Almost 40 years after “Animal House” came out, the teetering ghost of John Belushi’s Bluto is alive and blind drunk at college frat houses across the country.
The movie was funny as hell, but it’s getting harder to watch. Too many kids are dying in real life.
John Thrasher is the president of Florida State University, and two weeks ago he did what few in his position have ever had the guts to do: He suspended all activities at the school’s 54 Greek fraternities and sororities.
“We’ve got a serious problem,” Thrasher said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
A Phi Delta Theta frat member had been busted on cocaine-trafficking charges, and an engineering student was found dead at a private house after a Pi Kappa Phi party. The victim was fraternity pledge Andrew Coffey, 20, from Lighthouse Point.
Police say “alcohol may have been a factor” in the young man’s death.
Bet on it.
After decades of headlines, it’s hard to believe Greek life is still a big thing on campuses. National organizations of fraternities and sororities say they forbid under-aged drinking, strive to put on safe social events, and focus on charitable community service.
Which is exactly the same thing they were saying when I pledged a fraternity, back in the Dark Ages. Then, as now, it was all about the party. A frat house with no booze is about as popular as a crematorium on a Saturday night.
What good things fraternities might do get lost in the lore of weekend vomit-fests. The brainless ritual of hazing, supposedly outlawed, goes on. That’s what killed Tim Piazza at the Beta Theta Pi house at Penn State University last February.
Deleted surveillance video restored by FBI technicians shows that the 19-year-old pledge was given 18 alcoholic drinks in a span of 82 minutes. That’s not collegial brotherhood; it’s homicide.
Piazza tumbled down the basement stairs, cracked his skull, broke his spleen, and was left unconscious overnight while fraternity members argued about what to do. Last week, 10 more Penn State students were charged in his death, bringing the total to more than two dozen.
Several face trial for involuntary manslaughter, one sure way to shake up the Greek-life culture. There’s no beer pong in prison.
At Louisiana State University, 10 current and former students have been charged in the Sept. 13 hazing death of an 18-year-old freshman who was forced to guzzle 190-proof liquor during a sub-moronic prank called “Bible study.”
Maxwell Gruver, a pledge at Phi Delta Theta, died with a blood-alcohol content of .496, a toxic level six times higher than the legal driving limit. No mother or father should have to get the phone call that his parents did, and Tim Piazza’s parents did, and Andrew Coffey’s parents did.
You send your kid off to college with grand hopes and all the usual warnings, and then he dies in a crushingly pointless and preventable way, among new friends who supposedly care about him.
Some parents can’t say No when their son asks to join a fraternity. Perhaps they’re afraid of denying him some masculine rite of passage, or maybe they hold fun memories of their own frat-house antics.
Whatever causes them to say yes, they all find comfort in thinking their boy can take care of himself. Not always.
Days ago, a Phi Kappa Psi pledge at Texas State University was found dead after a fraternity party. Matthew Ellis, 20, was a sophomore business student. To no one’s astonishment, police say alcohol could be involved.
The president of Texas State followed John Thrasher’s decisive example. He didn’t just shut down the Phi Kappa house, he suspended all fraternity and sorority activities.
Thrasher has called for a “new normal” in the Greek system, and promised FSU’s ban would remain in place until students committed to changing their behavior.
These aren’t the words of some whiny social crusader. A decorated Vietnam veteran, Thrasher was a Republican power player for years in Tallahassee, serving in the state House and Senate and then as party chairman.
He’s also an alumnus of the university he now leads and was a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. “There must be a new culture,” he said, “and our students must be full participants in it.”
Killing the long tradition of Animal House idiocy won’t be easy, and it won’t happen unless more college presidents stand up like Thrasher has. Nor will change happen unless more parents of aspiring pledges wake up and say No.
Imagine your worst nightmare coming true. Imagine that phone call.