  • Quartz Media revises C.K.’s apology so that it is an actually an apology, and says it was totally on brand anyways. And from The Cut, what do we want in an apology anyways?
  • A fan of Louis C.K. asks what she should do now and whether she purposely ignored the signs
  • Why journalists often replace the word “rape” with “non-consensual sexual relationship”.
  • The “if true, then” response is bullshit.
  • 50 Pastors Sign a Letter to support Roy Moore, because Alabama.

Topical ten times over: An update on last week’s lead topic

Almost immediately after publishing last week’s edition of Haut Takes, a number of football related stories inundated the internet. Below is some of the best in further reading on the topics of concussions, Kaepernick and contracts.

  • Last week, the media reported that Aaron Hernandez’s brain portrayed the most advanced known case of CTE ever. The only one that was in the same ballpark was that of a 46 year old boxer. Hernandez was 27 at the time of his suicide. This NYT article follows the brain’s trip through a Boston area lab without once mentioning the name of its famous owner. It also provides a layman-friendly description of the effects of CTE.
  • Bob Costas, the distinct, nostalgia inducing and benign voice of NBC’s Olympic coverage, imagines a world without football.
  • Roger Goodell is currently in negotiations to extend his contract as the NFL’s commissioner. Goodell has requested $49.5 million, lifetime access to a private jet, and lifetime insurance coverage for him and his family. In the meantime, Jerry Jones is threatening to sue the NFL if they grant Goodell an extension.
  • Speaking of, unless you have been deeply off the grid for the past 48 hours, GQ has named Colin Kaepernick their person of the year (complete with bad ass cover portrait). Steph Curry also wrote this Veteran’s Day op-ed insisting that “supporting the troops” isn’t about standing during the anthem.
  • The author of this Politico article surely has read the last several issues of Haut Takes, as it touches on such topics as the opioid crisis, N.F.L protests, outsourcing of blue collar jobs, sexual harassment and Trump’s incompetence. Author Michael Kruse visits the town of Johnstown, PA one year after the election. Trump held a campaign rally in this depressed former coal town in 2016, promising to revitalize the town’s industry and battle its drug crisis. He has done neither of these things, and seems to have abandoned the town entirely. But the residents Kruse interviews blame this abandonment on everyone but Trump himself. It’s an interesting, and at times disturbing, peek behind our country’s forgotten curtain.

Fraternities: Sanctioning Male Abuse of Power since 1825

I first stepped foot on the campus of the University of Georgia in August of 2006. I knew no one, and in retrospect nothing. As a tri-state area native whose familial roots run deep in the borderline stereotypical cultures of both Italian- and Jewish- Americans, the congeniality, camaraderie and pulsating pride for semi-pro athletics that permeates the South was completely foreign to me. But by far the most foreign concept was the parades of teenage girls teetering on stiletto heels and sweating through their hairspray. They had arrived on campus two weeks before classes started to do what I learned was called "rushing". This is the process of visiting UGA's 23 sorority houses with hope of gaining a membership bid to their dream home. In theory, the rushees and the houses are supposed to match based on mutual best fit. I quickly learned through the grapevine that the offer of a bid was contingent on: your weight, your legacy status, your family's net wealth (which some chapters determined based on the internet's estimated value of your home address), and your blondeness. By most accounts, I was unqualified (although I was asked on numerous occasions if I was a member of SDT, UGA's Jewish sorority). (Worth noting, my only prior interaction with Greek life was my dad claiming he was an alumnus if GDI, which apparently stands for God Damn Independent.) Thankfully, I went to lacrosse practice and entered an incredible circle of friends that existed beside, but not entangled in, Greek Life. We sure were the minority-an estimated 90% of UGA's student body is Greek.

Despite not being a member, I was affected by Greek life. It was the common conversation and the reigning source of social power. I went to frat parties and often had a good time. But the lasting memories they left behind sucker punch me with a sense of dread. The binge drinking, the number of hidden rooms and alcoves, the utter filth, the number of young women waking up naked and having no recollection of what happened to them (or with a recollection of something they didn't consent to, but have no recourse for reporting), the bottles of augmented liquor the brothers knew not to drink. Not to mention the yearly tradition of fraternity brothers parading through Athens dressed in Confederate garb as the city's many Black residents look on.

I've come back to these memories a lot, and have become more aware of their impact as years have passed. Ultimately, they leave me fearful for our future generations. These institutions are formative parts of American adolescence, but what are they teaching us? Is there a connection between what goes on in these fraternity houses and Fortune 500 boardrooms? Does involvement in Greek life message to young men that women's bodies are objects and they have the power to interact with them as they please? Do young women then accept this as their reality? Should we think twice before we allow our kids to join Greek life? Is it high time that we demand these fraternities and their national chapters reflect and reform? Have fraternities become too powerful to even regulate? I have to think  the answer to all of these questions is yes, and after reading the reviews of the articles below, I hope you will too.  

But first: Both of the articles reviewed below were published in The Atlantic and written by Caitlin Flanagan. Here is some context to frame both articles:

  • The fraternities referred to in this newsletter are the historically segregated, all-white "social" or "general" fraternities that pop culture identifies with. Flanagan and I are not referring to the religious, ethnic and professional fraternities that have appeared as affinity spaces for its members, often in reaction to the oppressive practices of traditional fraternities.
  • I obviously know that there are some great people who are members and alumni of the Greek institutions described above, my goal is for this reporting to serve as a condemnation of a system that enables and encourages bad behavior and not individual members.
  • 60 people have died since 2005 in incidents linked to fraternities. Numbers of non fatal injuries and incidents of sexual assault associated with fraternities are impossible to quantify because so many go unreported.
  • Just last week, Florida State suspended its Greek life after a 20 year old pledge died. Due to the fail safes about to be described, these suspensions are often nominal and temporary. Rather than a permanent closure in the wake of tragedy, these suspensions allow fraternities to "open under new management". See this advice column I found on a website called "Fraternity Advisor" where the columnist lent advice on how to overcome an "unfortunate and unfair" suspension he refers to as "crap".
  • Of the nation's 50 largest corporations, 43 are headed by fraternity men. 85% of the Fortune 500 executives belong to a fraternity. 40 of 47 U.S. Supreme Court Justices appointed since 1910 were fraternity men. 76% of all Congressmen and Senators belonged to a fraternity.  [Source: Fraternity Advisor]

I. Tim Piazza's Death and What it Tells us about Fraternity Culture: Death at Penn State Fraternity, The Atlantic, November 2017

  • You have probably heard of Tim Piazza. Piazza was a pledge of Penn State's Beta Theta Pi fraternity for about 28 hours. He died on February 3rd, 2017, 12 hours after he drunkenly fell head first down a set of cement stairs during a night of hazing. Piazza's case isn't unique in its circumstances, but is unprecedented in that security cameras (installed by a former member who paid to renovate the house in 2004 and was disgusted by its subsequent trashing. These cameras were known to all members) and subpoenaed text messages between his frat brothers show and tell their refusal to get Piazza medical help and the physical abuse he endured by their hands. Just today, the District Attorney's office in Centre County, PA announced new charges against former fraternity brother involved in in his death. 
  • What Happened that night? Below is a timeline of the evening from just before Piazza's fall to his death. The details are harrowing. Warning, I have read this article twice and listened to it in audio form once, and I have cried every time.  His father likens it to a "crucifixion". 
  1. 9:07-10:40 pm: Piazza arrives at BTP to participate in a hazing ritual called "The Gauntlet". He is given 18 drinks in under 90 minutes, none of which he obtained for himself. Before leaving his dorm Piazza texts his girlfriend saying "They are going to get me fucked up."
  2. 10:40 pm: The security footage shows a brother encouraging a clearly drunk Piazza to get off the couch. Piazza stands and staggers to the front door, which he cannot open. He then staggers to what turns out to be the basement door and falls head first down the cement stairs. This fall will lacerate his spleen, spilling blood into his abdomen. 
  3. Around 11 pm: A brother finds Piazza face down in the basement and texts another brother that "Piazza may actually be a problem" and that he "looks fucking dead". He is carried up the stairs and thrown on a couch. The surrounding brothers perform "tests" to determine if he is merely drunk, or seriously injured. The test include: a sternum rub, throwing beer in his face, picking up his dead weight arm and seeing how quickly it drops back down, throwing his shoes at him, and sitting on his legs to stop them from twitching. 
  4. The next few hours: Piazza continues to twitch and vomit on the couch. A member ties a backpack of books on his back to keep him from choking on his own vomit. A member named Joseph Ems grows frustrated with Piazza for ruining their night and punches him in the abdomen, which doctors credit for shattering Piazza's already lacerated spleen. (Ems was not charged in Piazza's death.) A member named Kordel Davis, BTP's only black member, is shown on camera repeatedly insisting that someone call for help. A member named Jonah Newman pushes Davis into a wall and tells him to shut up. Davis finds chapter president Ed Gilmartin to insist they call for help. Gilmartin calls him crazy, saying other brothers were biology and kinesiology majors so their word was to be taken more seriously than his. Their opinion? He's fine. 
  5. 3:46 am: Piazza falls from the couch to the floor, where he wakes up cradling his head. he attempts to stand several times and falls each time, including once into an iron railing. 
  6. 5:08 am: Still clutching his head in his hands, Piazza tries to leave the house.
  7. 7am: Another pledge finds Piazza rolling around on the floor, clutching his head, records him and posts it to Snapchat, then leaves the house.
  8. 10 am: Tim, still alive, scrambles to the basement door again and falls, again. Another brother finds him behind one of the basement's bars. A group of brothers carry him upstairs and attempt to clean up both Piazza and the house to hide evidence of binge drinking and hazing. No one calls 911, but several brothers Googled things like cold extremities in drunk person, binge drinking, cold feet and cold hands.
  9. 10:48 am: A brother finally calls 911 and Tim's parents and brother are notified. As his brothers race 2 hours North from their home in New Jersey the doctor continually repeats that their son is a "very sick boy".
  10. 3 pm: He is airlifted to Hershey Medical Center where he dies. When his parents asked the doctor if Piazza would have lived had he been given medical treatment earlier, the doctor responded "unequivocally, yes."
  • What's happened since: Flanagan calls the aftermath of fraternity deaths the "second half of the hazing ritual." She's right, since February those affiliated with Beta Theta Pi (from executives at the national organization to the PSU chapters current members) have referred to Piazza's death as "a golden opportunity to reform", "an endorsement of the fraternity system", "royally fucking us over", and an "unfortunate consequence of injuries sustained from an accidental fall in the chapter house." No one from Penn State attended Tim's funeral. Of note:
  1. Tim's parents, Jim and Evelyn, have doggedly sought justice for their son. So far they have come up empty handed. A 65 page report on the findings in the security footage and text messages resulted in 1,098 charges (not including those announced today) against 18 members. The most serious charges of manslaughter and aggravated assault were dropped (an announcement met with back slaps and fist bumps amongst members in the court room while the Piazza's looked on). 14 brothers will face 328 criminal charges with jury selection beginning next month. Since their son's death, the Piazza's (whose older son was also a student at PSU at the time) have become social pariahs amongst other fraternity parents  who accuse them of trying to steal their sons' right to have fun.
  2. PSU has expelled the brothers involved and permanently banned BTP from campus. Perplexingly, BTP alumni were invited via email to stay at the now vacated chapter house during the 2017 football season.
  3. Kordel Davis, the chapter's only Black member who cops on the case refer to as the "good samaritan", decided not to return to PSU this fall. Davis, who has a scar on his forehead from prior participation in a BTP hazing ritual, was accused by 6 different fraternity members on PSU's frat message board of "ruining Greek life for everyone"- threatening him physically if he dared return. 
  4. Neither PSU or BTP is legally liable for Piazza's death, more on that later.
  • Penn State has been in the news before: Oh. It has. We are all well aware of Jerry Sandusky and his decades long predation on underage male athletes, and the University's subsequent cover up led by PSU's legendary and now deceased football coach Joe Paterno. Paterno served as the final authority on all PSU decisions, athletic and otherwise. He was also a huge booster of the fraternity system. He repeatedly endorsed frats and their hazing rituals as "part of a young man's development". Not surprisingly these heinous acts are connected to Piazza's death by a chain of reported hazing that spanned Paterno's tenure as head coach. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is now reviewing the culture of hazing at the University. Just a few of these connections are detailed below:
  1. In 1997 5 brothers arrived at the University health center for hazing injuries which led to the first sanctions of the University Greek system. Frat members and alumni, including Paterno, criticized these brothers for seeking medical help, solidifying a culture of fear and secrecy that likely contributed to Piazza's death.
  2. A fraternity death in 2009 led to a partnership between the Inter fraternity Council and a security company named St. Moritz. "Inspectors" from St. Moritz were sent to fraternity parties to look for violations of the IFC's alcohol policy. These inspectors were usually PSU students who were frat brothers themselves. Two inspectors came to the BTP house, which was rife with violations, 10 minutes before PIazza fell down the stairs the first time. The violations remain unreported. 
  3. In 2013, Marquise Braham a Phi Sigma Kappa pledge at PSU's Alpoosa campus was struggling to cope wth the fraternity's barbaric hazing which included drinking a mix of alcohol, feces and vomit. He texted his RA for support. She endorsed the system saying, "It's only going to get worse. That's how it is. hahahha" He made it through his freshman year, but began to panic at the prospect of inflicting the same hazing rituals on a round of new pledges. A week before his expected return to PSU for his sophomore year, Braham excused himself from a lunch with his mother, and jumped from the building's roof. His family sued the University and lost. The court claimed that there was no proven link between her son's death and his participation in the hazing. 

In the end, Flanagan has this to say about Piazza's death. As Piazza readied himself for the evening, he is thinking he is entering into a lifetime of brothership, instead:

"He is up against a university that has allowed hazing to go on for decades; a fraternity chapter that has hazed pledge classes at least twice in the previous 12 months; a set of rules that so harshly punishes hazing that the brothers will think it better to take a chance with his life than to face the consequences of having made him get drunk; and a “checking system” provided by a security firm that is, in many regards, a sham. He thinks he is going to join a club that his college endorses, and that is true. But it is also true that he is setting off to get jumped by a gang, and he won’t survive."

II. Why did Piazza's brothers wait 12 hours to get him help? The conditions of their fraternity membership told them to: The Dark Power of FraternitiesThe Atlantic, March 2014

The article I just reviewed was not Flanagan’s first investigative piece on fraternities. In 2014, she wrote an incredibly comprehensive piece summarizing the history of American fraternities, including how they managed to completely indemnify themselves against any legal action. The article reveals a legally intricate system of risk management that leaves groups of young men who are still within the age group that considers Family Guy funny, legally culpable for anything that happens within a fraternity’s walls. For many of these boys, this is the first time they have lived in a house that isn’t their parents, and behave as such- but in committing to a fraternity and paying its membership dues, they become assets of the organizations they so deeply trust. Here is just some of Flanagan’s excellent reporting:

  • The article begins with a funny and relatively harmless anecdote of a frat brother of Marshall University’s Alpha Tau Omega rupturing his rectum after making the brilliant decision to stick a bottle rocket up there. The blow back from the ignition and explosion also caused a fellow brother (who was videotaping the detonation of the butt bomb on his cellphone) to fall backwards off the house’s fenceless porch, and was left wedged between the house and its air conditioning unit. The brother’s baseball season was cut short, and he sued the university and the organization (rightfully so) for not having a railing, a requirement in West Virginia’s building code. This sort of case usually attracts the type of lawyer we might label a “slip and fall” or an “ambulance chaser.” This prompted Flanagan to dig deeper, combing through an immense number of documents from cases involving fraternities defending themselves against their members. What she discovered was the cases were essentially examples of independent plaintiffs attempting to take down comparatively Goliath corporations.
  • Flanagan discovered that residents of fraternity houses assumed an immense amount of risk just by living there.  The living conditions are unsafe, with the structures rarely meeting basic elements of building code. This was particularly true of the fraternal tradition of having its junior members sleep on sleeping porches, often referred to as “cold air”. These “porches” are usually large rooms filled with bunk beds on the top floor of a fraternity house that can house 50+ members. The name “cold air” has incredibly literal roots. The windows of the floor are left open at all times, even during the Winter. Ya know, because real men sleep in the frigid cold. Puts hair on their chest. These porches are problematic for a number of reasons. Besides the objectively ridiculous idea that these members are paying to live in a warped version of sleepaway camps, the always open windows are rarely protected by so much as a screen. Flanagan found that between February and August of 2012, 14 students fell from sleeping porch windows to the ground below. Some suffered critical injuries and some died. Some were drunk and others were soberly sleeping. In one 2009 case, a female student fell from a window of the SAE sleeping porch at the University of Idaho while hooking up with one of its members. She suffered permanent brain damage. In the subsequent court case liability was not assigned to the fraternity or to the university, but to the victim herself. The court documents said she “knew what she was getting into” by choosing to go to bed with the male student. No regulations or action was required of the fraternities in any of these cases. They weren’t even asked to put guards on their windows.

So how did we get here? To understand the answer to this question it is worth knowing a bit of fraternal history and how colleges became completely dependent on them.

  • 1825: The first fraternity was formed at Union College in sunny Schenectady, NY. At this time, Union and most other colleges served to train students for the ministry. The brothers wanted a place to serve as their own personal social club where they could fraternize without being under the gaze of the College. At this time in American culture, the Greeks had replaced the Romans as the model for a civilized society- hence the use of Greek Letters in fraternal nomenclature.
  • 1825-1960: Several other universities and colleges caught wind of the reputation of the fraternity as a haven for unsupervised fun and started their own chapters. The gold rush and Westward migration helped make fraternities a nationwide phenomenon. By 1857, frat culture as we know it was alive and well, as evidenced by an intercepted letter from one brother to another where he bragged about pulling “a real piece of ass” the other day. Host institutions hated fraternities and their impact on campus social culture. They tried to ban them, which was met with a resistance from members who claimed this violated their constitutional freedom to associate.
  •  Fast forward to the 1960s: Before the radical social movements of the 60s, universities conducted themselves under the doctrine of in loco parentis- a stifling source of surveillance of students in the absence of their parents. Along with other sources of social rebellion, college students rejected the institutions’ parental gaze. Colleges began seeing their students as adult consumers whose needs they should meet rather than children on loan from their parents. During this time, fraternities were considered square minions of the establishment.
  • 1978: Animal House is released. Though it lampoons fraternity life, it also served as a boon to the fraternity business. Fraternities were already on the incline in the 70s as backlash to the previous generation’s penchant for free love and disassociation. But the casting of Jim Belushi was particularly key to an exponential growth in the fraternity population. He was beloved amongst middle class, white men who were looking to emulate his every move- including joining a fraternity and acting a fool.
  • 1980s: The materialism of this decade made it ok to party for partying’s sake- and fraternities followed suit. In 1984, the Minimum Drinking Age Act raised the national drinking age to 21. This moved much of drinking amongst undergrads away from bars and into frat houses. The number of fraternity related injuries, assaults, and deaths skyrocketed, followed quickly by the number of lawsuits. At this time, plaintiffs could still win cases even if their own behavior was partially responsible for the consequences. This was because of a concept known as “comparative negligence”. This means that plaintiffs can take partial responsibility while blaming institutions or other parties for the rest. These lawsuits usually named universities and fraternities as defendants, both of whom were bleeding money as a result of these lawsuit
  • 1985: Fraternities learned that these lawsuits could financially ruin them. Kappa Alpha’s national headquarters had paid a total of $21 million in settlement claims in a span of 5 years. Insurance became prohibitively expensive as the insurance industry named fraternities the 6th most risky type of business to insure. Fraternities had to figure out a way to indemnify themselves at both the national and local level from the actions of their individual members.
  • 1992: A group of fraternities started a self-insurance trust housed under an organization called the Fraternal Information and Programming Group (FIPG). Today 32 national fraternity chapters belong to FIPG. The FIPG created a risk management policy that transfers responsibility of alcohol related incidents to individual members, whose membership dues are used to pay for individual insurance policies. The FIPG developed an “alcohol Policy” and any member who was found to be in violation of the policy automatically lost his insurance and his membership AND is liable for anything that occurred while in violation of this policy. When signing their membership contracts, brothers agree to these terms. But of course, most do so blindly. Neither parents or students are verbally told of these terms when given the contract. Nor do they know that the majority of their dues are going towards a policy that totally fucks them over in the event of a tragedy.

So, what is the “alcohol policy” the members agree to? Basically, according to the policy, there are only two ways a fraternity can appropriately party with alcohol. But before I continue, if you think the parameters of these policies are ever adhered to, I can’t help you. I have been eagerly admitted to many a frat party with a $5 flask of vodka in my purse and a fake ID with my picture laminated onto the front of a Borders gift card in my hand.:

  1. The alcohol can be provided by a 3rd party distributor who is responsible for checking IDs, monitoring consumption and damage control. This third party assumes all liability for what happens during the hours they inhabit the space.
  2. A BYO party enables fraternity members over the age of 21 to bring a 6 pack of beer or a 4 pack of wine coolers (loling at the fact that wine coolers are an explicit part of this policy). The alcohol is meant to be labelled with the name of its owner, collected by a “sober monitor” (usually sober in name only), and redistributed to its rightful owner one at a time. The chapter is also required to keep a “guest list” of all attendees (who are all over 21, of course). This guest list is quickly converted to a “witness list” in the event of an incident. In the event of legal action, everyone on the list can become a defendant.

Up until 2013, when it mysteriously disappeared, the FIPG’s handbook on alcohol policies included what they called a Crisis Management Protocol. In the event of an alcohol related injury or sickness, members should follow the six steps below. You will note that it bears a striking resemblance to the events preceding Tim Piazza’s death:

  1. The injured party should receive immediate medical attention, but not from the University’s health center.
  2.  The chapter president should step forward as a leader and calls the president of the fraternity’s national organization.
  3. The national president orders members to sequester themselves in the house and immediately expel any citizen guests.
  4. A national organization member with media training will issue a vague but concise statement to the local media regarding the incident.
  5. Frat brothers are urged not to contact the injured party’s family, as the professionals will handle it. (In many cases, the “professional” who serves as the first form of notification is a city coroner.) If the victim is a fraternity member, the brothers are encouraged to close and lock his door until his family arrives to pack up his things.
  6.  Members should sit tight and wait for a consultant hired by the national organization to arrive at the house to conduct 1:1 interviews. In many cases, the brothers end up incriminating themselves in these interviews. They are often used against them in legal proceedings.
  • Present Day: Colleges have become multi-billion dollar institutions that are dependent on two things: a renewing supply of tuition paying undergrads and Greek Life. Colleges have a number of expenses, one of the costliest being student housing. Currently, 1/8th of college students live in Greek Housing. This frees up an enormous number of rooms in university sponsored housing, which enables colleges to accept more students. Fraternity Alumni are also typically enormous donors, especially to schools with successful athletic programs. Colleges have come to rely on their donations. And lastly, colleges need to offer a lively social scene (which our culture has endorsed as the purpose of higher education) to stay competitive. Fraternities and sororities, and their raucous revelry, give them an edge. If a university tries to disband or hobble fraternity’s activities in any way they are met with fierce resistance, including a powerful PAC that lobbies for fraternity related rights.

In essence, fraternities have become an almost untouchable institution both in their ability to attract members and to avoid liability for what happens to those members. They are also the only American institution where the distribution and consumption of alcohol is completely controlled by a population that is mostly under the legal drinking age. This has created a never-ending cycle of life altering events followed by failed lawsuits, Tim Piazza’s death being just one rotation in that cycle. In the words of Douglas Fierberg, the country’s foremost plaintiff’s attorney for those harmed in fraternity related incidents and the man you want to call if you or a loved one end up embroiled in one such incident:

“Until proven otherwise, fraternities are the most risky organization a young person can be a part of.”

Let’s wrap it up:

  • I love sandwiches. I enjoy nothing more than sidling up to a deli counter at lunch time (or really any hour) and curating a creation of cold cuts, cheese and veggies. So in their honor, read about the evolution of the sandwich and its corresponding cultural influence- including the revolting decision to put tuna salad in between two slices of bread.
  • And because I just returned from San Francisco where I enjoyed just enough nature and forcing Linds, Rose and Dena to watch and laugh at multiple episodes of Billy on The Street- a shout about a New Yorker in SF, sample line: “When in San Francisco, I step, blinking, out onto the street at 1:50 a.m. and wait a moment, in the hopes that the bartenders will rush out after me, having reconsidered the appropriate hour for last call.” Girl, same.


P.S. Haut Takes will be take one week holiday hiatus. Expect the next issue chock full of long form’s finest in your inbox on 11/29. Happy T-day!

Alexis Haut