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Richie Incognito, right you guys!? How about that?! The Richie Incognito story has taken over the national conversation (I watch Sportscenter for my news; and I assume CNN is a twenty-four hour cycle of Blake Griffin dunks). And you know the drill at this point: a sports story comes out and seven dozen former athletes get on TV in crazy-ass, Baptist-church suits to yell at each other, making simple statements sound like revolutions (“Call me crazy, but I think shitting in mouths is an abomination!”). We can watch the pendulum of national opinion swing from side to side. First, we just thought, Hey, sweet name. If my name was Richie Incognito, I’d always wear a bandit mask. Then, our second thought was, Jonathan Martin is a pussy bitch. Free Richie! But then, we all collectively witnessed the voicemail transcript, saw Richie Incognito’s rap sheet, and decided, as if at once, that Richie Incognito was an unconscionable bully. Now, Incognito’s teammates are starting to defend him. The plot thickens and I can practically feel the pendulum lose its momentum, crest, and pull back the other way.
A little while ago, someone on this site wrote an article entitled “Why We Haze”. It nicely lays out the benefits of hazing which, for our purposes as fraternity gentlemen, amount to a kind of extreme socialization. You do a few push-ups, walk some elephant trots, do a few chores, and take a few tongue lashings. When it’s all said and done, you can boast a shared identity and a new pledge class to make you peanut butter squares at three in the morning. I was hazed and I did some hazing. I loved the process. Perfect system, right?
But, as I read the quotes from the voicemail Incognito left for Martin — the one with the racial slur and the mouth pooping — I cringed. I cringed the way I used to cringe when a certain type of guy in my house used to haze pledges. You know that guy. We all know that guy. He is the type of person who proves his own fortitude through his ability to withstand others’ suffering. The one who rarely had anything to say in social situations, then a pledge event started and all of a sudden he was giving a speech like a bad guy in a Bond movie. He takes the socializing aspect of hazing and forgets it, leaving only the part of hazing that brings pledges misery. He claims he was hazed harder (he wasn’t) and rains down upon helpless freshmen a fabricated exaggeration of his own experience. He is the reason our our pledge programs get canned and our houses get shuttered. He is, in his zeal for hazing, the worst aspect of hazing.
I’m not saying that Richie Incognito is definitively the villain, and I’m certainly not saying that Jonathan Martin isn’t an overly-sensitive, emotionally-distressed nerd (evidenced by his staggering inability to just punch Incognito in the face), but I think this is a parable for our litigious modern times, a warning in the form of a national news story to just cut the shit. As it stands now, there are only two reasons for any type of hazing in fraternities: entertainment and education. Want to make a pledge do a hundred pushups because he didn’t clean the bathroom? Go nuts. Want to make them perform one-act plays for your afternoon enjoyment? The bard would be proud! But maybe you just want to sit in the basement and watch them run sprints, chug milk, and wrestle each other, at which point, I have to ask, who’s life are you benefitting? Maybe this is the type of thing you and every class before you went through, and that’s great. Maybe you believe these activities made you stronger, brought your class closer together, and truthfully, I don’t doubt that. But there are other ways to strengthen people, and other ways to bring them together. You’re a progressive dude. You’re down with iOS7. Hell, maybe you even think ‘dem gays could get married if they wanna. So maybe now it’s time to make some changes.
We all desire a connection. It was pledging and, to a more specific extent, hazing that brought me some of my best memories with some of my best friends. We still get together to tell the stories and drink and laugh and slap backs and I think we always will. But I also watched an ambulance pull up to my fraternity house during a particularly brutal pledging activity, and I sat dumbfounded while our pledgemaster explained to us “what to say” to the cops. No one died, but it was the third year in five that an ambulance was called. It’s a miracle no one went to jail, a miracle no one was sued, and a foregone conclusion that my house has since been recolonized. It was due to the decision of one brother, but it was the inaction of an entire house that ultimately allowed it. What was it worth? Its value lessens the further I get away from it. And I think that if things had gone just a bit differently, all the golden good times of pledging would be washed away by a single act. The pendulum, once firmly on the other side, has begun to swing back.