Raider's Night by Robert Lipsyte
4Q, S (Senior High School)
Strong language, drinking, language, sexual situations, and a graphic scene of sexual hazing
Peer pressure. Father pressure. The pressure to be the best. Steroids. Knowing what's right and having the courage to do it. "You have to get past the past to go forward." Being a leader means being responsible to and for others, even when you don't want to be. Whew. This book covers a lot of ground, and it's not pretty. But it is involving reading.
Matt Rydek is co-captain of the Nearmount football team. Matt's a good player, though he can never be good enough for his father. Truth to tell, Matt would rather play baseball, but according to his father, he has to play football, because that's where the scholarship prospects are. The co-captaincy is bait to get him to accept losing baseball. Another truth to tell: Matt would say "Scr*w the scholarship, I'd rather play baseball" if only he dared to outright defy his father. But he only dares to defy his father in little ways, because his father is not a man who takes defiance well. But Matt does try to be a good captain. He leads the workouts in the gym intelligently, and when tempers flare, Matt is good at keeping things from exploding. And tempers do tend to flare in this book, in part because Matt and the rest of the team are regular juicers at the gym. Once their workout is finished, they all troop into the gym owner's office, drop their shorts, and get their steroid shots. The steroids help bulk them up, but are the side effects worth it? Matt thinks they are.
Matt can't wait to get away to football camp. A whole week away from both his father and his girlfriend. A whole week of nothing but football and the guys. But things go terribly wrong at camp. There's a new guy, a sophomore tight end, who is really good. This is not good news for Ramp, the other co-captain, who is also a tight end. The trouble is, Ramp isn't all that good, and he can see that Chris is going to be a threat. And so Ramp (who is also pumped up on steroids, besides just being a garden variety jerk) decides to make things difficult for Chris. He humiliates him at every opportunity and tries his best to make him look bad as often as possible. And then he really crosses the line. Hazing of freshman isn't supposed to happen, but coaches know it does and many of them look the other way. It's no different for the Raiders. Chris isn't a freshman, but Ramp maneuvers things so that Chris is right with the freshmen when the hazing begins on Raiders Pride Night, the last night of camp. Though Matt has been able to keep Ramp more or less in line until now, this time, there's not much he can do without making things worse for Chris. But Matt has no idea just how far Ramp intends to take his harassment. When Ramp brutally takes the hazing to a sexual level, neither Matt nor the rest of his crew can react in time to prevent it. As horrific as that night is, what happens...or doesn't happen...after that night could be considered even worse.
Chris keeps trying to get in touch with Matt, but Matt can't face him. He doesn't know what he should say or do, and he really doesn't want to do anything. He wishes the whole mess would just go away. It's pretty clear to see that the coaches and even his dad know that something happened on Raiders Night. It's also pretty clear that they don't want to know the details. It's obvious that they just want Matt to help keep the lid on things. All his life, Matt's been told that team comes first. You do what's good for the team, even if it isn't good for you. Steroids are bad, but you need to be big to make the team bigger? You take the steroids. Hazing is bad, but it "helps to build team spirit"? You go along with the hazing. A teammate does something seriously harmful or against the law? Cover it up. You don't blow the whistle on a teammate. The team comes first. So he ignores Chris's calls and emails.
Matt doesn't want the responsibility. He never wanted to be captain in the first place. He doesn't know what to do or how to handle something this big. Maybe if he just pretends that nothing happened, nothing will happen. But life doesn't work that way. Matt didn't think things could get any worse, but they do.
There's a reason why Pete Hautman's books get starred reviews. He can tackle tough issues, but in a very approachable way. That being said, this is a quick read, but it's not an easy read. These are not easy subjects, and they are not presented glibly. This is a book that will at various times make you feel angry, helpless, repulsed, shocked, and sorry. You'll read it and hate some of the characters, particularly the adults who look the other way when they know rotten things are going down. Ultimately, I liked Matt and felt for him, even when I was upset about some of his decisions. It would be a fascinating discussion to sit in a room with a bunch of people and talk about Matt's actions in this book. Just what is he responsible for and why? Is he a likable character or culpably spineless? And it would be interesting to hear people's take on the parents and coaches, as well as Matt's teammates, some of whom are the epitome of the privileged athlete who run roughshod over any "lesser" beings and some of whom are waiting for someone to lead them in the right direction. Raider's Night is a book I think I'm going to have a pretty difficult time getting out of my head.
Edited to include a link to a column Robert Lipsyte wrote for ESPN Magazine about reactions to this book and the issues it raises.