Brett Graham: A GDI in defense of the Mud Bowl

Tuesday, September 29, 2015 - 5:40pm

Whoever is responsible for the phrase “no press is bad press” couldn’t have foreseen the flurry of news stories, social media posts and general nonsense that has swirled around Greek life at the University these past few months. Fraternities and sororities have been told by administration that they’re partly responsible for a devaluation of degrees, resulting from Michigan’s “party culture.” Similar comments made by Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones referenced a “work-hard, play-hard mentality” and “downward spiral.” Suffice it to say the Greek life community has been taking a beating for the past few rounds and needs to get off the ropes. With the Mud Bowl, they might just have their opportunity.

For the past eight decades, the gentlemen of Sigma Alpha Epsilon have preserved this tradition on their front lawn, combining muck, adrenaline and the sheer beauty that is two-hand touch football. To put this into perspective, the original Mud Bowl game was played in 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his first year as president and World War II was just peeking over the horizon. Since then, the contest has become a staple of Greek life, as fraternities vie each year in a tournament for the privilege of playing SAE. The game, usually held during homecoming weekend, has raised more than $100,000 for Mott Children’s Hospital in the last five years alone.

However, this year is different. The SAE chapter has been operating off campus for four years now, following their suspension in 2011 due to allegations of hazing, and this summer had its charter revoked by the national organization. Combined with the administration’s recently tense attitude toward Greek life, the responses to this year’s game have been unusual and complicated. Devin Berghorst, an assistant director of the Office of Greek Life, has discussed sanctions for fraternities seeking to enter this year’s tournament, based on the Interfraternity Council’s policy against attending events hosted by non-sanctioned groups. The University hasn’t outright forbidden fraternities from entering the tournament, but instead threatens punishment for participation. This is unprecedented, considering the guarantee in the IFC constitution of self-governance.

I would like to stop for a minute and recognize the fact that I am, in fact, a GDI*, unaffiliated with any fraternity and by no means an authority on the inner workings of the IFC or the event. However, I am a third-party observer with the added bonus of freedom from bias and agenda.

That being said, with all the diplomacy and finesse of a dump truck, the choice of the administration to insert itself into this conflict is emblematic of the misguided, short-sighted nature of the new campaign to corral Greek life. The University’s approach is reminiscent of a substitute teacher attempting to settle down a horde of rowdy schoolchildren. The Mud Bowl exemplifies some of the best aspects of Greek life — charity, a deep love for tradition and the ability for a community to come together for a common goal (thousands of dollars to a children’s hospital). So why pick this fight? Students have entered as individuals, completely unaffiliated with their fraternities and national organizations, yet the University’s overly watchful eye remains.

The University should disabuse itself of the notion that attempts like this, meant to preserve order, will do any more good than unnecessarily provoking and victimizing nearly 20 percent of the undergraduate population. Party culture and Greek life are not synonymous; speaking as someone who isn’t in a fraternity, I can guarantee that if that fifth of the population were all to drop out tomorrow, there would still be parties at Michigan. Students would still tailgate on Saturdays and underage drinking would continue to occur. Events like the Mud Bowl exemplify the organization and responsibility that Greeks often bring to this sometimes overly criticized “party culture.” Despite concerns about safety from the Office of Greek Life, former SAE president Brett Mizzi has confirmed that students have hired security, purchased event insurance and formulated risk management plans for the 2015 Mud Bowl.

Philanthropic organizations such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Service for Sight and Camp Kesem are consistent beneficiaries of the efforts of college students who will be playing and spectating at Mudbowl LXXXII. On-campus groups such as Dance Marathon field several teams every year from Greek life. Their contributions to the community are immense, but what kind of message does the University administration send when it lets such a staunch position against Greek life stop students from doing something as light-hearted and altruistic as the annual Mud Bowl game?

If September’s events are any indication, the relationship between University administration and the Greek life community this academic year will be nothing short of ridiculous. Only the University and administrators like Berghorst can steer clear of this.

How? Treat fraternities and sororities with respect, instead of like misbehaving children. Accept that the work-hard-play-hard mentality is something that draws a lot of highly motivated students to apply to the University in the first place. Be willing to recognize the positive contribution that community makes to our school.

Is Greek life perfect? Absolutely not. But the Mud Bowl is about healthy tradition, raising money for charity and a group of college guys pushing each other around in the mud. It’s fun, it serves a cause and it’s relatively innocent.

So can we please start treating it that way?

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu

*Editors note: GDI stands for god damn independent.