The meaning behind ‘the paddle’ in Greek life
By Andrew Bernstein
Many members of Greek organizations, at Rider and beyond, are familiar with ‘the paddle.’ You can buy them online or even make your own, but generally, the members of today’s Greek community see the decorative paddle as a symbol of friendship and pride. Many fraternity and sorority members decorate their paddles with their organization’s colors, letters and even fun extras. But what is the lesser-known history of the paddle?
Paddles are traditionally seen as a form of hazing and punishment, tracing their roots back to English sailors who used them as a form of punishment for those who left their post, according to FraternalLaw.com, a law firm dedicated to legal issues that impact fraternities and sororities. The paddle slowly evolved throughout time, with American slave owners using the same practices to punish their slaves.
American slave owners were said to use the paddle to avoid the physical scars left by whips, as scars on the backs of slaves deteriorated their value when being sold. Fast forward a few hundred years: as Greek organizations grew and American troops returned from World War II, reports of hazing grew exponentially through the late 1980s, with the paddle being a predominant tool for these organizations to use during the initiation phase.
As fraternities and sororities began to get a bad reputation for harming and even killing new members, paddles found their place as a more decorative gift, something members give each other as a way of commemorating their friendship or honoring their organization.
But we have to ask ourselves a key question: given all this history, why continue to embrace the gifting of paddles if its primary use isn’t the same as it was years ago? If you didn’t know this history, my hope is that you will reconsider decorating that paddle for your big brother or sister, and even tell your friends to avoid the practice of giving paddles in the first place.
There are other meaningful ways for Greek organizations to demonstrate friendship and pride without ignoring the long history of paddles in America; items such as wooden plaques and jerseys are prime examples of this; they still show your Greek pride and allow you to give a meaningful gift to your brother or sister, and they prevent confusing a symbol of abuse with one of friendship.
We’ve come a long way in anti-hazing efforts in Greek organizations, but the burden is on us to take the extra steps to fully realize that vision. Greek organizations provide a way to connect with our college and build friendships that last long beyond our undergraduate years, so let’s strengthen our bonds and ditch the paddle.
Embracing the connections our organizations provide in a more positive, supportive way is a goal we can all strive toward. I think Rider’s Greek life organizations are a positive force for good on campus, much different than organizations across the country, but there’s always still progress to be made.
Bernstein is a member of Rider’s chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and Student Government Association (SGA) president. This article is Bernstein’s opinion as a student, and does not represent the view of any student organization.