Frat Men Decline in NFL as College Coaches Frown on Going GreekJohn Helyar and Daniel Golden
Freshman Brendan Douglas emerged this season as a promising runner on the University of Georgia football team, with 376 yards and three touchdowns. One cause of his success: he decided not to rush a fraternity.
Soon after arriving on campus, Douglas accepted a bid from Kappa Alpha, where hometown friends belonged. He changed his mind and also rejected an offer of honorary membership after realizing that coaches want players to avoid fraternities, teammates and family members said. Going Greek might have kept Douglas on the bench, said teammate Dillard Pinkston. “He didn’t know what he was getting into,” Pinkston said.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo underlined the message one day in practice, according to Douglas’s brother. “Oh, we’ve got a KA in the backfield,” Bobo cracked, Denis Douglas said Brendan told him. Bobo said through a Georgia spokesman that the incident could have happened though he doesn’t recall it. Douglas declined to comment.
Once joined at the hip pad, fraternities and sports have grown apart, especially at Georgia and other universities in top leagues such as the Southeastern Conference. This shift is at odds with the growth spurt in fraternities, whose membership increased 29 percent to 327,260 from 2005-06 to 2011-12.
While Greek life camaraderie appeals to athletes, coaches with power over their playing time and scholarships often frown on it. Just three of 254 players chosen in the National Football League draft last May were fraternity members, according to the North-American Interfraternity Conference in Indianapolis. Its annual census of fraternity alumni in the NFL shows a 19 percent decline since 2003, to 52 players.
With millions of dollars in broadcast and other revenue at stake, as well as their own jobs, coaches at big-time sports programs control their players’ lives around the clock, imposing year-round training and close academic monitoring. That strict regimen is the antithesis of a fraternity culture often marked by excessive drinking and even mayhem. Since 2005, there have been at least 60 fraternity-related deaths, most involving alcohol and hazing, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“One of the coaches’ main concerns is fraternities’ reputation for parties,” said former Georgia outfielder Austin Wheeler, who left the baseball team after the 2012 season and is now a Sigma Chi member. “I was expected to be 100 percent baseball.”
Epitomizing coaches’ concerns, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, was thrown out of a fraternity party at rival University of Texas in July, as Longhorns fans heckled and threw beer at him.
In 2012, Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, suspended three football players from school for eight semesters after finding they took part in a sexual assault following a 2011 fraternity party, according to Associate Vice Chancellor Hank Foreman.
Appalachian State won three consecutive national championships in its football division from 2005-2007 and is moving up to the top echelon next year.
Coaches also see fraternities as competing for players’ loyalties and a distraction from practice, said Murray Sperber, whose book “Beer and Circus” chronicles the relationship between sports and Greek life.
“What’s changed it is the professionalization of college sports; coaches say you have to have 100 percent commitment to your sport,” said Sperber, a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Education. “The split started to happen a number of years ago; it didn’t reach its full flower until now.”
Fraternities covet athletes as members because their campus renown helps recruit other pledges, and they dislike being declared out of bounds by coaches. Students who join fraternities are more likely to serve their communities and to graduate, according to the Interfraternity Conference.
Student leaders and Greek advisers are concerned that many coaches have “inaccurate stereotypes” about fraternity life “as an exercise in fun and games, punctuated by hazing and drinking,” according to an internal April 2009 position paper of the Interfraternity Conference. The report adds that a coach’s anti-Greek policies may be driven by career ambitions: “A winning record leads to success in employment and he wants nothing to interfere.”
For coaches, employment success can be lucrative. Georgia football coach Mark Richt is guaranteed a minimum $3.2 million in annual compensation, plus performance bonuses.
Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said coaches are just trying to keep players in good academic standing. Students at Georgia must take at least 12 credit hours of courses a semester to remain eligible for sports. They practice as much as 20 hours a week in season -- the NCAA-mandated maximum -- and keep training hard in the off-season.
“Especially freshman year, when does that leave you time to rush?” said McGarity, a former tennis coach at Georgia. “If a young person asked us (about fraternities), we’d turn it back on them: ’If you can find time to squeeze in a fraternity, so be it.’”
David Perno, Georgia head baseball coach from 2002 through the 2013 season, initially had a written rule forbidding players from joining fraternities. That evolved into an unwritten one enforced by players who’d give “a pretty good razzing” to teammates expressing interest in rushing, Perno said.
“You don’t have time to be a frat boy and compete,” said Perno, who was dismissed as coach in May following a losing season. “There’s nothing good that could come out of trying to juggle all that.”
‘Guilty by Association’
Perno’s successor, Scott Stricklin, cut a promising player whose penchant for hanging out on fraternity row pegged him as unsuitable, even though he didn’t actually go Greek, according to Perno and several members of the team.
The player, who transferred to another college, “just wanted to spend time with his friends,” said one teammate. “Word got around that he was rushing. It was guilty by association.”
Perno and the teammates declined to identify the player. Stricklin declined to comment.
At Ivy League universities and private liberal arts colleges, which don’t have big broadcast contracts and put less pressure on coaches to win, athletics and Greek life remain intertwined, said Brad Blank, a Florida-based sports agent who belonged to a football fraternity at Brown University. About half of the members of the 2013 Yale University varsity lacrosse team, winner of the Ivy League championship, belonged to Alpha Delta Phi.
Similarly, at Davidson College, a prestigious liberal arts institution in North Carolina, 65 percent of varsity football players belong to Phi Delta Theta, said Sherrod Davis, a former wide receiver and Phi Delta chapter president who graduated in
2013. Head Coach Paul Nichols also was a Phi Delta member at Davidson.
Bob McKillop has coached Davidson’s highly regarded basketball team since 1989, reaching the Elite Eight in 2008. During his tenure, no player had joined a fraternity until early this year, when three members of his squad asked McKillop if they could pledge Phi Delta.
The coach “told us he had no problem with us joining the fraternity as long as basketball was our number one family,” said Tyler Kalinoski, a junior guard. “Anything with basketball comes before the fraternity.”
McKillop approved the request and said he’s “delighted” with the results: “They’ve really integrated themselves into the entire college community much more than I’ve seen before.”
College sports trace their roots to fraternities, which organized the first intercollegiate football games and awarded the first athletic scholarships, according to Sperber.
“A lot of the early coaches came out of the fraternity system,” he said.
The hero of a popular 1953 novel, “Corpus of Joe Bailey,” by Oakley Hall, is a second string University of California at Berkeley halfback at the just before World War II, who lives in a fraternity. Football-playing brothers were entitled to double portions at fraternity meals, and a fraternity alumnus provided jobs for them, according to the novel.
That symbiotic relationship between sports teams and Greeks was the norm until the 1960s, according to Sperber. Then coaches began having athletes-only dorms built in an effort to sequester their players from the era’s political and sexual revolutions.
At Georgia, football players were herded into a dorm known as “the Dooley Hilton,” in honor of coach Vince Dooley. A fraternity scholarship athlete at Auburn University in the early 1950s, where he played football and basketball, Dooley presided over jocks’ separation from Greeks at Georgia as football coach and then athletic director from 1964 until he retired in 2004.
Dooley, now 81, said he only outright barred freshmen from fraternities.
“There’s so much adjustment in that first year; it’s too much, especially for football, which is a fall sport. After that it was if they could handle it.”
The NCAA prohibited player-only dorms in 1991, yet athletes didn’t flow back into fraternities. Too much money was pouring into college sports to ease control of the athletes, according to historian Sperber. The NCAA basketball tournament’s fees for broadcast rights rose fivefold over 20 years to $750 million in a 14-year deal that began in 2011.
The Southeastern Conference, which includes Georgia, will team with sports cable network ESPN to launch the SEC Network in
2014. It will boost the SEC’s broadcast revenues by 50 percent, to more than $300 million a year, said Virginia-based sports business consultant John Mansell.
Fraternities still cheer for the coaches and athletes that spurn them. At state universities throughout the South, blocks of seats are reserved for Greek houses. Two fraternities at the University of Alabama and one at in-state rival Auburn have had their seating privileges suspended in recent seasons over hazing incidents.
On game days at the University of Georgia in Athens, fraternity tailgate parties, featuring beer, chasers and other alcoholic drinks, begin just after dawn and end just prior to kickoff. Then the Greeks, clad in red and black sportswear, except for new pledges in blazers and ties, enter 92,746-seat Sanford Stadium and occupy four sections on the upper-deck set aside for the 26 fraternities.
They root for a Bulldogs team that this season had no one on scholarship who belonged to a fraternity, players said. At least two walk-ons, tight end Cole Trolinger and outside linebacker Dillard Pinkston, did join Sigma Chi. Because walk-ons pay their own way, and rarely become first-stringers, they don’t have to worry about jeopardizing financial aid or regular playing time.
Coaches “don’t want your focus taken away from football,” said Trolinger, 20. “Being a walk-on, they can’t really have way too much influence on me.”
“We just decided to broaden our horizons,” said Pinkston, 19, whose brother and father were both in fraternities. “If we can be in a fraternity and play football, why not do it? Why not make friendships that can last your entire life?”
Preston Mobley, a walk-on and Georgia’s second-string center last year, gave up football for fraternity life. Although coaches told him repeatedly that the team was his family, the south Georgia farmboy didn’t feel close to most of his teammates.
“The players come from everywhere,” Mobley said. “They weren’t people you could sit down and talk about deer hunting or duck hunting or how the crops are doing.”
Early this year, he joined Alpha Gamma Rho, where most members were rural Georgians like himself, and quit the Bulldogs after spring practice.
A lot of players “think about joining fraternities, but they talk themselves out of it,” Mobley said.
One player who backed off was tight end Arthur Lynch, a scholarship player and preseason second-team All-America.
After becoming friends with several Chi Phi members, Lynch hung out at their house while sitting out his sophomore season with an injury. He considered joining because “it’s another aspect of college and these were my friends,” he said in a post-game interview in a media room beneath the stands, still wearing his soaking-wet uniform after a rainy victory.
Lynch, a senior, said he decided against rushing not because of coaches’ pressure but economics: “Why should I pay dues when I’m going to hang out with them anyway?”
Brendan Douglas, the 5-foot-11-inch, 202-pound freshman running back, also reversed field, even though his brother Denis had joined Kappa Alpha at Georgia Southern University and touted fraternity life. Their father, Patrick Douglas, a former defensive back at Georgia and assistant coach at Georgia Southern, cautioned Brendan against joining a fraternity.
Football players “are involved in a fraternity,” said the elder Douglas, now an Augusta, Georgia, stockbroker. “It’s just not a Greek one.”