Imagine what it was like when they turned off the locker room lights.

A young football player, just a freshman in high school, is suddenly grabbed by upperclassmen. The gang pins him to the ground, immobilizing his arms and legs. Horrified, he pleads for mercy and help. To no avail. He can hear others cheering on the bullies.

Then, the boy is sexually assaulted. The details are too wretched and disgusting to recount here. But, according to police, there was force. And penetration. And abject terror.

[pullquote]

Other players stood by and watched. Some laughed. They did nothing. No one had the decency or strength of character to stop this appalling attack. It was a cowardly conspiracy of violence and silence, all in the name of “hazing”. This is not a case of high school hijinks. It is a repulsive and deplorable crime of violence.

Imagine the trauma the victim suffered that day. It may haunt him for the rest of his life. Now multiply that heinous assault by four. That’s right, four victims. Four separate assaults over a 10 day period inside a high school locker-room.

One or more of the victims had the courage and rectitude their attackers lacked. They stepped forward to report what happened. By doing so, they surely stopped future attacks and spared innumerable victims from the same agony they endured.

Seven football players from Sayreville High School in New Jersey were arrested. Three of them face charges of aggravated sexual assault and other charges for what authorities call “an act of sexual penetration” of at least one young victim. Four other players are charged with aggravated assault and conspiracy.

Those who stood by and did nothing are equally complicit. Morally, they will have to reconcile their cowardice with their conscience. If they have one. 

Legally, I’d like to see them charged as co-conspirators or accessories. Granted, it is a tough sell because the law does not impose a duty to intervene during the commission of a crime. But a creative prosecutor could make the argument that those teammates who shouted encouragement were inciting the alleged assaults, thus becoming part of a conspiracy to commit them. That constitutes a crime.

For now, the seven defendants are charged in juvenile court. If their cases remain there and they are convicted, they could be kept in juvenile detention for up to 5 years, but as little as 60 days. Or nothing at all. Thereafter, the defendants’ names could be placed in a sex offender database. It is not mandatory.

However, prosecutors have the latitude and discretion to seek what’s called a “waiver” to send the case out of juvenile court. If granted by a judge, the defendants would be tried as adults. Convictions could mean substantial prison sentences, anywhere from 3 years to 20 behind bars. Under state law, they would be registered as sexual offenders.

What will prosecutors do? Their first objective is to interview as many people as possible in the Sayreville football program. Then, they must weigh several factors, including the seriousness of the alleged crimes, injuries sustained by the victims, the ages of the accused which range from 15 to 17, any prior criminal histories, and whether the defendants are susceptible to rehabilitation within the juvenile justice system. The victims themselves may be consulted as to how they would like to see the cases move forward.

It is not enough for the defendants to claim that the same thing had been done to them by upperclassmen when they were freshmen, as has been reported. That may help explain their actions as “learned behavior”, but it cannot excuse them in a court of law.

It is impossible to know how these cases will unfold. Some defendants may be more criminally culpable than others. Their lawyers will seek plea deals in exchange for cooperation and incriminating testimony. Additional defendants and criminal charges could be added. For now, there are more troubling questions than answers.

Where were the coaches in all of this? They have a duty to supervise their players. And not just on the football field, but in the locker room which is a ripe environment for harassment and intimidation by bullies. 

There are an abundance of coaches for the Sayreville team. Either they knew or should have known what was going on under their noses. 

Either way, they were negligent, if not grossly reckless. Their actions, or lack thereof, exposed players to violent sexual crimes. Expect those coaches to be named in civil lawsuits for money damages. As well they should. Better get some good legal counsel, gentlemen. You’ll be spending a lot of time in depositions and court.

There have been calls to fire the coaching staff. For now, there is nothing to coach. The Sayreville District Superintendent, who described the abuse as “pervasive”, had the good sense to take prompt and decisive action. He cancelled the entire football season. No small measure for a football-centric school and community that reveled in its three state sectional championships. 

If the abuse was, in fact, as pervasive as he claimed, he should consider canning the entire coaching staff. So far, the head football coach and four of his assistants have been suspended with pay from both their coaching jobs and tenured teaching positions, pending further review.

The larger question raised by this tragic case is one that many Americans have been asking of late: what is going on in football?

On the professional level, Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on tape knocking his girlfriend (now wife) out cold with his fist. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will go on trial for beating his 4-year old son with a tree branch and belt. Photographs of the injuries are sickening. And that’s just this season.

Last season a bullying scandal engulfed the Miami Dolphins. It sounds a lot like Sayreville. A 144-page report commissioned by the N.F.L. found widespread verbal and physical abuse that was often celebrated by team members. A “Lord of the Flies” milieu permeated the locker room and practice field. Players routinely taunted teammates with racist epithets, homophobic language, simulated sex acts, improper touching and physical abuse.

The prevalence of bullying and abuse on high school football teams like Sayreville is easy to determine. An Internet search will pop up disturbing results within seconds. Not long ago in Milton, Vermont, high school players sexually assaulted younger teammates with broom sticks or pool cues. It was all part of initiations or “hazing.” Later, one of the victims killed himself.

In New Mexico, seven teenagers who were sodomized with a broom handle at a high school football camp in Nevada sued over the attacks.

If you want to get really nauseous, peruse the list of “sports hazing incidents” compiled by ESPN on its website. The network maintains a chilling chronological account of alleged and confirmed cases dating back to 1980. It is guaranteed to make your stomach turn.

America loves football. It is fun to watch. But it is an inherently violent, sometimes brutal, activity. Players are trained to hit hard. Is it surprising, then, that they may be predisposed to aggression and violence off the field? Moreover, the sport seems to have developed a pernicious culture that makes locker rooms prone to violence. It cannot be dismissed as innocuous ritual “hazing”. Something needs to be done.

Coaches are best positioned to change the culture. But first, they must alter their own attitudes and expectations. Competition is good, but winning is not everything. Commitment and character are more important. Ironically, that was the Sayreville team motto.

These are not merely words. And they do not apply only to football. They are indelible principles of human decency and virtue. Commitment to help others. Character to do what is right. Such ideals have been lost on too many coaches. Sadly, the moral marrow of young players is diminished because of it.

Gregg Jarrett is a Fox News Anchor and former defense attorney.