Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What Do Our Paddles Say About Us?

This is a guest post from Tracy Maxwell, Executive Director of HazingPrevention.Org

Five paddles hung on my wall in college, from dorm rooms, to the sorority house, to apartments. Wherever I lived, they represented home and family to me in a very real sense. Each of them was very special to me because of the individual who had given it to me, but I was also proud of those paddles and what they represented to me – sisterhood, sorority, home away from home, love from a big or little sister, pride and tradition. I still have all five of those paddles as well as one four-foot tall paddle signed by all 49 members of the new member class I was elected to lead as New Member Educator. I can’t bring myself to get rid of them, but I no longer display them proudly either.

Because those paddles represented such positive values to me, I never really stopped to think about what they might say to the rest of the world. To outsiders who don’t know about fraternity/sorority life, and believe the stereotypes they see in the movies and on TV, a paddle represents something altogether different – violence, abuse, degradation, humiliation and punishment. It is a reminder of the sometimes brutal hazing we inflict on each other, and the very worst of what it means to be a member of a Greek-letter organization.

There are certainly enough news stories of fraternity men being beaten with paddles to help reinforce the image of what these instruments have been used for. In 2001, an LSU student was paddled so severely that he needed surgery on his buttocks for a 7 inch-long, half-inch deep open sore. He required a skin graft and was in the hospital for two weeks. He didn’t tell anyone about what was happening to him. It was discovered only when his mother saw blood seeping through his pants on a visit home. (link:

As the Executive Director and founder of HazingPrevention.Org, I struggle with what to tell today’s students about the continued presentation of paddles as gifts. On the one hand, I understand the time-honored tradition, and the time and effort many spend to make their own unique paddle to present to a big or little sister or brother. It is always special to receive a traditional gift that has been given by countless members who came before you.

On the other hand, I’ve seen the damage inflicted when paddles are used for a more nefarious purpose. I cringe along with other fraternity/sorority alums when yet another individual or organization does something to damage all of our reputations.

Many national organizations have banned the sale of paddles with their letters as part of their licensing agreements with various vendors. I support their efforts to try to send a more positive message with the items they will allow their letters to be used on. However, I’m not na├»ve enough to believe that a top-down ban alone will actually change decades of tradition. If students still want to give paddles, they will find a way to get them or to make them. I prefer an educational approach that shares facts, allows for discussion, and asks students to make a different choice.

There are many great alternatives to paddles these days – many are similarly shaped, but not as big or thick as traditional paddles and contain organization symbols or mascots in the place of a handle. Greek101 sells some great alternatives (link:

Please have a discussion about the message paddles send about our organizations, and consider starting a new tradition of gift giving in your chapter. As council officers and leaders, this is a great topic for you to tackle. Governing councils have a great deal of leverage and this is a great topic for an educational program or roundtable discussion among fraternity/sorority leaders on your campus.

Questions for Members/Leaders/Advisors of Chapters/Councils:
• Tell me about your paddle? Who gave it to you?
• What does it symbolize to you? Why is it special?
• Why do you think Greeks give paddles as gifts? Where do you think the practice came from?
• Are paddles ever used for any purpose other than hanging on the wall?
• How do you think outsiders view these gifts among members?
• Do you think you would display a paddle on the wall of your home or office after college? Why or why not?
• Has there ever been any discussion in the chapter or the larger Greek community about paddles as gifts?
• Why has an instrument of violence and punishment become such a strong symbol of fraternities/sororities? Do you think this contributes to the negative stereotypes of our organizations?

I welcome your comments and thoughts on this topic, and invite you to share the results of discussions that take place on your campus or decisions organizations make about giving paddles as gifts.


Norah said...

In my chapter of Delta Gamma, big sisses decorate wooden anchors and sailor hats for their lil sisses before Initiation (here's mine! These serve as a gift to celebrate our new members' Initiation and as a symbol throughout our years of membership. We do not call the anchors "paddles," though others may argue that they are just a nontraditional form of paddle.

During my years of membership, my hat and anchor have become two of my most prized possessions, and I know of several recent alumnae who still keep their hats and anchors hanging in their apartments or rooms. They mean a lot to us because our membership in Delta Gamma means a lot to us, and we recognize the time and care our big sisses put into making them unique to each of us. And when it was time for me to make anchors and hats for my little sisses, I loved having the opportunity to give them such a meaningful gift, something they would hold onto for years to come.

If the tradition of giving paddles, in traditional or nontraditional forms, continues, I would hope that other chapters and national organizations promote these gifts as a meaningful symbol of the fraternity and sorority experience, rather tarnishing something that could be so positive. On our campus, women whose sororities do not have programs similar to our hats and anchors often express a desire to have something so meaningful in their chapters, and if applied in a way that truly reflects our fraternal values, I'd love to see these symbols endure.

Tam Nguyem said...

I agree that it would be interesting to research where the paddles came from and who made them. A couple of sources I found through a quick Google search suggest that paddles are traditionally the responsibility of new pledges.

Sorority Paddle for Sale

Tam Nguyem said...
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