Down the tree-lined streets of the Hill in Boulder, where many of the University of Colorado's fraternities are located, you can see the signs of an uneasy cease-fire in the booze war between CU frat boys and Boulder police. In the quiet blocks around the Greek houses, people walk their dogs amid empty beer cans, Liquor Mart keg cups and cigarette butts.
CU's fraternities attracted national attention in 1995 by adopting a "no-alcohol" policy at their chapter houses. The agreement was so widely publicized that it even managed to attract an $860,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for "alcohol education." But less than two years after the initial hoopla, the no-alcohol policy is no more. After riots last May in which students who claimed they were fed up with being hassled by cops lashed out in two nights of mayhem, the city and the Greeks are still trying to work out a lasting peace.
Publicity about fraternity-related incidents, worries about skyrocketing insurance premiums from wrongful-death suits and an omnipresent hostility between the city of Boulder and the frats put the Greeks in the spotlight--and, supposedly, on their best behavior. The Boulder police are trying to tread lightly, too, hoping to avoid adding another public-relations nightmare to the JonBenet fiasco.
It's Friday evening, the first day of Open Rush at CU, when the Greeks start restocking their houses with fresh bodies. Not wanting to feel left out, Westword sends into the war zone two staff writers working undercover as prospective pledges.
Lebanon it's not. Animal House it is.
And sure enough, down one street sits a frat that looks as if it could pass for the famed Animal House. It's a rickety wooden building with AstroTurf mats on the front porch. A couple of brothers look for matches to get the barbecue going. In front, some shirtless brothers toss two pigskins around, blocking the thoroughfare to passing traffic. They launch bombs from the second-floor balcony, bouncing one long ball off the hood of a new Ford Explorer. Across the street are more respectable-looking Greek houses, brick affairs with verandas and columns.
Sort of a plantation look, which is apt. Few things are more lily-white than CU's Greek system, whose 2,500 members (according to Greek officials) comprise a full 10 percent of CU's undergraduate population. A six-member Latino frat is the only non-white presence at the rush tables. The only African-American who attends rush is one of Westword's reporters. "So, are you really here to rush, man?" one frat boy asks, "or are you just here to check things out?"
The frat boy spends the next few minutes gently discouraging the African-American from pledging his fraternity.
In front of Animal House, the rosy-cheeked, sideburned boys wearing baseball caps with sharply curved bills are just kicking it. On the porch, others are on the job. Dressed in polo shirts and name tags, they're the recruiters of the next crop of pledges, and they're very sober about their work.
It's a "dry" Rush this year, so the rush committee greets you with warm Cokes and sincere smiles. But after you've thrown back a few sodas and shown that you're down with them, someone invites you up to his room for a Keystone Light, delivered by a young UPS guy in uniform who seems to be making the rounds throughout the neighborhood.
Justin, one of the brothers, says that tonight they're "just chillin'"--that is, not taking a chance on having the party busted on account of underage drinkers. But when the Keystone Light arrives, he shrugs and says, "Hell, if we can't do anything during Rush, we'll just wait till it's over." Which is precisely at 10 p.m.
After all, this alcohol-free event is sponsored by Coors Light, whose huge banners advertising "Fall Rush" hang outside many fraternity houses.
Sponsorship or not, the brothers are still worried. The Interfraternity Council (IFC), which governs CU's Greeks, has a "buzz crew" of frat members who patrol events at the nineteen frat houses with walkie-talkies, looking for liquor violations. They work closely with the Boulder cops.
But right now the frat boys are more concerned about the police department's black-and-white Suburban, heavily pitted with rock-sized dents, that pulls up right in front of the house. One brother leans over to a prospective pledge chewing on a bloody hamburger and boasts, "We did all that damage in thirty seconds during the riots. They parked that shit on the street and we nailed it. They had to take off, or else they were gonna get killed."
The bravado vanishes and everyone keeps quiet while a few of the football throwers lean into the Suburban's windows. The cops never get out of the car. They're never seen on foot, period. After the brothers chat them up for a few minutes, the cops drive off.
Once they're gone, the bravado returns. "We sent a message with the riots," says social chairman Wally. "We had a party on Thursday. The cops came and broke it up, but they didn't give any MIPs [Minor in Possession] or tickets to the house."
"They took the kegs," adds Justin, "but that was all. They were pretty cool about it."
"Things are gonna be a lot cooler now with the cops," Wally says, referring to last year, when cops would bust students just for walking down the street drunk. "But the guys who are killing us is the IFC."
"They can give out $2,500 fines if they catch you serving alcohol to underage drinkers," says Wally. "When I was a frosh, it didn't used to be like this. I heard some bitch gave the cops $500,000 and told the cops to match it. Those fuckers must have given out at least that much money in tickets."
Last spring, the IFC decreed that there be no more than three alcohol parties a year--two in the fall and one in the spring--but the rank-and-file Greeks don't seem keen about it. "They say we get three registered parties a year," Wally says, "but we're still gonna have kegs every Thursday night.
"I'll admit it's not as raging as it was in the late Eighties and early Nineties, but the people who say frats are dying out are full of shit. If anything, we're getting bigger."
Time to move on from Animal House to Respectable House.
Across the street from Animal House is a castle-like fortress belonging to a rival frat. And what a classy joint it is: Just inside the heavy wooden doors, a pretty coed from a sister sorority beams a 1,000-megawatt smile and slaps a name tag on your chest.
The rush chairman is a clean-cut guy--on the surface. He promptly leads prospective pledges down to a basement room. Secret handshakes can wait until after you pledge a fraternity. For now, the most important thing is the secret knock, which changes every time a member brings down another herd of neophytes. This time it's three pounds, a kick and finally, "Roger! Open the door! It's me!"
Roger, a stressed-out brother with crazed eyes and a nervous grin, opens the door and leads rushees to what's proudly called "the hovel"--a den of happy boozers. It's a small bedroom, with Cindy Crawford looking down from one wall. Several handles of McCormick's vodka are passed around, along with one tepid can of Coke as a chaser.
Sam, sitting on the bed cradling a handle and the Coke, his eyes bloodshot, passes out war stories. "Yeah, the riots were fun!," he says. "First they were spraying us with tear gas, then they started shooting canisters. People were tipping over cars, and then I was like, 'Oh, fuck--my car is out there!'"
Lance, too, has fond memories. "On the first night," he says, "they sent this camera crew up from Denver, and we were all wasted out here on the porch. We were screaming at the cameras. Then, just a couple months ago, we find out that they're gonna use the footage to bust people, and we're like, 'Oh, shit--mistake.'"
But it's Jack, a sixth-year senior, who holds court over the blissed-out freshman rushees. He carries on like John Belushi--more than a few T-shirts in the house carry Belushi's likeness as Bluto from Animal House.
"I say we riot again," Jack says loudly to his willing captives. "That fucking tear gas clears out the sinuses--then you come back to the house and take a couple of bong tokes and it's all right."
Boulder's attempts to curb underage drinking have naturally focused on the Greeks, according to Mike Smith, a Denver lawyer who has been advising a CU fraternity for several years. "Fraternities have always been rather elitist," says Smith, a former University of Denver frat boy himself. "As a result, the Greeks are high-profile and much easier to keep track of [than unaffiliated students]. The public doesn't hear about kids in the dorms getting killed in alcohol-related incidents."
But it did hear about DU frat boy Oscar Whitlock in 1982, when he hired high-powered attorney Walter Gerash to sue both his fraternity and DU. Whitlock claimed that DU and Beta Theta Pi fraternity were responsible for his 1978 trampoline accident during a fraternity party that left him paralyzed. The jury awarded Whitlock $5.25 million in 1982, but the verdict was thrown out the next year by another judge who said that Whitlock should have used better judgment than to attempt double flips on a shaky trampoline in the dead of night. Smith says this incident was the beginning of the end for tolerance of alcohol at Colorado fraternity houses.
"In the late Eighties, insurance companies started going bananas because of incidents such as the Whitlock case," says Smith. While clauses restricting, or even banning, the serving of alcohol in fraternity houses put a crimp in Greek social life at CU, what was even more damaging, says Smith, was the city of Boulder.
"CU has no alcohol policy for students living off campus," he says, "so they leave it to the city to control. As a result, the relationship between the town and the university comes into play."
And because under Colorado law, kids can't drink until they're 21, fraternities are full of a mixture of underage and legal drinkers.
"Freshmen come to Boulder as experienced drinkers," says Smith. "What are they supposed to think when they get here--'I'll drink until I get to college, then have to stop'? If the city is going to ban alcohol at fraternity parties, they need to provide these kids with social assistance, someone who can teach them how to plan an alcohol-free party. A nineteen-year-old social chairman can't do that without help.
"And if you look around Boulder, there's really not a lot of nighttime outlets for [underage] kids. For example, Boulder doesn't have any bowling alleys. College kids look at the Pearl Street Mall or the Hill--which are just strips of bars and restaurants."
Trying to figure out alternatives to getting drunk is a group of counselors called the Bacchus and Gamma Peer Education Network, which operates on 800 campuses around the country. Drew Hunter, at the network's headquarters in Boulder, says the town simply isn't tolerant of students, especially fraternity boys.
Hunter says that when he arrived in Boulder in 1985, "it was a classic free-for-all. The school's party reputation was well-deserved."
And since the frats aren't technically on the CU campus, says Hunter, the school "feels as if it's not their problem."
That makes it the city's problem.
"I don't know of any other college community where there's this kind of intense pressure from the city," Hunter says. "As a result, students have their backs to the wall while police have the manpower and will to search out these parties. I think that the riots resulted from this sort of police harassment."
Boulder cops, ever mindful of public-relations, sing a different tune.
"The relationship between the Greeks and the police is phenomenal," says Sergeant Robert "Sully" Sullenburger. "If you look back to 1994, it was pretty antagonistic, but now it's working out great."
What about the riots?
"It was actually the Greek leadership which helped quell that riot," says Sullenberger. "I don't believe that would have happened if not for the relationship that we built up last year."
Mike Smith points to the rousting of a 1994 party thrown by the CU fraternity he advises as an example of how the cops once cracked down.
"What the cops did," he says, "was cruise the houses and look for probable cause, which isn't very difficult for them to establish. They knocked on our door and ordered everybody who's 21 and over out onto the sidewalk and everyone under 21 to stay inside. Those under 21 all got breathalyzer tests and if they blew [over the legal limit] they got a Minor in Possession ticket, which is relatively serious, because you can lose your driver's license. And then the fraternity got a ticket for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and a hefty fine. It just wasn't a good way to handle the situation."
Fraternities got more heat in 1994 after CU sorority member Amanda MacDonald was killed in a car crash returning from a frat party; all three people in the car were drunk at the time. MacDonald climbed onto the roof of the car to "ski" and was hurled to her death when the vehicle skidded off the road.
The subsequent spotlight on fraternity and sorority drinking at CU led to the city's decision to hold what participants referred to as the "alcohol summit" in the spring of 1995.
The two-and-a-half-day meeting, which attracted city, university and Greek representatives, resulted in the much-ballyhooed "no alcohol" agreement--which Smith says had little chance of succeeding because of the policy's hazy wording and the lack of uniform enforcement. He adds that an "enough is enough" letter that the city sent out in August 1995 to the parents of all incoming freshmen didn't help, either.
The letter, signed by police chief Tom Koby and CU vice-chancellor for student affairs Jean Kim, hammered the Greeks for getting hammered. "In the fall of 1994," they wrote, "two fraternity members repeatedly sexually assaulted a female guest who had attended a fraternity-sponsored event." Then, showing that Boulder cops possessed a unique insight into fraternity life, the letter continued: "In that investigation, we learned that alcohol was served with the intent to intoxicate women for the purpose of facilitating sexual relations with them."
Picking up steam, Koby and Kim added, "We have had to pick up the pieces of too many of our community's young to continue waiting for cooperation from those members of the Greek Community that continually act irresponsibly. It is not our intention to negatively impact the Greek System in Boulder. However, it is our belief that the college experience is wasted on an educated mind when it is in a casket."
Mike Smith says the letter was out of line. "It was a moment of stupidity on the city's part," he says. "The letter was very anti-Greek, and they cited eleven alcohol-related deaths that year while failing to mention that nine of those deaths were high-school kids on the way to the prom."
Amber Tetlow, who has been CU's Greek liaison since 1984, says the major problem was that the no-alcohol policy was a "gentlemen's agreement" meant to help the Greeks police themselves while the cops focused on underage drinking as a whole. Still, she explains that Greeks were hit especially hard because of their high profile, while other underage drinkers were not.
"If [the police] were going to enforce this new policy," says Smith, "they were going to have to be fair and enforce it across the board. But the Boulder police would be riding the fraternities while the local street kids were drinking and selling dope on the corner.
"It's typical Boulder. We got to a position where the Greeks themselves adopted an alcohol-free policy in [fraternity] houses, and then the city rammed it down the kids' throats. All the while the Boulder Police Department is receiving kudos for getting kids with guns to their heads to make this decision. The plan wasn't going to work the way they went about enforcing it."
Less than two years after it was passed, the city and the Greeks ditched the policy. "The changeover was just too quick," says Smith. "The fraternities were trying to go from all-out to nothing at all, and it didn't work. Now we're all back on page one together."
Smith adds, "You've got groups of nineteen- and twenty-year-olds whose expectations for social life have been cut from beneath them. There are seniors who remember the wild parties when they were freshmen and wonder where they are now, while the university is building extra parking lots with alcohol access so that the alumni can get loaded before football games."
The Greeks now operate under a revised policy, which sprang from yet another "alcohol summit" last spring. It allows fraternities to have three parties at their chapter houses with alcohol during the 1997-98 school year. (CU's nine sororities are prohibited from holding such parties.) Other events at which alcohol will be served must take place at restaurants or bars that would be responsible for insuring that no one under 21 is served alcohol. As part of the new policy, the Greeks have also agreed to ban booze at their chapter houses completely starting in the fall of 1998.
"This is no gentlemen's agreement," says Tetlow. "This is a yes or no policy, with no gray areas. If you have a party at your [chapter] house with alcohol, you're out."
According to Tetlow, the new agreement has found wide support among the Greeks. "I really feel that the fraternities are starting to re-examine the roots of their organizations and their founding principles, which didn't focus on alcohol," she says. "Two national fraternities have even pledged to be completely substance-free by the year 2000."
Back in Respectable House, a few of the wannabe pledges crawl out of the basement hovel and continue on their tour, shepherded upstairs past the cold hors d'oeuvre. "This is supposed to be dry Rush, after all," Jack says, giving careful instructions. "Go up to the third floor--the same thing is at the end of the hall on the right."
Upstairs, across from a room filled with more drunken rushees, some veterans are talking about a recent bust by police. "I was at this party where the cops came," boasts Buffy, who is acting as hostess for the frat house as a favor to her boyfriend. "The first time, they told us to keep it down. Then they came back again and said that everybody under 21 had to get out in three minutes. So those people left, and then the cops said, 'Give us your keg.'
"So they rolled out one keg that was empty. But they still had two more kegs upstairs!"
Did someone say "keg party"? There was one last night at Respectable House. "We got busted because some fag from the fraternity across the street was pissing in our alley," says former house member Craig. "But the cops were cool. They took away two [keg] shells and told us to keep it down."
The cops swing by Respectable House tonight, too, but only to tell the kids to keep it down. This approach suits the brothers just fine.
"Rules are made to be broken," says Rich, a fifth-year senior. "We've already had four keg parties here and another three off-site." A second later, a head pokes through the doorway to announce the arrival of another barrel.
Rich nods and says, "Pay Rerun out back," and the face disappears.
Rush chairman Doug says he loves the Boulder police. He even has pictures of them in his scrapbook. His prize is an action shot of Chief Koby in full riot gear with Doug right behind him, flashing rabbit ears over the chief's helmeted head. Doug says he's going to blow it up to poster size.
"Man, that shit was crazy," he says. "But the cops are scared of us now. It's gonna be a lot cooler this year."
Despite their cockiness, the brothers keep a watchful eye out for police cruising the streets. Two members go out of their way to confront the incognito Westword rushees as they leave the house.
"Are you guys cops?" they ask earnestly. When told "no," the members lighten up. A little. "We had to ask," one of them says. "The police are really cracking down on underage drinking. We can't afford to get busted or anything."
But the frat boys' party line remains the same: Party.
On Saturday morning, two hours before the first game of the CU football season, against rival Colorado State University, all the frats are well into the swing of things.
Rushees meet up with actives from one house who are heading up to the Hill for a pregame bash. Across the street, the members of another fraternity are going nuts. One hangs off a lowered basketball rim (all the buckets at the houses are below regulation height for dunking purposes), while L.L. Cool J blasts out of the speakers. Nearby, an overworked frat boy mans the smoking barbecue while his brothers cavort with a bevy of coeds.
The boys walking past sound more than a little jealous of the hijinks across the street. "Those guys are fags," says president Fritz derisively. "There are only four frats out here that I respect. The Delta Sigs and...ah, fuck it. That's it."
But frat boy Hobie has no shortage of praise for his own house. "The cool thing about our group is that we all party, everyone's totally cool, but we're not meatheads," he says. "Which is more than I can say for some of the other frats on campus."
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Hobie's boys have set up a party in an apartment several blocks away. Most of the participants there look like they woke up wasted; now they're just keeping the buzz going, courtesy of more McCormick's vodka and a keg of Milwaukee's Best. One guy tries to pull chicks by telling them about how he got roughed up during the riots. He says the cops chased him and some friends to a fence, and as they attempted to scramble up the side, the cops approached and told them, "'Okay, gents, come on down."
The kids were let off the hook.
By 11 a.m., throngs of CU students are making their way to Folsom Field, occasionally running into a pack of CSU fans and challenging them with the rousing chant of "Fuck you! C-S-U!" Since beer sales were banned at Folsom Field last year, kids have to take to the bars--or the fraternities--for early-morning screwdrivers. (According to Boulder police, however, there were only a handful of arrests Saturday, considerably fewer than the last time CU hosted CSU in 1995.)
Lost in the haze are the ever-present threats of IFC fines and cruising cops.
"Fuck, yeah, spread the word!" says the chairman of Respectable House. "Toga party tomorrow night! Bring your own sheets and get wasted beforehand!