Somewhere in America some years ago, I sat in a gym with shorts and a T-shirt on. My cleats sat next to me as I sipped a Gatorade while rubbing the sleep from my eyes. The quote rolled off the tongue in one short sentence: “Men bond when the elk is dead.”
The oversized gray shirt looked similar to all of the others we received as members of the football team. Our super religious, value-driven farmer of a football coach had made us a different design this year. The front of the shirt sported a deer looking backward and directly into the sights of a well-defined bullseye, presumably on the scope of some kind of hunting rifle. The deer adorned the front of the shirt while the eloquent quote draped the shoulder blades of the wearer.
The shirt was presented to laughter on the first day of summer practice and Coach took in the jeers, called himself a redneck, and proceeded to explain the message and purpose of the shirt. The quote, he said, was meant to instill the belief that men and people in general bond through accomplishment, a goal, the common good, etc.
This concept is undeniably true in all walks of life and was very relevant to a group of 17- and 18-year-old kids playing the game of football. We band of brothers had bonded through years of sweat, blood and sacrifice for one more shot at glory. Any mental or physical cost would be endured in order to win. No one would come off the field unless he was carried off; pain and long-term health effects were certainly of no concern to the tunnel vision of a high school kid. Somewhere in America, I once sat as that kid. So did my friends and so do thousands and thousands of other kids. Every. Single. Year.
There is a kid who goes to college somewhere in America. He is in a fraternity. This kid who is in a fraternity somewhere in America very much enjoys his fraternity and all that it has offered his social life. He recently told me that it was a tough semester for anyone involved in running a pledging process. He attributed this tough time to the recent crackdown on the alcohol and hazing-fueled Greek life that always seems to find its way into the media this time of year.
I’ve never met this kid, but I’ve heard some pretty interesting things about his pledging process. As he went through it, he was often sleep-deprived, made to eat weird things, drink excessively and even perform dances. By any and all counts that I could gather, he very much enjoyed his pledging process and was elated the night he was officially initiated as a brother. I’ve heard about how, post pledging, he reveled in orchestrating many activities for the new and fresh-faced pledges. And even recently, how he’s enjoyed the process and everything that it’s brought him, but that he knows he’ll be ready for a new chapter once his time in college is done.
Somewhere in America and anywhere in America, there are hundreds and thousands of kids just like this one. The kids who stop playing football after high school aren’t much different from the kids who stop acting like fraternity brothers after college. Just because you’re proud of something from your past doesn’t mean that you can’t change your behavior and change your life. I played football for six years through middle school and high school, and while it was very hard to give up, the time came and I had to evolve. For NFL guys, that evolution was placed on a waiting list long ago and will probably never see the light of day.
The bone-shattering hits on ESPN are not the root of the problem. The nature of the game, among other compounding factors, has birthed the concussion and long-term health issues currently being discussed. Players are taught to do anything necessary, which oddly enough, includes every snap at practice. Concussions occur every day, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. History has shown that placing retail tags on human beings yields dire consequences, and throwing money at the situation doesn’t make it any more ethical. It certainly puts more responsibility into the hands of the players. They have a choice to make. No one will stop an NFL player from walking away with his long-term health. There isn’t just a concussion problem, but more importantly, a larger culture problem.
That kid in a fraternity somewhere in America has spent the last three years partying, undertaking community service initiatives, sometimes abusing alcohol, experimenting or witnessing others experiment with drugs, and chasing any girls that he can find. This kid doesn’t have a name, because there are thousands of them. Kids at fraternities often get an internship or a job recommendation from “brothers” who graduated before their time. Is it clear how these situations can be easily juxtaposed, and thus, are incredibly similar to each other, and many other of this world’s current debates?
Brothers of a frat, or a team, or a club, assumedly spend a large amount of time together (this goes for women and non-specific gender groupings as well). Under these conditions, it should be assumed that these people, if they did not begin as such, will eventually turn into similarly behaved and value-driven people. This provides for some pretty fantastic, as well as some pretty scary, scenarios.
For instance, a group of fraternity brothers who choose to abuse hard drugs in college could wind up working together some time down the road. Maybe these brothers were with other fraternity brothers and maybe some of these other brothers never really left the frat; maybe they kept the party going. Maybe their lifestyle led them to lead unethical existences and eventual societal torts. It’s possible because it has happened before, and will happen again.
With a more positive outlook, one may be able to envision scenarios of a reciprocal nature. Both of these situations are more than possible because they have both happened on countless occasions. While the NFL and societal groups on the whole (hint: everything in life eventually turns into a fraternity/sorority/coterie/community/etc.) are often portrayed in the extreme positive or negative in mass media outlets, one glaring factor is overlooked.
The vast majority of people in this world, especially the successful ones, are selfish. Not in a cynical sense, but in light of individuals understanding how to say no in order to achieve whatever it is that brings them joy.
For many people, this can mean continuing to play a game that they know will eventually bring them pain, taking a job that pays nothing because they want to serve impoverished, third-world citizens, or even being a dentist. The power of choice still exists, however muddled it has become by wayward educational objectives, cynical crones, and the need to be networked into every external device that can be purchased.
Choice still exists on all avenues of life, and one must simply clasp his hands together to realize the power located within.