It has happened, again. This time in New Jersey: Another high school football team had its season cut short due to moral and ethical injuries.
Sayreville Schools Superintendent Rich Labbe made the announcement last week during a meeting with football parents, after a criminal investigation found credible evidence of pervasive and generally accepted forms of harassment, intimidation and bullying on the team. Now, the Associated Press reports, seven teens are facing sex crime charges.
The was the right decision by the school district because contrary to popular myth, bullying players and coaches don’t listen much to peace, love and understanding. They listen to swift, immediate and painful consequences, which is exactly what school officials did.
It’s the right medicine for an illness that plaques this nation.
Still, some New Jersey parents are furious, saying the school’s decision is unfair to innocent players who didn’t bully. Not so fast parents. Most bullying takes place in front of peers but away from authority. Bullies bank on a code of silence from bystanders who should speak up but don’t. So when it comes to bullying, there aren’t many “innocent bystanders.”
Last September, in Utah, stand-up coach Matt Labrum and his staff suspended all 80 players on the Union High School football team for their off-field antics, as well.
Labrum believes football helps create great men. As the founder of an anti-bullying organization, The Protectors, I wish I could agree.
Of all the complaints we receive about sports programs and bullying, no other sport comes even close to the horrendous and sometimes criminal behavior associated not just with football players, but with coaches as well.
A mother from Ellwood City, Pa., reported how several high school football players forced her 13-year-old son to drink urine out of a plastic soda bottle.
Roxana Spady of Columbus, Neb., sued Columbus Public Schools. She says her son was physically assaulted and held while a team member defecated in a dormitory toilet and then dunked her son’s head in it.
Even flag football is messed up. Four Walker Middle School players in Tampa, Fla., faced criminal charges, including third-degree felony battery. Two received 5 years probation for sodomizing the younger player with hockey and broom sticks.
A California pastor remembers how high school players pulled his pants and underwear down to his ankles and shoved Icy Hot up his rectum with their fingers and a wooden tongue depressor. He says they did it multiple times and threatened to beat and murder him if he told anyone.
Football culture harbors bullying, a fact illuminated by the damning Wells Report commissioned by the NFL, which led to the firing of bully player Richie Incognito, coach Jim Turner, and head trainer Kevin O’Neill.
Here’s why football is more messed up than other high school sports: Bullying follows power, and football programs are the most powerful entity on most school campuses.
This power delivers privilege, entitlement and above-the-law thinking. It’s Enron with swollen biceps and acne. Also, bullying thrives in larger groups, and football has a larger roster than other sports.
This attitude that harms football culture has a poster boy, former Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, who in the Wells Report exhibits classic bullying mentality: hubris, lack of remorse,obstruction of justice, blaming the victim and unwillingness to acknowledge wrongdoing.
The disgraced player with one of the dirtiest records in the NFL surely learned how to get away with bullying well before college and going pro.
I help numerous schools fight bullying each year. “If you really want to decrease bullying,” I tell them, “start with your football coaches,” who sometimes are also the school’s athletic directors, giving them even more power and cover for their transgressions.
If these coaches possess the right moral fiber and have had anti-bullying training, then schools have real advocates. If not, one or more could be harming that school right now.
Ironically, football also has the power to lead our schools away from bullying, which is the No. 1 form of child abuse in the nation. Better football players, urged by better coaches, are taking the cachet of athleticism seriously and using their prominence to influence others.
Take quarterback Carson Jones from Queen Creek, Arizona, for example. He befriended fellow student Chy Johnson, who was born with a birth defect, had trash thrown at her, was called “stupid” and was pushed down in her school’s hallways. Carson “saved me,” Johnson told a reporter.
Like the football player I spoke with in Plano, Texas, who saw his teammates regularly tormenting a kid. He calmly sat next to the kid, and the bullying stopped.
These are the players with the right stuff that coach Labrum believes makes real men. I agree with him there.
The NFL is gaining hard-fought yardage against its bullying culture. But why is high school football so blindsided? There are dozens, if not hundreds, of broken programs just like the one in New Jersey. They, too, should be shut down and rebuilt by real coaches with the red-blooded values of respect, freedom and dignity for all.
Paul Coughlin is an expert witness regarding bullying and the law, a former newspaper editor and is the author of numerous books, including Raising Bully-Proof Kids. He is the Founder of The Protectors: Freedom From Bullying-Courage, Character & Leadership for Life, which provides a comprehensive and community-wide solution to adolescent bullying in schools, summer camps, faith-based organizations, and other places where bullying can be prevalent.