Friday Night Fights: Protecting Football At Every Level, Any Cost

December 3, 2011, 12:24 pm

Questions about why college football programs breed scandal and off the field violence might want to look at high school football for clues.  Today’s New York Times has a story about Wayne Hills High School in New Jersey, which will take the field against Old Tappan in the state sectional championship game tonight minus nine players.  The nine were suspended from playing only this week following aggravated assault charges filed well over a month ago: “The nine players, all but one of whom are minors,” Harvey Araton writes, “are accused of beating two students from the district’s other high school, Wayne Valley, after an earlier confrontation at a house party. One of the victims was said to have been left unconscious in the street.”  The second victim, although not beaten until he was unconscious, was kicked and stomped after having been knocked to the ground.

No sport but football seems to feature so many off the field assaults, even the equally corrupt “amateur” men’s basketball industry.  When was the last time you heard of the men’s crew beating the cr^p out of someone after a party, or a gang bang organized by the cross country squad?

For every story about the moral values football nurtures, or the lost children it saves, we seem to have two about football players or coaches running publicly amok or (you gotta love this story out of the University of Tennessee) being suspended for violating “undisclosed team policies.” Such policies are never available to the public, but one can only imagine the grab-bag of anti-social activities that they cover.  Do they include cheating, plagiarism, or any other violations of the university’s academic code that help keep players eligible but don’t move them through to a degree?  Enquiring minds want to know.  In 2008, the football Vols had a 67% graduation rate (which was not as low as LSU at 54%, or Georgia at 48%.)

But it all starts in high school, and it starts with the idea that affirming the legal right to play in a football game is a higher value than addressing the moral and social questions that arise in the aftermath of gross misbehavior.  Which of these kids in Wayne Hills behaved like vicious and immoral thugs is not clear, but it seems to me that any of the parents of those charged should be sufficiently horrified by what happened to not have challenged the suspensions levied by the school district until the incident is fully resolved in the courts (see this story on Matawan High School for a contrast.)

In fact, I would argue that the moral thing to do would be this: the parents, the team, the coach and the school district should take responsibility for the entire incident prior to the completion of litigation against individuals and forfeit the title game.  Now that’s a way to say you are sorry, and that you plan to dismantle a culture of violence that allowed any player to commit such a heinous act and others not to intervene.

I think one of the reasons so many of us loved the series Friday Night Lights is that it portrayed high school football as we want it to be, not as we know it is.  And it isn’t this way because football is an inherently bad sport (although it is inherently dangerous.) As Friday Night Lights often showed quite effectively, adults not infrequently channel their corruption and venality through high school and college athletic teams.  Adults, schools, and entire communities are often over invested in the heroism of young men.  They are willing to put up with, overlook or ignore a lot to cultivate fraudulent romances about masculinity: see, for example, Bernard Lefkowitz, Our Guys:  the Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb (1997).  As Lefkowitz points out, the desire to valorize athletes who were not even very successful competitors meant constant cover-ups of anti-social behavior. One accused rapist was famous for whipping out his d!ck in school hallways because he thought it was hilarious to see the look on the other kids’ faces.  More importantly, adult defenders of the Glen Ridge athletes never claimed that the rape didn’t happen — only that a severely developmentally disabled girl was fully capable of consenting to being repeatedly sodomized with a baseball bat in exchange for the “privilege” of hanging out with a bunch of third-rate, mean jocks.

The question you have to ask about Wayne Hills is why winning a sectional championship is more important to this town than the charge that nine young men have participated, either actively or by not intervening, in a beating that might have been fatal and will surely affect the lives of both victims, and their families, for some years to come. Viewing the world with a football-centric moral lens is not confined to your average fan either. I was astonished by journalist Jon Krakauer’s unwillingness to engage similar questions of character that might be raised about Pat Tillman, the pro football player killed by friendly fire in 2004 while deployed to Afghanistan. As a young man, Tillman was also subject to sudden and violent rages, and nearly beat another student to death when he was in high school. Instead of using this information to crack open the question of why we insist on viewing Tillman as a hero despite such evidence, Krakauer argues that the incident (in which Tillman, like the Wayne Hills players, continued to beat and kick his victim as he lay helpless on the ground, only stopping when his weeping girlfriend persuaded him to do so) proves Tillman’s high moral character.  Why? Because Tillman a) felt so badly about it afterwards; and b) believed at the time that he was defending a friend — even though he never stopped to find out whether his friend required a defense before he used his superior speed, height and strength to savage another person who had no reason to expect a confrontation.  In fact, Krakauer does not seem to get it that assaulting someone and trying to kill them is absolutely wrong even if that person has offended you in some way.

So let’s return to Wayne Hills.  We know that high school football, like college ball, is a budget drain of mammoth proportions, although the increasing number of games that are televised nationally are pointing ominously towards financial defenses of this extravagant and wasteful sport being extended to high schools. However, certain facts contained in the New York Times’ story about the Wayne Hills football program point to the institutional questions that are raised by this incident:

  • Although the beating occurred over five weeks ago, the players were not suspended until this week on the grounds that aggravated assault charges alone were not enough to keep them off the field.  Please note:  they attend a school where the administration doesn’t let you attend prom if you stay home from school that day and where the school claims the right to drug test students randomly prior to being admitted to prom.  Students can also be suspended from school in Wayne Hills for far lesser forms of bad behavior, such as using abusive language, disrespect to others, and willful disobedience/insubordination.
  • Counsel for one of the accused players is claiming that the school district is only suspending the players now because of the Penn State scandal.  We can call this the Jerry Sandusky Ruined Everything defense:  expect to see more of it, since it offers new avenues for stigmatizing anyone who accuses an athlete or coach of having done them harm.
  • Defense counsel is also claiming that if the students are not allowed to play, the eight accused young men whose identities are currently protected because they are minors will be exposed (nobody seems to worry that these kids might go out on the field and deliberately harm opposing players instead of playing a clean game.)
  • Coach Chris Olsen is also the athletic director, and therefore supervises himself.  This means there is no internal check to any policies — or lack thereof — that he might — or might not — enforce on the team.
  • Olsen, who has won seven sectional titles and is the father of a pro football player and the team’s quarterback, makes $146,000 a year.  The median salary for a Passaic County high school teacher is $63, 076, and only 10% make $84,000 or more.  The average high school principle in New Jersey makes less than $93,000.

With these kinds of values in play, and the organized public thuggery that football seems to bring to the communities that support it, how can we defend the large public expenditures on high school football?

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