Padecky: Sonoma State sends message that hazing is no joke

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Be there. It wasn’t a request from Sonoma State athletic director Bill Fusco. It was a mandate for every SSU athlete. Unless you have a class Monday night, make it to Person Theater. Sit. Listen to what Rudy Porchivina has to say.

Coaches, you too. The topic will be hazing, a word nebulous to some, maybe to many. Hazing, after all, doesn’t have a lot of bite to it. Rhymes with grazing, doesn’t it? Innocuous. A shapeless kind of word. Like being told to push a peanut across the floor with your nose. I mean, really …

“A year ago a Florida A&M band member, as part of an initiation, was told to make his way from the front of the team’s charter bus to the back,” said Porchivina, co-owner of four local sandwich shops who has become sought-after speaker on the subject. “He never made it. He was struck repeatedly by 60 band members. His death was ruled a homicide.”

The president of the university lost his job. The stain on the university remains. Florida A&M now joins the growing list of American universities that have found embarrassment, humiliation and lawsuits from what once was considered an accepted and relatively benign rite of passage on campuses. It is National Hazing Prevention Week. Motivated especially by what happened last month at Humboldt State — the men’s soccer team was suspended for the upcoming academic year because of a hazing incident — Fusco ordered athletes from SSU’s 13 NCAA teams and 18 club teams to attend Monday’s lecture.

“Want to know how big a problem hazing is?” Porchivina asked. “Just Google ‘hazing news.'”

I did. I came up with 12,400,000 hits.

“An incoming freshman athlete is told to run across campus screaming the school’s fight song,” said Porchivina, 47, who has visited 70 college campuses dealing with hazing.

“The next year that kid is a sophomore and he said, ‘Wow, that was cool but I can do one better. Have these freshmen run across campus screaming the school’s fight song wearing a diaper.’

“Then the next year the next freshmen run across campus screaming the school’s fight song wearing a diaper and then taking a shot of Jack Daniels.

Then it’s taking a shot of Jack before he runs across campus. Then it’s taking another shot of Jack as he makes it halfway on his run across campus. I guarantee it all starts innocently.”

How did Porchivina become the voice of experience on hazing?

“When I got a Ph.D. in hazing right out of high school,” Porchivina said. “I joined the Marine Corps right out of high school (in 1983). I began my education on how to mistreat human beings.

“I am not saying the Marine Corps condones it. They don’t. But it happens, in part because the Marine Corps needs to train you to be tough, to run toward gunfire when the basic human instinct is to run away from it.

“When I left the Marine Corps in four years, I went to San Jose State, pledged and made it to Phi Delta Theta. I brought with me all my Marine Corps experiences. I was elected Hell Master and I was good at it. I took hazing to a whole other level. And I am ashamed of it.”

Porchivina played baseball for San Jose State. He didn’t stay in the sport, but he developed a bond with his fraternity. He served on Phi Delta’s national board for six years and then was elected its national president and served two more years (he is still involved in that fraternity). For Porchivina, making a team or making it into a fraternity involves similar initiation rites, power moves toward the vulnerable.

“An 18-year old arrives on campus,” Porchivina said. “He’s away from home for the first time. He desperately wants to belong, to fit in somewhere. So 18-year old kids in that situation, faced with hazing, 99 percent of them will do it.”

So, did Porchivina waste his time Monday night? Acceptance is a powerful motivator, after all.

“People will do things in a group think they would never do by themselves,” Porchivina said beforehand. “I know the freshmen won’t get it. They are just freshmen. School’s been in for only a month. But what I am hoping is to reach the leaders, the team captains of the various sports. And their coaches, too. If there is strong leadership, if the athletes know hazing is unacceptable, that’s huge progress.

“This school wants to do the right thing. I know that. Last spring three members of Phi Delta Theta told 12 pledges to each drink a gallon of milk. Well, it’s impossible for a human being to drink a gallon of milk in one sitting. The hazing incident was brought to our (board’s) attention. We kicked out all three members from the fraternity. We let SSU know for transparency. SSU did its own investigation and subsequently suspended one member — he was the fraternity's president — from school."

Porchivina is aware of the 1999 landmark study conducted by Alfred University in upstate New York. In a survey of 224 NCAA schools and its 61,238 athletes, 60 percent said they wouldn’t report a hazing incident because they didn’t think it would matter. Porchivina remains undeterred.

“A kid walks on a beach after a big storm and sees a million starfish washed up on the sand,” he said. “He starts to pick one up after another and throws them back in the ocean. A man comes up to him and tells the kid he’s wasting his time. He can’t save all those starfish.

“The kid picks up another starfish, throws it in the water and says, ‘I just saved that one.’”

In a perfect world, that is what happened Monday night at SSU. Maybe, just maybe, another starfish was saved.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.