Tradition. The common thread that binds humanity through the generations. Through repeated customs, we make sense of what often seems like a cold, apathetic, uncaring universe. We seek solace in the practice’s ability to bind society and, once the tradition is satisfied, we look forward to fulfilling the next rung in our eternal ladder of destiny, uniting us with those who trod before us.
I know it’s not traditional to say that. Traditionally, you’re supposed to love tradition. It’s supposed to make you/whatever you’re a part of into the person/thing you/it are/is today. And who are you to change that? No one, that’s who! If a tradition wasn’t so special, would it be a tradition? Traditionally not.
Tradition is essentially a flowery term for groupthink, defined as something that spans time and generations, and ultimately gains meaning simply by virtue of being a tradition. In that sense, it’s not your pregame regimen dating back to junior high, or the mustard sardines you eat before every exam. Those are individual rituals and superstitions, but not traditions. Traditions are institutional acts that are special to you because they were special to someone else. Inherited sentimental value, if you will. The kinds of things that you would not do or hold any feelings for without somehow knowing that you’re supposed to do so.
For example, there’s nothing intrinsic about a wedding in a church, with the bride wearing a flowing white dress and the groom wearing a black or gray suit or tuxedo, while a clergyman asks you to repeat traditional vows before exchanging gold bands. The human brain isn’t hard-wired to throw back a homer hit by the visiting team at Wrigley Field. Your mind naturally pops up with thoughts about why we’re here, but Jesus Christ is an acquired taste. When a pitcher is throwing a perfect game, no one acknowledges it. Why? Because you’re not supposed to. Neither abstaining from meat on Fridays nor singing the national anthem actually affects anything, but people do it anyway. Because people do it.
I keep coming back to religious and sports-related examples because these two institutions reflect the ultimate roots of tradition — respectively, discipline/control and a desire to prove yourself. These can be positive traits, but nevertheless are conducive to all manner of rigid, irrational conformity. Many religions practice such as a means to an end, but in sports, it’s often an end unto itself.
Everything that’s absolutely worthless about tradition rendered its ugly head Monday at a Dallas Cowboys training camp. Rookie Dez Bryant allegedly refused to carry Roy Williams’ shoulder pads after practice, after which the media portrayed Bryant as a self-centered jerk. Why? Because apparently it’s a rite of passage for Cowboys rookies to carry veterans’ pads during training camp. And also to foot the bill for expensive team dinners. That’s often the case among sports teams, fraternities and similar organizations.
The idea, as a huge number of apologists will tell you, is that such hazing initiates newbies into a history-rich organization so that they can appreciate the gravitas and carry it on for future members. Oh, and to ensure that everyone knows their place in the hierarchy. It’s tradition!
Personally, I'm tired of this macho, authoritarian, ego-orgasmic mind-set. In reality, hazing serves no purpose apart from providing entertainment for the aggressors at the expense of those picked on. It doesn’t make you a better athlete or forge a friendship. But refusing to cooperate, no matter how rational, can ruin someone’s reputation, thus reinforcing the idiotic concept that it’s these rites of passage that foster team/club unity. So it’s lose-lose for anyone who isn’t blindly following. You’ll be accused of not being a team player even if you claim you weren’t aware of the tradition, like Dez claims was his case. Unspoken rules, as it turns out, are also traditional.
Sadly, such an attitude is increasingly a matter of routine off the field too. When did it become American to absolutely dump on everyone underneath you? I’m not sure, but I suspect it’s a byproduct of buying into the trickle-down version of the American Dream: This is your time to be humiliated. And once you’re humiliated, your earn respect. And once you’ve earned respect, you get the privilege of humiliating the next round of rookies.
I think that's a cause of a lot of societal bitterness these days. With the economy being what it is, a lot of people are either stuck in entry-level hell or find themselves back there after getting a "Go back to start" pink slip in the game of life. No matter how hard they work for how long, they’re still a rookie carrying shoulder pads and paying for the CEO’s fancy dinners.
Many people are willing to put up with this because of the idea that if they work just a little bit harder, one day they’ll be the one reaping the benefits. And when that time comes, they won’t want to be saddled with high taxes or societal obligations. It’s a sort of poignant greed, a self-defeating fantasy, one that only contributes to the increasing gap between rich and poor.
Personally, I don’t go for all that. The hazing. The peer pressure. The groveling. The idea that I’m supposed to revere all of this because it’s tradition. I think work and professionalism should always pay off, regardless of pointless rites of passage. And that everyone who does their best day in and day out should get their due, rather than their turn. Maybe then we’d have more respect for each other instead of feeling so threatened. And, in turn, feel like part of something.
Maybe it could even start a new, better kind of tradition.
Ian McGibboney is not a pro football player and never joined a fraternity.