We recently received a tip about a couple of banners hanging on the Sigma Chi fraternity house on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. “We never stop at third base,” one says, over an all-American MLB banner showing a woman playing dick-baseball in heels. “KKΓ<3 SΣX,” says the other banner, which features another sexy baseball player, 69 on her jersey, flanked by the words “It’s always a home run when a Kappa grabs the bat.” (KKΓ is Kappa Kappa Gamma, and ΣX is Sigma Chi.)

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The tipster attached YikYak screenshots from the area, with people commenting on the spectrum between incredulity, scorn, and sexist outrage—the type of reactions inspired by other publicized fraternity banners this year, like these reading “Freshman Daughter Dropoff” and “Go Ahead and Drop Moms Too.” Except these banners are different. They’re interesting not because they’re offensive—they’re about as “problematic” as a truck stop bumper sticker—but rather because the sororities in question almost definitely made them.

Welcome to the spectacular con of Derby Days.

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Derby Days is the signature philanthropy of the Sigma Chi fraternity, and to be clear, it’s an effective and aboveboard philanthropy as far as fraternity efforts go—more so, for being so widespread and energetic, legitimately significant in terms of money raised, put on by the vast majority of Sigma Chi’s 239 chapters each year.

In general, frat philanthropy operates on a sort of indulgence system, in which the boys host one or two large party-centric fundraisers per semester and thus earn permission to carry on as they like. And they always draw on the community; frat fundraisers mostly rope in the wealth and effort of the rest of the Greek system (or the Greek system’s parents). What’s notable about Derby Days—the almost laudable con of it—is that Sigma Chi has figured out a way to earn an enormous institutional remission by getting thousands and thousands of sorority women to do all the work.

As a member of Pi Beta Phi at the University of Virginia, I participated in Derby Days in 2006 and was sort of embarrassingly excused from participating thereafter, once I emailed out a modified version of our Derby Days schedule that I felt was more true to the spirit of the event (“psychic blowjob competition”) than the bill we were actually being sold.

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Ostensibly, Derby Days is the exact kind of thing the Greek community loves to be proud of: an extended charity event, during which one might very well “cultivate leadership skills” and “make lasting connections” and “give back to the community” or whatever it says on all those IFC brochures. But, in essence, Derby Days is an emblem of what the mainstream, white Greek system really teaches its participants, which is how to couch a wide spectrum of unseemly behavior under the twin masks of tradition and philanthropy. And no fraternity does this with such monolithic chutzpah as Sigma Chi.

The specific deal with Derby Days: it’s a week-long philanthropic marathon, in which a single fraternity chapter will put every sorority chapter to work raising charity money and earning nuggets of formalized Sigma Chi approval. It’s an opt-in situation in which not opting in is often unthinkable; sorority girls willingly, enthusiastically forgo their own pursuits to engage in Sigma Chi-branded dance competitions, lip-sync performances, coin drives, contests, walkathons, banner-making, playground cleanups, and intramural sports.

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These are all cute, good things to do, if you’re into them. The fact that hundreds of girls are doing these things at the beck and call of one fraternity creates a certain vibe, sure—Sigma Chi has repeatedly found itself in trouble for their dance and lip-sync competitions, whose atmosphere often hits a surreal fleshly intersection between summer camp and strip club. But it’s really not the specifics that are interesting—those banners up top are forgettable—but what they build up to, the contours of the situation: the fact that almost no one on the inside understands that the whole thing is deeply weird.

College students today (like maybe all of us in general) zigzag between being unfathomably lazy and unbelievably overworked. They can’t get out of sweats to go to the dining hall; they’ll write a 20-page paper in a night. When true effort has to be so strategically allocated, it gets increasingly interesting to see where it goes. And so Derby Days—which Gawker’s Allie Jones, former sorority girl, recalls that “people failed midterms for”—is a true testament to both Sigma Chi charisma and the astonishing degree to which young people—young women—in the Greek system will allow themselves to be told what to do.

For example, above is a skeleton Derby Days schedule provided by Sigma Chi nationals. This schedule will be directed by the fraternity boys, but mostly directed at the sorority girls, who comprise the vast majority of participants in Derby Days. Sororities will then reprise these orders with incredible enthusiasm within, as you can see in this (incomplete) email that I received in college—and, to be clear, this sorority was well on the laid-back end of the spectrum; we dressed how we wanted for rush, shotgunned beers to celebrate things. (They were, at the least, relaxed enough to admit me.) But the enthusiasm for Derby Days’s arduous schedule is mindblowing:

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Monday, March 30- House Decorating

PC ‘09: We’ll need about 8- 10 girls (or more) to help us decorate the Sigma Chi house. We’ll need girls to be there at 9:30am that morning to scope out our territory when they let us in at 10am (we can decorate until 4pm- not that we need to but just fyi). So those of you who do not have class, let us know that you would like to help out, even for a little bit!!

All: LET US KNOW IF YOU HAVE A BOMB ASS IDEA FOR A THEME FOR THE DECORATIONS OR ANY ARTISTIC TALENT ASAP!!!

Tuesday, March 31- Blood Drive

All: Start signing up for the blood drive ASAP!!! It takes place at Westminster Church (the one on the right after beta bridge, which is convienently at a bus stop!) from 12-6pm on Tuesday. Sign up for a time at www.vadonor.com. The sponsor code is “UVA” and we even get points for attempted donations (so if you sign up but aren’t eligible then we still get points. So even if you’re not sure DO IT!)

Wednesday, April 1- Lip Sync Contest

PC ‘09: Girls be thinking of songs for us to get our pledge to dance to. We want originality here! If you want to help with choreography contact us and we’ll come up with something.

Thursday, April 2- Bar/ Trivia Night

All: Trivia starts at 9pm and goes til 11pm. Get a team together and make up a really sweet TEAM NAME and if you want to have uniforms, go for it!!! Even girls without IDs will be let into Mellow on this night (pretty sure), so those of you underaged gals that want to participate PLEASE DO!!!! And get there early to scope out a spot at Mellow!!!

Friday, April 3- Powder Puff/ Coin Drop Finale

ALL: We need a total of 9 girls who want to play in the powder puff game. (It is a 7-on- 7 flag football game, so 2 alternates/ coaches??). Reply back to me if you would like to play and the first 9 girls will get the spots!! If you know you’re not athletic, maybeee think twice before you decide it’d be a good idea to volunteer. haha j/k, but seriously... we are trying to WINNNN!!

ALSO COIN DROP FINALE will be held on this day too. All throughout the week there will be a jug at the Pi Phi house and on the Lawn for you all to drop your spare change in to help Sigma Chi’s philanthropy. So bring your spare change to Chapter to donate and anytime you are at the house all week pweaseee!!!

Saturday, April 4- Skits

PC ‘09: Get your dancing shoes on b/c you will all be channeling your inner dancing queen for this one. We’ll need everyone in the ‘09 pledge class to participate and dance a little portion during the skit. A preview to come at retreat on Friday =]

EVERYONE ELSE!! BE THERE TO CHEER US ON =]

God, it’s amazing! I’m mad all over again, remembering how much adorable, go-getting female enthusiasm goes down these black holes. And again, to reiterate, Derby Days is not a Greek Week type of situation, where a sorority and fraternity will pair off to jump through all those dancing, fund-raising, trivia-night hoops. Derby Days is Sadie Hawkins-y philanthropic sharecropping, in which Sigma Chi asks all the sororities to raise money under Sigma Chi’s name and compete for Sigma Chi’s approval. Girls are named “Sigma Chi Sweethearts” and “Derby Darlings.” Better now than in 1965, when the girls wore paper bags on their heads. And although this “honor” is rarely conferred upon girls who weren’t already in the circle, the event depends upon the fraternity suggesting otherwise—and the girls taking, in a subliminal sense, the bait.

“Derby Days is like Karmin,” said my boyfriend, a former frat boy himself.

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“Don’t say that about Derby Days,” I said.

“It’s also like a survey or a random drawing. Like, if you participate, you could get to meet a Sigma Chi. Who knows, maybe even date him,” he said.

I agreed. The Sigma Chis at UVA were known for, and loved to be known for, their gym-encouraged good looks.

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“That being said,” he said. “Not every frat could pull that off. And they did pull it off. And the result in theory is what every frat wanted.”

He’s right. Girls clear their schedules. On a yearly basis, Sigma Chi brings an entire sorority system literally to its knees.

At The Atlantic last year, Meghan McCarthy published an essay about trying to get her sorority to boycott Derby Days at William and Mary. “The event seemed to confirm so many negative stereotypes about women and men,” she wrote. “That women valued, above all else, being seen as sexually desirable to these men. And that men wanted and encouraged the women to perform as objects for their entertainment.”

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It took my friend Liz and me a full year to work up the nerve to ask our sorority to boycott Derby Days. That night was my first lesson in real politics, as I quickly learned that if you want to do something unpopular, you need to line up a lot of support ahead of time. (I had not.) Instead, two women countered my plea with words that I will never forget: “That would be political suicide.”

I was taken aback by the fact that these women would openly acknowledge what I thought we were too old to admit in college: These men were popular. And that made them powerful. And if we rocked the boat, we could be shunned.

What’s less acknowledged, perhaps, is what happens when the mild brainwashing induced by summer camp and dance classes meets the instinctive third-wave feminist leanings of today’s sorority girls. They do what they want; they’re great at organized dancing; their unspoken sense of choice-based feminism (or post-feminism altogether) allows for the distinctly Girls Gone Wild-y pleasure of being told to dress up and do whatever the boys say.

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This is suggested tepidly, if understandably unexplored, in another Atlantic essay, this one titled “I Loved Being in a Fraternity.” Steve Roney, also a William and Mary alum, writes in response to McCarthy:

The 2007 controversy around our charity event, Derby Days, was another lesson, this time in activism. Many women on campus thought one contest in the weeklong event, the Lip Synch night of choreographed dances, was sexist, and were uncomfortable that events were held in the fraternity house, with winners determined by elder Sigma Chis. The dances I remember and participated in were choreographed by the sororities themselves.

“They wanted to do it.” And so they did, and they do. In general, you can get excited about anything when there’s no visible alternative.

The true genius in Derby Days, as with day parties and keg kills and the black-tie galas their participants will graduate to, is that any amount of energetic wastefulness and unsavory institutional structure can be validated when the check is going to a good cause. Spectacle-first philanthropy puts its money where its mouth is, which is to say, spends too much money raising its party-depleted take. But Derby Days, replicated all over the country every year, has raised millions of dollars for cancer research, and some campuses raise over $20,000 each time. It’s a fact that philanthropy is a side effect for fraternities—at worst, an excuse, plain and simple—but when pressed, it can be transformed into the cause.


Contact the author at jia@jezebel.com.

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Images via tipster.