The Violent Side of Friday Night Lights

Seven players were arrested at a high school for raping their teammates. You can draw a line from there through Steubenville, Penn State, and the NFL.

Quinn Ryan/The Daily Beast

There’s a new scandal in football and this time it’s not in the NFL or college.

Last Friday, seven members of New Jersey’s Sayreville War Memorial High School were arrested for sexually assaulting their teammates. The boys, ages 15 to 17, were arrested for “aggravated sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, conspiracy to commit aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal restraint, and hazing for engaging in an act of sexual penetration upon one of the juvenile victims.”

Far from an isolated act of brutality perpetrated by a few bad actors, a high school football team allegedly engaged in ritualized torture, and according to an unnamed 14-year old who spoke with the New York Times, “It’s been going on for a long time.” The parent of a player laid out the grisly, nightmarish details to NJ.com:

It came without warning.

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.

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 while a finger was forced into his rectum. Sometimes, the same finger was then shoved into the freshman player’s mouth.

On Monday, Superintendent of Schools Richard Labbe cancelled the remainder of the season, stating, “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.”

This is rape culture and in many places, it’s a part of football. What allegedly happened at Sayreville indicates there is a culture in which chronic rape was normalized and even possibly condoned. (To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of high school football in particular or football players as a whole. The game itself can still be beautiful, breathtaking and a point of communal pride.)

Rape culture is a much larger, far more pervasive society-wide problem that has flourished within some parts of football, as generations have been taught that a militaristic, power-worshipping mindset is the only way to teach kids how to play the game.

The exercise of that power manifests itself in multiple ways. For Sayreville, it meant punishing and humiliating the weak, ritualistically subjecting them to humiliation and debasement. But the fact that this brutality took the form of a sexual assault isn’t a random occurrence and it’s on the rise. As Bloomberg News reported in 2013 “More than 40 high school boys were sodomized with foreign objects by their teammates in over a dozen alleged incidents reported in the past year, compared with about three incidents a decade ago.”

Jaclyn Friedman, an anti-rape educator and editor of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, said rape is all about power.

“In these cases, in mainstream athletics, specifically football in America, there is a very narrow, and toxic construction of masculinity as defined solely by having and exerting power, as dominating; specifically dominating women. The sexual assaults of young boys are a way of feminizing them. It’s the worst thing you can do to them, because it’s the thing you do to a woman.”

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There’s a direct line from what allegedly occurred in Sayreville to Tallahassee, Florida, where an all-too cozy relationship between the university and the local police hindered any possible investigation into the sexual-assault allegation against quarterback Jameis Winston, to bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room, to Steubenville, Ohio, and to Penn State University.

In each of these cases, the perpetrators had been told for the bulk of their lives that, in Friedman’s words, “they’re not subject to the regular rules, that’s not just an idea they have in their heads.”

“That’s why those boys in Steubenville were shocked to be on trial; they were shocked. They could not believe it was happening, because they had every expectation that they could do whatever they wanted and they’d be protected.”

Beyond mere protection, young men are told ability to play ball means that they’re exempt from the rules that govern society, and that their successes would lead to rewards and glory worth of gods or conquering, mythic heroes.

“And the spoils, largely, include women,” said Friedman. “Which brings it all full circle: Women are not fully human, which is why you’re using those specific techniques to dehumanize and haze.”

This selfsame worship of power demands also demands silence and absolute loyalty. Kids that were trapped in that locker room are scared to say anything, let alone leave. Students that weren’t on the team couldn’t speak out for fear of repercussions.

There’s also a powerful financial incentive for keeping up appearances. The Bombers won state sectional titles three times in the last four seasons, had an undefeated season in 2012 and have made 18 straight trips to the playoffs. As the New York Times reported, one booster club pulled in “over $244,000 through merchandise sales and donations from 2008 to 2012, according to tax documents.”

As James A. McIntosh, the president of the Sayreville Bombers booster club said, “It’s almost a religion here.”

To expect a kid to rat out his friends or classmates is an impossible demand, particularly when the grownups seem to be tolerating the behavior by sticking their collective heads in the sand. Within this power dynamic, there’s no room for saying no. That’s how this system is perpetuated.

Now that it’s all out it in the open, Sayreville residents are rightly “shocked” and “horrified” saying, ‘This is crazy. This doesn’t happen in our locker room.” They want to make it crystal clear that, as School-board President Kevin Ciak told the Wall Street Journal, “This is not consistent with our community and our program. And Sayreville as a community is much larger than football.”

I can certainly understand their desire by both public officials and parents alike to separate themselves from these alleged crimes or deny their severity. No one wants to think that their children, particularly ones that before last week were considered heroes and role models, could possibly be rapists.

And there’s certainly room for sympathy for senior Myles Hartsfield, who had his scholarship offer to Penn State University revoked though it’s not at all clear what role—if any—he might have played. It’s even understandable that some members of the community might cry out that this is “unfair” or, as parent Madeline Tillet told Sports Illustrated, “Nobody was hurt. Nobody died. I don’t think the punishment fits the crime.”

But even if we can grasp the reasons for a pushback—whether it’s outright denial or a blustering, dismissive, “Yeah, it happened to me and I turned out fine”—we’re losing sight of the people who were most harmed in this case, the actual victims, and focusing on the potential and/or lost opportunities of the perpetrators and bystanders. This too is part of the problem. It’s the cry of the privileged learning that their privilege might be taken away.

Feel free to dismiss the anti-bullying campaigns and even decry all of this as the “Sissification” or “Feminization” of America, but you’re kind of proving my point. The tragedy here isn’t a lost season, it’s the four boys that raped, and the absolution of individual and collective responsibility. This is what perpetuates a systemic, institutionalized rape culture.

That’s why calling off football for the season was the right thing to do, despite the fact that it’s collective punishment.

As Friedman said: “We as a society are going to have to become willing to bear some cost to change this dynamic. And that’s what I’d say to the boy that lost his scholarship and the boys that can’t play football, especially the ones who didn’t do anything wrong. Yes, that’s too bad. But also, we as a culture have to be willing to bear some cost in order to turn this around.”

Jason Christopher Hartley, a veteran who served in Iraq and the author of Just Another Soldier, saw hazing in the military and says the only way to begin the process of eradicating this kind of behavior is a total reboot.

“It starts at boot camp or whatever the boot camp equivalent in football is. You have to inculcate them and make it clear that you won’t allow this fucked up behavior,” he said, “You can’t do it afterwards. You can’t have a cult that has this kind of shit and then bolt on a new morality and ethics and expect it to work. It can’t. Human nature disallows that. It has to start from day one.”

Or else it’s going to happen again.