By Matt Hammond, Sayreville War Memorial High School, Class of 2006By Matt Hammond


If you think what the kids allegedly did was horrifying, think about what the adults are actually doing.

Forming mobs outside the school. Donning varsity jackets and waving team flags. Hassling media on the scene. Proclaiming, “Not in our town!”

All over a cancelled football season. All despite heinous hazing allegations that surfaced last week at Sayreville War Memorial High School in New Jersey.

Now think about the possibilities.

I don’t know the answer to the “who knew what and when?” question, or whether coaches, administrators or teachers actively covered anything up.

But I do know that it’s the blind protectionism and egregious misplacement of priorities on display last night among members of the community that fosters cover ups. Incubates them. Makes them seem, at best, passable, at worst, sensible.

We’ve seen it before, most notably in Happy Valley after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. With the puzzling and problematic behavior on display yesterday, it makes you wonder how long until we see it again. And again. And again.

A small town. Football-crazed community. More concerned with the fate of teams and games than the unspeakable actions allegedly perpetrated against kids in the community. It rings too familiar.

The decision to forgo football seasons on all levels — varsity, junior varsity and freshmen — was announced late Monday by superintendent Richard Labbe. Local and county officials are conducting an ongoing investigation to determine whether to file charges against seniors of the program who reportedly tormented freshmen, but can say based on their initial findings that “there was 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.”

After that announcement, according to the Star-Ledger, parents protested the decision for two hours, creating the scene described above.

“It’s bogus,” said Curtis Beckham, whose son is on the varsity team. “A lot of the students who are innocent, they’re suffering.”

“I’m outraged that their season is taken away from them and they did nothing wrong,” added Theresa Tamburri, whose daughter is a freshman cheerleader at Sayreville. “Let them play. Give them their season back. Give them what they worked hard for.”

If times of crisis are the moments that define people and places, the town of Sayreville is very much in the midst of a defining moment.

This is the entry some are writing for everyone.

If you think what the kids allegedly did was horrifying, think about what the adults are actually doing.

Now think about the possibilities.

***

I had a pretty average high school experience. I transferred from a small parochial school in the area to Sayreville War Memorial after my freshman year in 2002, and I simply was. I was neither loved nor hated, fully embraced nor ostracized. By the time I graduated in 2006, I had made plenty of friends, some of whom I remain close with today, others who simply faded out of the picture over time. But I was never fully immersed in those circles, enough of an insider to understand the culture first-hand, but enough of an outsider to maintain detached perspective.

I played on the football team for one season, my sophomore year in 2003, under current head coach George Najjar. I didn’t get to know him well. I don’t know how many players on the team did. How well does anybody know anybody anyway?

He was plenty accessible. I remember walking into his office and apologizing for a stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalty I drew during a scrimmage that preseason, explaining my disappointment in myself and vowing to not repeat the mistake. He accepted, and told me how much he appreciated the gesture, insisting that I not worry. Given how he treated me, a relative nobody on the team, I would imagine any player hoping to voice any concern, let alone one of much more significance, would be equally welcomed.

But he for the most part left players to themselves. I can count on two hands the number of times he set foot in the locker room, enough to count each game that season. That’s the only time he entered what was otherwise the players’ domain, to lead the team in an only vaguely religious pregame prayer. I don’t know how much contact he had with the team’s leadership, in this case seniors, but it wasn’t something that was readily apparent, let alone advertised. I would imagine this describes the average high school dynamic between a coach and his players and the locker room.

Najjar seemed like a coach who wanted to win, who was devoted to his craft and thoroughly enjoyed everything about it. But he never struck me as consumed by it, ridden with the type of obsession that skews priorities and clouds judgment. Practices weren’t overly long or taxing. Players weren’t pressured to play through injuries, and while none of us got into any notable trouble, I wouldn’t have expected misconduct to go unpunished. If a willingness to look the other way is a disease, Najjar showed none of the symptoms. At least not 11 years ago.

I was never hazed or bullied or abused, and if there was anybody who would have been, it would have been me. I was small then, maybe 5-foot-3 and 130 pounds, and primarily a practice squad player. Plenty of junior varsity playing time, but not much else. I was relatively liked by older members on the team, but far from “one of the guys.” My brother, a junior, was the junior varsity quarterback, and would become the varsity starter for parts of the following season. Many of his friends were, by extension, my friends, though many other elders on the team, seniors specifically, were closer to me than him. But the reason I wasn’t subjected to the type of tangible, irrevocable harm described this week by news reports and my personal sources wasn’t because I was “untouchable.” It was because that team was a family. One with flaws, but ultimately a family.

***

Stories this shocking and jarring and troublesome prompt lots of questions. What was the extent of what was happening? How long had it been happening? Who was ultimately responsible? Was it ever brought to the attention of coaches, teachers or other faculty? As people entrusted with the welfare of children, should those parties have known, should they have been able to see the signs? Things we can’t answer until officials conduct and complete a through investigation.

What we do know: nothing is more important than the safety and happiness of children. Not football. Not a fourth sectional championship in five years, a feat Sayreville could have pulled off this year.

Nothing.

With the allegations so fresh — they were made public only last week — there’s no room for any other message. Especially for a now national story that should serve as a signal to other victims of abuse they they, too, can come forward. Especially since early indications are that many players there were privy to what was happening and so far as we know did nothing. Anything but outright support of the alleged victims, and the decision to forgo the season, is by its very nature disrespectful to the gravity of the alleged actions, and of their consequences.

It’s important to note that a few slobs reprehensibly parading around a parking lot, and two ignorant parents mouthing off in a newspaper article, don’t speak for an entire community. Many others, some of my former classmates included, have taken to social media and posted pictures and blurbs and emotions in an attempt to take the town back from those who disgrace its name and any idea of how adults in a civilized society should conduct themselves.

But right now, the mob has the only voices being heard.

Consider this another, and hopefully the first of many more.

Hear Matt weekends on Sports Radio 610

Follow him on Twitter @MattHammondShow

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