Editor’s Note: Mel Robbins, a CNN commentator and legal analyst, is the founder of Inspire52.com, a news and entertainment site for women, and author of “Stop Saying You’re Fine.” This year, she was named outstanding news talk radio host by the Gracie Awards. Follow her on Twitter @melrobbins. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Sayreville football players are accused of sexual assault against freshmen
Mel Robbins: School superintendent was right to cancel the football season
Coaches must be held accountable, even if they didn't know what was happening, she says
Robbins: Practices like this happen over years, so attackers may have been victims themselves
On Friday, the Sayreville High School football team was supposed to host a rival team in a homecoming game. But instead of taking the field, seven Sayreville, New Jersey, players were taken into custody, arrested and charged in flagrant sexual assaults on younger players. Many have referred to the incident as pervasive locker room “hazing.”
What allegedly happened isn’t just hazing, it’s rape.
“It would start with a howling noise from a senior football player at Sayreville War Memorial High School, and then the locker room lights were abruptly shut off,” NJ Advance Media reported (citing information from the parent of one victim).
“In the darkness, a freshman football player would be pinned to the locker-room floor, his arms and feet held down by multiple upperclassmen. Then, the victim would be lifted to his feet” and sexually abused.
If that’s not enough to make you sick to your stomach, consider that these attacks allegedly happened several times – between September 19 and September 29 – and to four separate victims.
Consider that there were dozens of players in these locker rooms who allegedly witnessed the rapes and hazing and did nothing to stop, report or thwart them.
One bright spot in this horrific story is Dr. Richard Labbe, the superintendent who acted swiftly and definitively. On October 2, when a parent and student first reported the alleged assaults, the superintendent immediately canceled and forfeited that evening’s football game because of a “serious and unforeseen circumstances.”
Over the next couple of days, more information came to light, prompting Labbe to cancel the entire season because of “incidences of harassment, intimidation and bullying as constituted by the definition within the anti-bullying statute that took place on a pervasive level.” His decision was unanimously upheld by the board of education.
The only thing more disgusting than these allegations are the reactions of the parents in Sayreville who showed up at the board of education meeting to protest.
You only need to read the comments of the mom of one football captain who was questioned by police to understand just how whacked some people are.
As she sees it: “No one was hurt. No one died. I don’t understand why they’re being punished. I think that the forfeited game was punishment enough.” Seems the denial among some parents is just as pervasive as the crimes going on in the locker rooms.
To the parents complaining about lost scholarship opportunities, the fact is that if these charges are true, your son doesn’t deserve a scholarship; he deserves jail time.
Among the litany of charges, three of the players are charged with aggravated sexual assault, which carries a five-year sentence if convicted in juvenile court. However, the prosecutor could charge all or some of the players as adults, which would mean substantially more prison time, leave them with criminal records and require their registration as sexual offenders.
So far, Labbe has handled this crisis flawlessly. So what should he do next?
1. Fire the entire football coaching staff.
Many parents are standing by head coach George Najjar, who has brought home multiple championships and run the football program for 20 years. He may win on the field, but he is a loser as a leader. Either he and his staff are grossly negligent for not knowing what was happening, or they knew and did nothing. Either way, it’s appalling.
What was allegedly going on in their locker rooms is what you’d expect from a street gang or a prison yard, not a high school football team. The coach and his staff are responsible for the safety and well-being of their players and by allowing 60 to 70 high school boys to be repeatedly unsupervised in a locker room, the coaching staff put these freshman players in harm’s way.
2. Cancel next season, too.
Culture takes a long time to change, unless it’s forced to change. There was a pervasive abusive culture in that Sayreville locker room, and my hunch is it’s been happening for years. You need to send a message to the players, the parents, the victims and the entire community that this will not be tolerated.
And for those players who weren’t “involved,” guess what: If you knew about the hazing and did nothing, you were “involved” and should feel the sting of punishment, too.
Sports commentator Shannon Sharpe said something very powerful about the hazing incident involving former Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito, who was suspended after allegations of pervasive racial harassment of Jonathan Martin.
Referring to the players who witnessed the alleged hazing, Sharpe said: “If you allow Richie Incognito to walk around (the locker room) and use a racial epithet, that all black Americans know the stigma and hate and vitriol that comes with that word – if you allow him to do that, you’re encouraging him to do that.”
To change culture, the message must be clear: Abuse, bullying and hazing will not be tolerated at Sayreville, and neither will indifference.
3. Find the truth, the whole truth.
The truth will come out. Prosecutors will be calling every player in individually for questioning. Players will be asked under oath about the howling, turning off the lights, holding victims down, who did what, how often, whether there were videos or photos. We are at the beginning of this story, because I am certain it didn’t start with this season. A locker room does not go from towel snapping to anal rape overnight.
I can only wonder what was done to the seven boys who were arrested when they were freshmen in that locker room.
It doesn’t excuse their alleged actions if they were victims of similar crimes, but it does help explain why it happened – perhaps they were taught to do it. If that’s the case, they were once victims, too, and it should be part of the facts considered when the courts determine their fate.
And to the heroes in this story, the student victims who came forward: Our hearts go out to you, and we are all moved by your courage. It’s extremely difficult to stand up to abuse, and there’s no doubt you saved future students from the same horrible fate. Your parents must be so very proud of you for having the guts to ask for help.
I hope you are also proud of yourselves. Strength of character is a much more valuable asset in life than winning a football game will ever be.