LSU fraternity pledge Maxwell Gruver’s death last month brings back a memory of a heartbreaking story I covered 20 years ago as a reporter for WAFB in Baton Rouge. Benjamin Wynne, 20, died after he and some two dozen of his LSU frat brothers drank several pitchers at a local bar of a highly potent concoction made up of 151-proof rum, Crown Royal whiskey and Jaegermeister. They got so drunk they couldn’t walk out of the bar, so one by one, they were put in shopping carts and wheeled to several cars and then driven back to the frat house. It was such a disturbing scene someone called the cops.
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When police showed up at the frat house, they found 24 frat boys passed out cold. Four had to be hospitalized. Two ended up in a coma. One of them, Benjamin Wynne, didn't make it.
Benjamin Wynne’s death 20 years ago, as tragic as it was, is not nearly as alarming and disturbing as Maxwell Gruver’s death last month on LSU’s campus. The 18-year-old Gruver had so much alcohol in his system the coroner said he had only seen cases like his in the deaths of older adults with a long history of alcoholism.
Police report Phi Delta Theta member Matthew Naquin was in charge of a night of hazing that would eventually end the life of Gruver. Witnesses say Naquin was especially aggressive in forcing Gruver to drink, and even though fellow frat members told Naquin to cut it out and slow it down, he wouldn’t stop. They say Naquin forced Gruver to drink a type of alcohol called Diesel, which is 190 proof, each time he messed up reciting the Greek alphabet. “Pledge drink,” Naquin screamed, a police report says. Police say Naquin forced Gruver to drink three times as much as other pledges. They say Naquin was by far the most aggressive toward Gruver.
Naquin has been charged with negligent homicide and hazing and could face up to five years in prison. Nine other frat boys have been charged with hazing.
Before the forced drinking game, the pledges had to endure other humiliations, including being doused with mustard and hot sauce. There is something very wrong with this picture. Why is it frat pledges would be willing to endure such abuse, ill-treatment, and indignities, just to be a part of a group? Can’t they get friends on their own? I’ve never understood that.
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But what’s even more baffling is why frat boys would want to treat potential members so disgracefully. I can see making pledges earn their bona fides by making them do a little extra here and there, but this whole rub-your-face-in-it stuff is unsettling and disturbing. Do these frat boys really enjoy treating their fellow humans so poorly? Is it a power thing? If you’ve ever dealt with a TSA employee or an underpaid security guard, you know that some people should never have power. Frat hazing often empowers those who shouldn’t be empowered. Bad things happen when those who shouldn’t have power get power.
I’m not suggesting all frat life is about humiliating and degrading pledges, although it does seem to be a considerable part of it. And yes, college kids should have a good time. I am sure there are plenty of advantages to joining a fraternity. The connections you make can open up career opportunities. And it is true most times nothing serious happens with this bizarre and creepy obsession to humiliate in frat culture. But it’s foolish to ignore the danger it presents. Franklin College journalism professor Hank Nuwer reports there has been at least one hazing death on college campuses each year since 1969.
Maxwell Gruver’s death last month brings profound, life-changing sorrow for his parents, family, and friends. The lives of the teens charged will never be the same. It’s a tragedy all around. But it should also put an end to the debate of whether hazing and humiliating pledges should be a part of Greek life.