Ideas
May 15, 2015 1:54 PM EDT
Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is the author of the new book, Writings on the Wall.

It’s been a bad year for Fraternity Row. Hazing violence, rape accusations, and racist rants have a lot of people wondering whether fraternities still serve a useful purpose or instead create an atmosphere of fear, elitism, and danger that is the antithesis of what higher education should be about. Several schools — including Rutgers University, Johns Hopkins University, and Emory University — have announced limitations of fraternity parties, while some frats have been temporarily closed. Just this week, New York City’s Baruch College was hit with a $25 million lawsuit over a hazing death. Commentator Bill Maher recently called for banning fraternities, comparing their hazing techniques to that of ISIS. Even frat icon and Old School star Will Ferrell, a former fraternity brother, said in March that colleges should consider “getting rid of the system altogether.”

Once admired as the ultimate college experience of fellowship, lifelong business connections, and good-natured fun, to many people today, fraternities are the social equivalent of the greasy guy on the subway taking photos with a hidden shoe phone.

The debate over banning fraternities can best be answered by watching the opening scene in the pilot episode of HBO’s series, The Wire. Detective Jimmy McNulty is sitting on a stoop with a pal of a man known as Snot Boogie who’s been shot dead in the street. As the cops work the nearby crime scene, the dead man’s pal explains that every Friday they would play craps in the alley, and every Friday, when the pot got big, Snot Boogie would grab the cash and run. They’d run after him, catch him, and beat him. McNulty asks the obvious question: “If every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away, why’d you even let him in the game?” To which the friend replies, “Got to. It’s America, man.”

Yeah, it’s America, man. The land of freedom of speech, the freedom to gather, the freedom to make a fool of yourself. Where we punish individuals for crimes, not whole groups.

Fraternities offer real, practical benefits: Many engage in charitable community service, lifelong friendships are forged, and they can be safe havens from academic stress. They also create networks that can improve business and political careers. Since 1877, 69% of U.S. presidents have been in fraternities. Since 1910, 85% of U.S. Supreme Court justices have been in fraternities. In addition, 76% of U.S. senators, 85% of Fortune 500 executives, and 71% of men in Who’s Who in America have also been in fraternities.

The main issue isn’t whether or not fraternities should be banned, but what the toilet-circling reputation of fraternities says about our culture in general. Is their behavior a sobering reflection of America’s unconscious values, or an abhorrent aberration birthed from self-entitlement and pampering?

Let’s start with hazing, the usually infantile, sometimes sadistic, often humiliating initiation ritual pledges are put through before they are deemed worthy of joining, and sometimes after. The philosophy behind hazing is the same used by every organization from the military to certain businesses to religious cults: Strip the initiate of individual identity until they place their loyalty to the group over themselves. Fraternities should immediately eliminate the practice. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll found that a hefty majority of Americans want to see fraternities caught hazing removed from campus.

Another behavior of some fraternities is blatant racism, as seen in the video of Oklahoma University fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon boys singing, “There will never be a n***** in SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me.” That chapter has since been closed. It shouldn’t have been. The act was outrageous but still within the parameters of free speech. Instead, the fraternity should have made social amends through outreach programs within the black community. Hopefully, this incident will result in a decline of new students wanting to join fraternities where such behavior is tolerated.

The much more important behaviors involve sex and alcohol. These abuses are more widespread, affect many more people inside and outside the fraternities, and are indeed reflective of American attitudes. They are especially significant because booze and sexism are more aligned with the male manifesto of machismo that reverberates throughout society.

Let’s admit it, we are a booze-obsessed nation. Many Americans, especially the youth, are convinced us that we can’t have a good time without alcohol, often a lot of alcohol. The red plastic cup is as much the symbol of coming of age as getting a driver’s license. Non-drinkers are often relentlessly pressured to drink. Being drunk is glamorized on TV and in movies as proof of having had a good time. “Let’s get wasted!” is viewed as a rallying cry for fun rather than as a cry for help.

For some, this Romanticizing the Stoli is symbolized by frat parties, where booze and bad behavior flows like the river of urine on the back lawn. In fact, it’s these legendary parties that attract a lot of boys to fraternities because it’s clearly a place where they can live out their adolescent fantasies of bacchanalian excess.

Before we dismiss this as just college kids enjoying life while their young, let’s think of the consequences: About 88,000 people each year die of alcohol-related causes, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.; the cost of misuse of alcohol problems is about $223.5 billion a year; nearly half of college students who drink also binge drink; about 1,825 college students between 18 and 24 die from unintentional alcohol-related injuries each year; 97,000 students in the same age range are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

That last statistic leads us to the even worse problem of sexual exploitation and abuse of women. Pennsylvania State had a recent scandal involving a fraternity’s Facebook page on which they posted nude photos of unconscious women. Brown University suspended two fraternities recently for “facilitated” sexual misconduct. According to John D. Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma University who studies sexual assault, research has shown “that fraternity men are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than other college men.”

While it’s easy to blame fraternities and be done with it, the real underlying problem we need to face is this: Where do our young men first get the idea that sexual exploitation and boozy behavior are OK? That alcohol will make them “the world’s most interesting man”? That girls are attracted to boys who treat them like they’re in porn magazines?

Let’s not ban fraternities. Let’s regulate them much more strictly regarding alcohol use and sexual harassment. Let’s punish individuals rather than organizations. Then, let’s take a closer look at how much our ads, TV shows, movies, and music perpetuate the kind of dim thinking that encourages this abuse.

It’s America, man, and we’re better than this.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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