A small New Jersey town is reeling weeks after seven high-school varsity American football players were accused of charges ranging from hazing to aggravated sexual assault earlier this month.
According to the victims, seniors on the Sayreville War Memorial High School team would run into the locker room, turn the lights off, pin them to the floor and, at the very least, grab their buttocks. This allegedly happened on multiple occasions between 19 and 29 September.
Three of the players are facing more serious charges, including the sexual penetration of one victim.
End Quote Gary Phillips The Journal News
By calling sexual abuse hazing, society grants those perpetrators a free pass”
This may have been a orchestrated event. Four players would hold a victim on the floor while two were on lookout, one parent told NJ.com after their son confided in them. One player would signal the start of the process with a howl, then turn off the lights and assault the freshman.
Two victims interviewed by the New York Times, including one who said he was digitally penetrated from behind, said they were wearing football pants at the time and didn't consider what happened to be that serious.
Stories of older members of the team pinning down freshmen team-mates and assaulting them in a dark locker room as others cheered initially shocked the community. But after superintendent of schools Richard Labbe cancelled the rest of the team's season, many students and parents defended the programme and criticised what they saw as a punishment that extended to players who were not involved.
"If freshman thought we hated them before, we sure as hell hate them now," one 16-year-old student wrote on Twitter shortly after the season was cancelled.
During a school board meeting, according to Sports Illustrated, dozens of players and parents protested against the decision to cancel the season.
"They were talking about a butt being grabbed," one player's mother, Madeline Thillet, said. "That's about it. No one was hurt. No one died."
In reaction to the extreme backlash, the victims may be minimising the story, say Nate Shweber, Kim Barker and Jason Grant in the New York Times. They write that there has been an "atmosphere of recrimination" since the season's cancellation.
"The search is on for the snitches - the kids who killed football in Sayreville," they write.
Gary Phillips of the Journal News, a newspaper in the Lower Hudson River Valley of New York, says he has a problem with how many people have been referring to what happened as hazing at all. He writes that hazing is a part of team culture, but it is too often an excuse to bully or cause suffering.
What happened in Sayreville was not hazing, he says. What happened had nothing to do with initiation or building camaraderie.
"By calling sexual abuse hazing, society grants those perpetrators a free pass and downplays the brutality of their actions," he writes. "What is actually a very serious crime is passed off as a 'rite of passage' ritual that went too far."
Michael Kasdan says there's another word for what happened.
"It's rape," he writes for the Good Men Project. "Yes, it occurred as part of a football team hazing program, and it is boys acting against other boys, but - if the allegations are true - it is rape just the same."
Kasdan says that what happened in Sayreville was abuse, with the sexual aspect being another way to assert dominance.
While the stories are disturbing, they are far from uncommon, says Robert Silverman of the Daily Beast. It's a part of a larger issue across the country and at all levels of the sport.
He says that there is a direct connection between the stories in Sayreville, bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room, the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case and the Pennsylvania State University child sex abuse scandal. In all of these cases, the perpetrators had been told that they weren't beholden to the regular rules that all other members of society have to follow.
Silverman says that cancelling the season was the right thing to do.
End Quote Editorial Asbury Park Press
This vicious, ugly chapter must serve as a wake-up call”
"The tragedy here isn't a lost season, it's the four boys that raped, and the absolution of individual and collective responsibility," he writes.
So what happens next?
The editors of the Asbury Park Press are hoping for a change in how schools across the country keep tabs on athletes in their locker rooms.
They write that school boards everywhere should put in place policies that require someone, ideally a member of the coaching staff, to always be present in the facilities until every player leaves. What goes on in the locker room is the school's responsibility, they say.
"If they didn't know, they should have," they write. "The damage is done, children have been harmed. They have to go. This vicious, ugly chapter must serve as a wake-up call that safeguarding students' safety and well-being must be a priority."
New York Post's Naomi Schaefer Riley says that there also needs to be more of an adult presence at home.
She writes that it is illogical to think that anti-bullying rules will make any huge impact on the behaviour of teenagers or the adults who are supervising them. Instead of focusing so much on grades, athletics and other extracurricular activities, perhaps parents need to reorder their priorities, she says.
"When it comes to their friends, we have failed to teach them not only to be good but to judge the character of others, not just adhere to some mindless teen code of loyalty," she writes.
(By Kierran Petersen)