On Tuesday night, school officials in Sayreville, New Jersey, cancelled the remainder of the Sayreville War Memorial High School football season amid allegations of violent hazing rituals among players. However, new details have emerged that, if proven true, suggest what happened in the locker room was not hazing—it was rape.
The first inkling of trouble came last week, when Sayreville Superintendent of Schools Richard Labbe decided to forfeit a weekend game because of the reported harassment. When a subsequent investigation by local police and the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office yielded what Labbe called “enough evidence to substantiate there were incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying that took place on a pervasive level, on a wide-scale level, and at a level in which the players knew, tolerated and in general accepted,” the superintendent opted to go a step further, shutting down the football program altogether for the rest of the season.
After a highly contentious meeting, the school board unanimously finalized the decision. Board member John Walsh told NJ Advance Media, “I feel for these kids. But we have a moral, legal and ethical obligation to ensure the safety of every student, and that supersedes any extracurricular activity.”
Not surprisingly, parents and players are outraged. Some, like senior Kishan Patel, simply did not believe the allegations could be true. When interviewed by NJ Advance Media, he argued, “It’s not as bad as it’s being made out to be. We know these guys. They’re our friends. We know what they’re capable of.” Fellow senior Justin Gallagher testified in Tuesday’s meeting, “Everyone keeps saying that there are aggressive things going on in the locker room. Nothing makes me believe that there was anything going on.”
Others felt that the school board was overreacting. When Madeline Thillet, whose son was interviewed by investigators, spoke at the board meeting, she claimed, “I was at the police station with him when they were questioning him. They were talking about a butt being grabbed. That’s about it. No one was hurt. No one died. I don’t understand why they’re being punished. I think that the forfeited game was punishment enough.” And Curtis Beckham, whose son is on the varsity team, told NJ Advance Media, “It’s bogus. They’re holding the kids accountable and not holding the coaching staff and the teachers accountable. I don’t think what they’re doing is fair. A lot of the students who are innocent, they’re suffering.”
This was the most frequently voiced sentiment by the team’s supporters: the idea that it was unfair to punish all the players for what could easily have been the actions of just a few, and what was probably no big deal. After Tuesday’s meeting, more than 100 parents and players stormed the field and held an impromptu vigil.
There is admittedly a lot at stake for the players and their parents. The Sayreville Bombers have won three state championships in four years, and players frequently get football scholarships to Rutgers and other institutions. The cancellation of the season may very well cost some players their college dreams.
But as details emerge about exactly what happened in the Sayreville locker room, it is becoming increasingly clear that this outrage should be directed at the actions of players and the inaction of coaches, instead of toward the administrators. According to an unnamed parent who spoke to NJ Advance Media, the “hazing” ritual, which took place nearly every day, began with an upperclassman turning off the lights and howling like a wolf. Multiple older players would then pin down a freshman and lift him to his feet, at which point a teammate would stick a finger in the boy’s anus, sometimes putting that same finger into the freshman’s mouth. Meanwhile, the parent said, the rest of the team just stood and watched. The source added that after games and practices, he would see freshmen “stampede” to the locker room in hopes of being dressed before the older members of the team arrived.
These details have not yet been corroborated by school or law enforcement officials. If they are accurate, however, what happened in that locker room was not hazing; it was rape. In fact, the situation as described would meet the legal standard of aggravated sexual assault in New Jersey, because it involved “sexual penetration” (defined as “vaginal intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio or anal intercourse between persons or insertion of the hand, finger, or object into the anus or vagina either by the actor or upon the actor’s instruction”), and “the actor [was] aided or abetted by one or more other persons and the actor [used] physical force or coercion.” This would make the incidents, if they are proven true, crimes of the first degree.
When viewed in those terms, it seems a little silly to think that asking the team to forfeit one game or even the whole season could possibly be an overreaction. It’s not nearly sufficient.
As parents and players continue to protest the decision, however, this case unmistakably echoes many we’ve seen around the country, in which towns rally around athletes accused of sexual assault. There was, for example, the case of 14-year-old Daisy Coleman, who was raped at a party by a football player in Maryville, Missouri, and then left unconscious on her front doorstep in the freezing cold. Though law enforcement officials were initially responsive to her story, even filing charges against the boy, they ultimately dropped the case as a result of public and political pressure from locals. But the injustice did not stop there: Coleman and her family were ostracized and harassed until they eventually moved away.
Then, of course, there were the incidents in Steubenville, Ohio, in which members of the high school football team raped a 16-year-old girl and then proudly posted pictures of the act on public media. There, too, the town united to support the players. In fact, a number of school officials were eventually indicted on charges of trying to cover up the crime. The sympathy for the athletes extended to a national level too: Even after two individuals were found guilty of rape, CNN reporter Poppy Harlow said, “These two young men who had such promising futures—star football players, very good students—literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.” She did not express similar sympathy for the rape survivor.
Of course, there are differences in what is said to have happened in Sayreville; the alleged victims and perpetrators were all athletes (and male), alcohol does not seem to have played a role, and the incidents happened on school grounds. But I believe that many of the underlying issues are the same. We send warped messages to all young men about what it means to be masculine, in particular overvaluing sports and the athletes who play them. For that matter, football thrives on a culture of aggression, which is proven by dominance over others on the field and—based on current examples in the NFL as well—off the field, too. Moreover, star athletes at every level are rarely told “no.” They know their value, especially when they’re winning, and come to believe they are above reproach. And in turn, they often behave as if neither the law nor society’s rules apply to them.
I would, for that matter, also not be surprised to learn that this kind of hazing is not new to the Sayreville team, and that some of the upperclassmen who victimized freshmen were victimized themselves when they first joined the team. The alleged repeated incidents, in which teammates stood idly by and watched their friends be violated, suggests a deeply ingrained culture of dominance and humiliation.
Which brings us to the coaches. Though the allegations do not mention the presence of team officials in the locker room, it is hard to believe that no one on the staff noticed these incidents, especially given that, if reports are true, they involved young people turning out the lights and howling like wolves. Even if they didn’t know exactly what happened, however, they are responsible for the environment that fostered these alleged incidents.
Professor Robert Podhurst, who teaches the sociology of sports at Montclair State University, said in an interview about Sayreville with RH Reality Check, “The coaches must be fired. The nature of the hazing is embedded in the culture of that team. There is no way players could behave in this fashion without feeling they had the tacit approval of their leaders.”
He added, “Coaches know their continued employment and status is contingent on winning. This is a reality that makes the outcome far more important than playing well and actively encourages a macho culture that permits, even promotes, a disregard for the well-being of others and a psychological tolerance of abusive behavior.”
Podhurst is not surprised that Sayreville locals seem to be on the side of the players. He also drew parallels to the situation in Steubenville and pointed to another recent incident in New Jersey, in which the interim superintendent suspended nine members of the Wayne Hills High football team for beating and stomping on two students a few days before playoffs. In response to strenuous community objections to the “harsh” penalty, the school board rescinded the decision. Eventually, after a number of meetings that included reports by the Wayne Police Department, several players were actually suspended for one game and were required to do community service.
As the details come to light in Sayreville, it will be interesting to see how the community continues to react. It has been refreshing to see school officials apparently refuse to prioritize the team’s winning streak over players’ well-being, but press reports suggest that parents and locals do not necessarily hold the same opinion. It may be that reporters have only talked to those who were actively involved in protesting the decision, and that other parents in Sayreville are pleased that officials took action. It may also be that those who support the decision are reluctant to speak out. That was certainly the case with the Sayreville parents RH Reality Check reached, who said they couldn’t even go to the grocery store at this point without being bombarded by the media.
RH Reality Check did speak with Cathleen Winters, a parent whose son had played football for neighboring rival East Brunswick until he graduated in 2011. She, for her part, wholeheartedly agreed with the administration’s decision.
“How can you be outraged that a game has been cancelled, when somebody’s personal being has been disrespected and violated?” she asked. “I love football, I’m a Giants season ticket holder, I play in fantasy leagues—but isn’t it more important to make sure these kids are okay rather than playing a game?”
That said, she continued that she isn’t surprised by the reported reaction from the community. “There’s a bully mentality, with the parents too. They think that the team is invincible.”