Rocking the Pedestal

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Rocking the Pedestal

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MHS Football Team

Tyler Simeone and Cara Smith, Writer

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All of us in the Madison community have experienced the rush of excitement, the wild cheers of adoring fans, and the overflowing local pride paired with the annual high school football season. The cult of Dodger here is inescapable; even those with little interest in sports participate in the fanfare and celebration. Football is integral to the culture and spirit of this town, a force of unity and glory.

Not all communities, however, are celebrating.

As Madison revels in the joy of the athletic season, the people of Sayreville, New Jersey reel from a sexual abuse scandal that rocked not only its football program, but the entirety of the local community. Following allegations of sexual abuse by way of “hazing,” the administration and community of Sayreville War Memorial High School are engaged in a fierce debate over the appropriate approach to legal prosecution and emotional mending. Seven football players are currently in custody facing charges of sexual abuse as severe as rape; three of them have already been charged with aggravated sexual assault upon juveniles and have been suspended from school. Other charges they face include hazing and conspiracy.

The details of the assault allegations are lurid and shocking; more sickening, a Junior Varsity player told a fourteen-year-old witness to the attacks that the same was done to them when they were freshmen. This begs the question: just how long has this been going on? Undoubtedly, the players knew that what they were doing was wrong; they guarded the doors and kept the assaults intensely under wraps. What exactly went on behind those locker room doors? To what extent was the Sayreville War Memorial High School football team subjected to such abuses?

Few actually know and, apparently, neither does the coach. Coach George Najjar, 62, claims to not have known about the assaults. Most attempts by the media to contact him have been ignored. In an interview with NJ.com, Najjar asserted, “There will be a time and place when I have something to say, but now is now is not the time.” Until the present scandal, Coach Najjar has been lauded for his commitment and winning record over his twenty-year tenure. Recently inducted into the New Jersey Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Najjar enjoyed glory and admiration following his team’s 12-0 record in 2012. The town greatly respects him as a monumental figure, one graduate referring to him as the “god of Sayreville.” Trusted by parents and beloved by students, Najjar has been described as an intense coach but a fair disciplinarian. Known for stringent standards and the coaching philosophy of a martinet, he is a grand community figure whose marble pedestal has been rocked, perhaps irrevocably, by the scandal. The people of Sayreville are divided over his involvement; the immense trust that the community places in him prevents many from believing that he could have had any responsibility in perpetuating the abuses.

Despite the distance that Madison students have from the scandal, an interview with MHS’s Coach Kevin Lynott puts it into a perspective more close to home:

MDO: What are your feelings toward the Sayreville football scandal?

Coach Lynott (KL): Shocked, saddened, I just don’t understand how players could do that to fellow teammates, its just absolutely disgusting the extremes to which they went to haze. I can’t imagine what those kids went through.

MDO: If a hazing incident like this came up in Madison, do you think the same consequences would follow?

KL: I think when we talk about hazing, I mean… this isn’t hazing, this is assault, this is a criminal offense. You know, asking freshmen to take the equipment down, is that hazing? I could tell you now that if such an incident happened in my program, I’d expect consequences to be handed down, I’d expect personally to be held accountable. I hope I could run a program where the players would respect each other. If I had any incidents of any of my girls doing anything that’s hazing, I would definitely expect myself and the administration of the school to take serious consequences because it’s a serious offense. I think its right that that program has been suspended and if my program went to that extreme I’d completely expect the same thing to happen. I hope there’s never a situation in Madison anywhere near this, but I think that if hazing occurs it needs to be dealt with.

MDO: What do you think could be done differently do handle this situation? Is there anything that would be done similarly?

KL: The one thing we’re always concerned about as coaches is the supervision of locker room areas, but there’s so much coming and going and so many things to deal with that it’s a difficult thing, but that is something that, as coaches of Madison, we have to be conscious of. Done differently? I just can’t get my mind around the mindset that players of a football program or of any program would go to that extreme. I think with supervision, with taking to captains’ councils, leadership in PGC, all programs we have at MHS, these are topics that we should be discussing, even for me as a coach. There’s a fine line between clowning around with freshmen and actually hazing, but I think we do a pretty good job of talking with our students.

MDO: What can we do to prevent something like this from happening at Madison High School?

KL: I think its education, I think its awareness. As I said, I think from a coach’s perspective we have to have supervision in and around locker rooms at certain times. You know, students here live in a great town, it’s a great school and I don’t expect such a severe case to ever happen here, but that doesn’t mean we rest on our laurels and we don’t educate the kids on where the line gets drawn in the sand and where we overstep the mark. I think we need to talk to our teams and talk to our players and make sure that they’re aware that there are serious consequences; I’m sick of the response “It’s only a joke,” you know we need to think a little more. It’s not always a joke and it’s not always fun for the victim. I think we just need to always keep that in the back of our minds and not to think that everything is rosy at Madison because you never know, I’m sure that Sayreville never thought this would happen.

Of course, as Coach Lynott noted, a situation like this is completely plausible at Madison High School. While discussion on hazing and other sports ethics-related topics is emphasized at MHS, the importance of education and awareness in preventing cases of sexual abuse is more crucial now than ever.

Though Coach Lynott is resolute on his opinion of the scandal, the people of Sayreville cannot agree on the way in which punishment and prosecution can be approached. As a first step, the administration canceled the remainder of this year’s football season, an initial measure that many consider overboard already. While only seven team members have been accused of any wrongdoing, the canceling of the season prevents cheerleaders, marching band, and other people involved in the athletic ceremony from participating. Others claim that the extreme nature of the scandal justified the canceling. As the investigation continues to unfold, the administration is considering even canceling next season, a decision that would rob the community of its athletic ritual but under justifiable circumstances. Being so completely floored by the scandal, the administration is undoubtedly finding it difficult to maintain the town’s culture while upholding justice.

Undoubtedly, this incident will impact the culture of the Sayreville community for a long time to come, especially given its football ritualism and idolization of the team. The issue of justice sill divides this town; students and parents continue to debate how the accused should be prosecuted and whether or not the season should be cancelled. A candlelight vigil held in mid-October reminds us of the pain this community is going through in the wake of such a horrendous incident; a candle was lit for each victim and one for all victims of sexual assault. And that is exactly what this crime is—sexual assault—a fact that cannot be lost sight of in the coming weeks as the investigation rolls on. Whether the result of the trials brings justice, it will be a long time before the town of Sayreville can reach any closure.

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