SAYREVILLE, NJ - The allegations of sexual assault by the varsity football team at Sayreville High School have rocked the country and thrust the Middlesex County community of approximately 42,000 residents into the national spotlight.
The details, as reported by NJ.com, are grim: First, a signal, usually a howling wolf-like noise, would be sounded by an upperclassman. Next, a targeted freshman would be pinned by upperclassmen to the locker room floor. Digital penetration purportedly took place, followed by insertion the digit into the freshmen’s mouth.
As a result of the allegations brought forth by a parent, Sayreville Superintendent Dr. Richard Labbe cancelled the remainder of the football team’s season. The Sayreville Board of Education affirmed its support for Labbe’s decision at a meeting Tuesday night, frustrating many of the community members in attendance.
The story has prompted outrage from all corners of New Jersey and attention from national media, including Sports Illustrated.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called the allegations “extraordinarily disturbing.” Former Senator Barbara Buono has advocated for prosecuting the perpetrators for sexual assault if the allegations are proven to be true.
The scandal has also resurrected old controversies about bullying and its connection to athletics.
Randy Nathan a.k.a. “Coach Randy” of West Orange, author of Bullying in Sports: A Guide to Identifying the Injuries in Sports We Don’t See, said he believes that hazing rituals are often seen as a necessary rite of passage, rather than as a violation or assault. He said it is an initiation ritual; once it has been endured, athletes can feel as though they belong on the team.
“It often starts out as harmless high school fun that isn’t too serious,” Nathan said. “Kids take that component and add pieces on—especially in sports, which are very aggressive and competitive, and that takes it over the top.”
According to Nathan, this creates an unbalanced dynamic in which some (usually upperclassmen) have the power and others (usually underclassmen) desperately want to get in. And like the cycle of abuse, bullying is often condition-forming.
“Besides being a rite of passage, it also becomes an earned rite,” Nathan said. “‘They did it to me so I’m going to carry on tradition and do it to them.’”
He added, “By going through the challenge, ‘you are now one of us.’ And because the taboo against snitching is so strong, no one says anything.”
With conversations on the incident, the decision to cancel the season, the possibility of the incident rising from hazing to a possible charge of sexual assault or even rape, and the ramifications not only for the perpetrators, but for the students banking on using the sport to get into college and playing football or even cheerleading in college or even professionally running rampant on radio, TV, in the news and in social media, TAPinto.net talked to area students, parents and administrators to get a sense of their take on how the incident in Sayreville reflects the dangers of hazing everywhere.
“We haven't had any bullying incidents since I've been at West Orange,” said West Orange High School football coach James Matsakis. “A big reason is that we have coaches present in the locker area and that usually deters any bullying.”
Matsakis also said he believes that bullying often comes from a sense of competitiveness and that sometimes young players often mistakenly use bullying as a form of motivation. He noted that some players may not understand how talent levels can vary and that just because another player is not performing as well as another does not necessarily mean that the other player needs extra motivation.
“As coaches, we try to limit the amount of peer motivation that exists, and put the onus on our positions as coaches to motivate the players.
“As far as Sayreville, I believe that since we are all employed by a school district, if they feel that it was in the best interest of every child to cancel the season then we are obligated to follow their lead,” Matsakis said. “After all we are in the business of expecting athletes to follow the chain of command, so as coaches, we should follow our own teachings and do as our superiors instruct.”
West Orange Athletic Director Ron Bligh said he agreed with the actions of the Sayreville administration.
“They've taken a real stand and I salute them,” Bligh said. “They are holding all student athletes accountable for not stopping it or talking to a coach.”
“Witnessing something means you’re involved,” he said.
Bligh also said that one of the keys to combating such hazing efforts is more adult supervision. He noted that locker rooms, whether used for extracurricular athletics or gym classes, are “prime areas” for hazing to occur.
He also advocated for strong lines of communication between student-athletes, coaches and administration. Of the Sayreville issue, he said “someone should have known.”
Livingston Superintendent James O’Neill said that his school district goes to great lengths to be proactive reinforcing positive behavior.
“One example is that our athletes are building positive relationships with West Orange student athletes,” O’Neill said. “Each season, team captains get together to discuss sportsmanship and how players should respond when there is a game characterized by high intensity.”
“This has had the dual benefit of athletes getting to know each other, having a relationship before we ever play a game, and reinforces key principals like bringing any concerns to their coaches’ attention. It also results in a quicker, more sportsmanlike resolution of issues should they occur.”
Some area residents believe that while hazing is certainly a punishable defense, the Sayreville administration was far too punitive in cancelling the remainder of the football season.
“Why punish the whole team?” West Caldwell resident Kimberley Huff wondered. “It seems like a blanket punishment and those usually come from the fact that no one wants to deal with the student’s parents.”
"While hazing is certainly unacceptable, this measure will only cause more animosity, and will ultimately be counterproductive,” Livingston High School (LHS) Senior Josh Young said. “A better measure would be that those found guilty of the hazing would receive a suspension of a certain amount of games."
Fellow LHS senior Jess Silverman echoed Young’s sentiments. "The offenders should be disciplined and punished, but to discourage those who didn’t do anything accomplishes nothing," she said.
Others noted that the benefits of a football season also benefit a community in ways that a broad punishment may not take into account. In addition, football’s communal importance, its structured organization for students, its importance as a healthy outlet for teenagers and the possibility of college scholarships for the players were all cited as reasons to keep the season going.
"Although hazing is an unforgivable action, canceling the program is also unacceptable because football provides kids with a safe outlet to spend their time and can help them get into college,” LHS junior Emma Giulanti said.
Livingston senior Rachael Richard posited that football serves as an important release for students.
She said, “Do we expect all schools to close down because of bullying? Shutting down a program just builds hate that will be lashed out in other places.”
“A football game is a time and place for socialization and a break from school, and I felt that maybe it was a little overboard to have the whole season be forfeited, instead of having just the individuals punished,” LHS sophomore Paul Yang said.
Others were more emphatic in their opposition to any kind of bullying or hazing.
"I think that any sort of brutality toward another player is unacceptable,” said LHS senior Hillary Borker. “It is never okay in this day and age."
"It is terrible that people could bully each other like this,” said LHS sophomore Jay Bhanushali. “It shouldn't matter how old someone is, it just doesn't mean that you can pick on someone because they are younger."
Nathan said that during his time speaking against bullying in sports, football has often come to be seen as an exception to traditional values.
“I’ll show videos of coaches dropping f-bombs, telling their kids to go and try to hurt other kids—and the people in the audience, parents and coaches, will cringe,” Nathan said. “Then sometimes they’ll come up to me at the end and say, ‘Well, football is different.'”
"Because it’s such an aggressive sport, people think these types of behaviors should be allowed or commonplace,” he added.
Still, Nathan noted that despite the exceptional attitude toward football, the sport itself is not necessarily to blame for hazing culture.
He recalled the Florence High School baseball team “biting” incident of 2013, as well as the “slut lists” published by various girls’ sports teams at Millburn High School in 2009.
“I think that sodomy would always receive outrage, even if it was the fencing team,” Nathan said. “But is the defensiveness and attention because it’s football? Probably.”
Nathan said he is calling for a reorienting of values in regard to people’s attitudes toward sports.
He said, “The culture has gotten completely out of hand. It’s not a coincidence we’re seeing similar things happen at the high school, college and professional levels. Too many parents, athletes and coaches think in terms of ‘getting to the next level.’ Most kids simply aren’t going to be Division I or professional athletes. Sports should be about character development and overcoming adversity. It’s a privilege, not a right.”
However, even that might not be enough to correct what some view as a poisonous culture.
Caldwell residents Joe and Mark DeLaura both said they would not let their sons play football.
“The game has gone down the drain in the past 10 or so years with the concussions and abuse,” Joe said. “As for the hazing, no kid should have to tolerate that."