Lipsyte, Robert. Raiders Night. HarperTeen, 2006. 232 pages. Tr. $12.41,
Plot: The Nearmont Raiders are all about winning, and the players on this football team will do anything to make that happen. Matt Rydeck, a co-captain and top player on the team, is excited to start the new season, especially with all of the Division One teams trying to recruit him. But he’s doping (with his father’s support) and taking painkillers, and he’s having a hard time keeping a lid on his emotions. Then, at camp to prep them for the new season, a new sophomore on the team named Chris is so good that he threatens the hostile Ramp, the other co-captain. At a camp ritual one night, a hazing incident gets horrifically out of hand and Ramp, in front of the entire team, sexually assaults Chris with a baseball bat. Everyone in the room is complicit in some way, but no one tells. Matt is tormented by his knowledge. When he gets back to school, he gets more confused and unstable every day. Tired of his shallow relationship with his girlfriend, he meets an interesting new girl who is outside of his typical circle. With his father completely obsessed with his football career, all of his friends focused on the goal of winning, can Matt do the right thing and tell? Does anyone want to hear the truth?
Critical Evaluation: A tough critique of sports culture, this story uses the pivotal plot point at the beginning to spin the main character out of control (already tenuous, even at the beginning). Matt is a product of his world, one in which the football players rule, the adults are willing to do anything to make them perform well on the field, and girls are merely sexual treats after a hard day of juicing and working out. Lipsyte uses Matt’s fragile state – at the beginning of the book, he’s already tired of his girlfriend and feeling off-kilter because of the drugs -- to create a character who is fully immersed in the world but who becomes a possible rebel. If Matt had been more stable, would he have opened the door to a real relationship? Would he be rocked by his guilt? To the rest of the team (including the parents and coaches here), being a rebel, even if you’re in the right, makes you a traitor. Especially in light of the Penn State scandal, this book seems to be an all-too-realistic look at the insular world of a football team willing to stifle horrible truths for the sake of a winning team.
Reader’s Annotation: When a football camp hazing incident goes horribly wrong, will anyone break ranks to expose the truth of what happened on Raiders Night?
Author bio: A longtime sports columnist for the New York Times, Robert Lipsyte had never been athletic as a kid, preferring to read book. He became a copyboy at the Times and fell in love with writing about sports. Known for writing with a political edge, he was one of the first people to champion a young Muhammed Ali.
Deeply critical of what he calls “SportsWorld,” a twisted, ridiculously competitive realm of bullies who take sports too seriously, Lipsyte brings those concerns about the bullying nature of jock culture to his writing. He has been called the master of YA sports writing for his many books, including Raiders Night and The Contender.
Genre: Realistic Fiction.
Curriculum Ties: You could use excerpts of this book for a unit on sports and doping. This could also be used in a psychology class to discuss morality and going with the crowd.
Booktalking Ideas: Focus on the hazing issue. What happens when everybody sees and no one will tell?
Talk about the Penn State cover-up and the relentless focus on winning.
Discuss the rebel aspect. Would you do the right thing if you knew that your whole world would be destroyed?
Talk about the portrait of the world – the doping, reverence of sports stars.
Reading Level/Interest Age: 15+
Challenge Issues: Graphic sexual assault, sexual situations and references, drug abuse.
Challenge Response: This book is definitely intense and there is no way to discuss it without talking about the rape. I would definitely talk about the fact that this book is a critique, and discuss the ripped from the headlines parallels to real life events. Be familiar with the content of the book and the passages that might be considered offensive. Keep positive reviews on hand (Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and School Library Journal called it “important”). One argument that can be made for the book is that there is clearly something wrong with competitive sports and it won’t be fixed unless we acknowledge the problem.
Why Included: I had heard that this was an important novel that works well with struggling readers who are interested in sports.