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Dartmouth heckling prompts soul-search

'EXTREMELY DISAPPOINTED' Jim Yong Kim, Dartmouth College president, vowed to work aggressively to 'change the behavior at these sports venues.' 'EXTREMELY DISAPPOINTED'
Jim Yong Kim, Dartmouth College president, vowed to work aggressively to "change the behavior at these sports venues."
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / December 10, 2009

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About 300 fans packed into the narrow spectator gallery at Dartmouth College’s squash courts, hoping to see their underdog team topple fifth-ranked Harvard for the first time. But the cheering soon turned to heckling - and then a full-fledged verbal assault.

For at least 90 minutes, about a dozen Dartmouth students pelted Harvard’s men and women players with obscenity-laced insults that some witnesses described as misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic. Women on the Harvard team were called “whores’’ and “sluts,’’ witnesses said; the men were taunted with crude comments about their masculinity.

The Dec. 2 incident, which shattered the genteel world of college squash, has prompted a flurry of apologies this week from Dartmouth’s president, athletic director, and students, including soccer players and fraternity members involved in the incident.

The incident also has sparked soul-searching on the secluded Hanover campus that has tried for decades to shed its “Animal House’’ image, and presented a challenge to a new Dartmouth president intent on fostering a climate of tolerance and social responsibility.

“I am extremely disappointed and upset by this behavior,’’ President Jim Yong Kim said in an interview yesterday. “There is no question it was inappropriate. Players and families shouldn’t feel threatened like that.’’

Kim said he apologized to Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, during a meeting Tuesday of Ivy League presidents at the Harvard Club in New York City.

Dartmouth intends to use the incident as a “teachable moment,’’ Kim said, with campus-wide discussions on appropriate fan behavior planned for January when school is back in session. Members of Dartmouth’s men’s soccer team, some of whom were involved in the heckling, initiated the discussions, he said. The shape has yet to be determined, but Kim vowed to be personally involved.

“These kinds of apologies and discussions don’t mean anything unless we’re going to change the behavior at these sports venues,’’ Kim said. “I am going to continue to pursue this aggressively.’’

This is not the first time Kim has had to address offensive student behavior on the campus. When his appointment was announced last spring, a star rugby player sent out an e-mail over a satirical campus listserv referring to Kim, the Ivy League’s first Asian-American president, as a “Chinaman.’’

In the 1980s, Dartmouth’s conservative student newspaper published a list of alleged homosexuals on campus and a critique of affirmative action written in what was intended to be “black dialect.’’ In 2006, fraternity pledges disrupted a Native American drumming circle on Columbus Day.

“This is not just an issue of sportsmanship,’’ said Frances Vernon, student body president, referring to last week’s incident. “There’s something we’re not digging deep enough into. What is happening here that students feel it’s OK to say things like this?’’

Several Dartmouth students involved yesterday declined to be interviewed about the incident.

One Dartmouth soccer player told the Valley News, which first reported the insults, that he and his teammates were just trying to create an intimidating atmosphere, something they routinely encounter on the road. He said he and his teammates, and some Alpha Delta fraternity brothers, did not realize how hostile their behavior would appear in the crowded squash venue, in which spectators sit close to players behind a glass partition.

“We don’t know the etiquette, so it came off much harsher than we intended it to be,’’ the student, Bryan Giudicelli, told the local newspaper.

At one point, Franklin Cohen, a captain of the Harvard men’s squash team, was asked by a Dartmouth student whether he likes bagels, a comment his mother viewed as a slur on their Jewish last name. But Giudicelli later said the comment referred to a zero on the scoreboard and held no anti-Semitic intent.

Kim said he telephoned the Cohens yesterday to apologize for the incident and assure them he would find out the details of what occurred at the match.

The Valley News reported that Dartmouth fans repeatedly called Harvard players by derogatory names, referring to male genitalia, sexual acts, and sexual orientation. Cohen was also called a “coward’’ and a “despicable human being,’’ the newspaper reported. Another witness told the Globe that a Dartmouth student shouted, “Cohen, do you cheat in business, Cohen?’’

Dan Keat, a cocaptain of Dartmouth’s men’s soccer team, issued an apology to the Dartmouth community Tuesday on behalf of the team for behavior that “crossed the line of what is appropriate and acceptable.’’ His e-mail was followed yesterday by an apology from Alpha Delta, the fraternity that helped inspire the movie “Animal House.’’

“Support for our fraternity brothers and for Dartmouth athletic teams should never devolve into the type of behavior that occurred at this recent match,’’ David Shrubb, president of the fraternity, wrote in an apology to the Dartmouth community.

Cohen and other squash players declined Globe requests for comment on the Dartmouth fans’ behavior. But his coach, Satinder Bajwa, downplayed the severity of the incident.

Bajwa said he had warned his players of potential heckling. Last week’s matches were unusual because a lot more fans attended than normal for squash; squash meets at Dartmouth normally draw just 50 or 60 spectators, he said.

“We understand that sometimes supporters get overexcited and that happens in every sport,’’ Bajwa said.

Robert Ceplikas, Dartmouth’s athletic director, said the large turnout caught the university by surprise and it was not prepared to deploy staff and security to monitor the crowd. With six matches being played simultaneously, the university should have had at least three staff members to help control the crowd instead of one, he said.

“The one silver lining is it has indeed prompted an effort to raise visibility on this issue and gotten members of our community thinking much more carefully about the way people should behave at athletic events,’’ he said.

Harvard won the match - 6-3 for men and 9-0 for its women’s team.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.