Warning: some details are disturbing.
48 Minutes of Hell
A Lifetime to Remember
--Slogan on a Mepham Pirates football shirt,
quoted by Robert Kolder.
"My son went to that camp in one piece and he came back in a million."
--father of a victim of the Mepham hazing incident.
quoted by Wahl and Wertheim.
W.C. Mepham High School, situated in Bellmore, New York, has a generally positive record for both the academic and athletic achievements of its predominantly middle-class students. It has been in operation since 1935, though the original campus has expanded significantly from the small, six-room building that originally housed the school. Named for an educator, Wellington Mepham, it adopted a more interesting pirate theme early on, calling its yearbook The Treasure Chest, its student paper (since 1937) The Buccaneer, and its drama club, the Skull and Bones. The marching band has used a Jolly Roger insignia at various times in its history; school teams, predictably, are the Pirates.
In August of 2003, the Pirates football team held their regular pre-season camp at a rural Pennsylvania girls' camp. The events which transpired there have tainted the school and the town. The effects will likely be felt for years.
Along with regular practices, the hazing of rookie players at camp had become a tradition, despite an earlier, successful lawsuit resulting from a 1995 incident in which a rookie was beaten and injured. The former player also claims that, after he reported the hazing, head coach Kevin McElroy attacked him in front of several players, grabbing him by the neck. McElroy denies this part of the story, while the school maintains that the violence which sparked the lawsuited was isolated, and unconnected to hazing.
On August 23, 2003, in the camp's Cabin 13, a senior tackle and a junior linebacker forced down a freshman player and sodomized him with a broomstick handle dipped in tissue-burning Mineral Ice. Over the remainder of the camp, the victimized player and two others were repeatedly assaulted, with the broomstick-- which had been brought to the camp from a student's home-- golf balls, and pine cones. Two other players assisted. At least one of the many witnesses vomited while watching.
No one reported the incident to any of the coaching staff. The victims were threatened with further violence if they repeated anything.
More than a week after camp had ended, two of the players required medical treatment; the anus of one player had been so severely injured that surgery was required. Initially, the boy's mother complained to the principal, John Didden. He told her to call the police herself.
Investigation and Consequence
When the criminal investigation began, many students rallied around the accused. The victims, whose identity quickly became known, were threatened and harrassed. Calls of "butt pirate" and "fag" followed them through the halls; broomsticks were thrown at them from passing cars. The attitude of some students may be seen in the following, quoted by Robert Kolder in New York Metro:
"The kid that did it, I feel so bad for him," the boy says. "I don't even care what they did."
What about the boys who were raped? I ask.
"Two of the kids are underclassmen, little kids," he says. "They really couldn't do anything about it. But one kid who got it in the shitter, he's just like a fag.... Yeah," he says. "I heard the kid liked it."
These comments chillingly recall the tendency of some to blame female victims of sexual assault for the violence they've suffered. It's also a grimly memorable example of cognitive dissonance. Among those people whose simplified world-view identifies these players as athletic role models, regular guys, the only possible interpretation is to see the victims as somehow responsible.
Needless to say, these attitudes did not make life any easier for the victims. One began homeschooling. Another changed schools, only to find that the story followed him.
Others within the community have been harassed for participating in the investigation.
Jim Rullo, a parent, has spoken on behalf of several of the students and parents. He and others have received threats against their person and their families, including letters which say that they, too, will be assaulted.
Pressured by the official investigation, the school administration requested that others come forward with information. When nobody did, the school board cancelled the football season, not because of the assaults, but because teammate allegedly knew and did not report the outrage. The cancellation of the season led to a protest by students, held on September 18, 2003: the same day the three identified assailants were suspended from school.
Other students, however, organized a Walk-a-thon to "express solidarity with the victims and to raise funds for the Long Island Crisis Center" (Caramore). The incident divided the community, or perhaps exposed and exaggerated existing divisions.
If the internal problems were not serious enough, Topeka, Kansas's virulantly anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, always willing to exploit someone else's misery, became involved, and staged a protest in October. They claim that the assault was the result of a strong Gay/Straight Alliance in Long Island schools, and the systems' acceptance of homosexuality. The protesters from Topeka were met by a much larger counter-demonstration. None of this, of course, had anything to do with the actual assaults.
"Are you on crack? Do you know who I am?.... Don't even think about sleeping at camp."
--Ken Carney to a rookie player whoe refused to let him cut ahead in the water line.
quoted by Robert Kolder.
refers to Ken Carney, the linebacker, as a "classic bully
." The product of a broken home
, his parents had divorced and filed orders of protection against each other. The boy himself has a lengthy history of suspensions for violence and other infractions of school rules. In his sophomore
year, he reportedly made a sexual threat against a female teacher. Shortly before the camp, he verbally harrassed a rookie player because the player did not allow him to cut in a line for water.
Phil Sofia, the tackle comes from an affluent family with a history of community involvement. A "Life" rank boy scout at the time of the attacks, he intended to become an Eagle Scout. He has since been stripped of the opportunity to achieve this honor.
In addition to these instigators, one other player was charged. In January of 2004, charges were brought against a fourth player. Officials claim his case was delayed due to inconsistencies in witness statements and lost paperwork. His involvement remains unclear.
On October 5, 2003, Carney's father, age 40, died. Reportedly, his death resulted from a heart attack; popular rumour claims he committed suicide. On October 6, district attorney Wayne Zimmer announced his intention to try the principal assailants as adults.
The Trial and the Outcome
Initially, three students faced the following charges:
Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse
Reckless Endangering of Another Person
Ethnic Intimidation (a hate-crime charge arising from the fact that the victims were required to insult Afro-American teammates or face additional assaults)
Much to the disappointment of the victims' parents and other supporters, however, Judge Robert J. Conway chose to try the accused as juveniles. All three ultimately admitted to the most serious offences, and apologized to the victim's families. Carney, in fact, broke down in tears while doing so.
On January 14, 2004, Sofia was sentenced to four months in a wilderness boot camp; Carney will serve his time in a juvenile detention center. The third student, identified as an accessory, cooperated with the investigation and provided important information. He has been sentenced to supervised probation. Their cases will be reviewed regularly, and in theory, the students could be held until they are 21; all agree this is unlikely to happen.
The families of the victims and a good many others expressed outrage over the sentencing. Many people in Long Island and elsewhere have asked what would have happened had the victims been female, or had the incident's context been something other than "hazing." And not a few people have demanded that some administrators be held partially responsible.
In November of 2003, McElroy and the other Mepham coaches, Art Canestro, Erwin Wolosky, Steve Vernet and Brian Scott were fired. In March of 2004, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigating the incident found they could not indict any specific adult in the case, but expressed the opinion that the coaches showed a lack of regard for the well-being of their players and a "lack of common sense" in the running of the camp (quoted in Schuster and Morris).
Lawsuits have been filed and remain before the court. One suspects a tv movie may be made.
Outsiders wonder about the possible connections among this grotesque sexual assault, student athletics, and the culture of hazing.
Afterword: Some Thoughts on Athletics and the Culture of Hazing
In Canada, high school sports rarely takes on the nearly-religious dimension it has in the United States. Most coaches are volunteers, typically teachers, rather than the hired professionals of many American schools. In most communities, it is no longer possible to draw large paying crowds to games, outside of finals. I attended secondary school during a time when students would still pay to attend regular season games on the weekend; at least in eastern Canada, that is largely a thing of the past. I also lived with an athlete during much of my undergraduate degree (also in another era), but off the field, the group I knew seemed more interested in partying than ritual humiliation. The athletic culture with which I have a passing acquaintance, then, is different from the one found at Mepham.
Nevertheless, some similarities exist and I was curious about the culture of hazing and how it might be countered. To that end, I interviewed a high school football coach.
Greg Thurston played high school football, went on to play for the University of Windsor, and as of this writing has coached it for fifteen years, six as head coach, at an Ontario secondary school. In 2000, he was first runnerup for the NFL/CFL high school coach recognition award. Thurston believes that players should pay their dues on the field. When considering players of equal ability for a position, he will decide in favour of one with more experience. But he avoids drawing a clear "rookie/veteran" distinction with his team, and he holds strong views about hazing.
While Sports Illustrated and other sources have wondered if hazing has grown worse in a culture where humiliation plays as entertainment (think Reality-TV and Jerry Springer), Thurston disagrees. He argues that we're now more likely to hear of violent hazing than in the past; this did not mean it wasn't happening. In fact, he takes a positive outlook, because a growing number of coaches feel it has no place in team sports. He counts himself among those coaches.
He remembers his own experience at university. Rookies had to drink excessively at a rookie party, and then perform some sort of skit-- he told dirty jokes. The vets would then decide on a penalty, depending on the entertainment value. Apparently his off-colour jokes were funny; he got off easy. Less amusing rookies found themselves licking condiments from each other's nipples or relaying ears of corn held between their legs with their teeth. A player who refused to attend the rookie party was forced, later in the season, to sit in cold water on a day when the temperature hovered around freezing.
He has never personally witnessed anything nearly so extreme as what happened at Mepham, and among his own players knows only of voluntary rookie parties which occur on weekends and without school sanction, and incidents of players having to sing in the cafeteria or wear ridiculous clothing for a day. When his players' activities extended to coerced head-shaving of new players, he banned the practice, under penalty of dismissal from the team. Still, he does not find the Mepham incident entirely suprising. Once the aim of hazing becomes dominance and humiliation, rape seems a possible outcome.
We discussed possible reasons for hazing going awry.
One justification given for hazing is that it gives players a shared experience, and helps create a bond. He can see the reasoning here, provided it is not a bad experience. But something else was clearly at work at Mepham's training camp and even at his own milder varsity rookie party, where certain individuals were singled out for especially degrading treatment.
Certainly, Thurston notes, veterans may feel threatened by talented newcomers; coaches generally assign the best player to a position, and a starting position holds significant allure. With reference to Mepham, I cannot help but think here of non-human primates, who engage in ritualized mock rape to establish dominance and submission in their hierarchical societies. Thurston of course argues that a football team requires a hierarchy, but that this should in enforced without degradation of players. He finds the real humiliation of a player is more likely to work against team unity, rather than encourage it. He also believes that coaches "have a responsibility to teach," and that turning a blind eye to humiliating forms of initiation harms both the initiated and the initiator.
"I would never protect a player," he says, who engaged in the degradation of another. It leads to a "perception that athletes, especially football players are above the law." This, he points out, is the wrong lesson for a young person to learn from a mentor.
Thomas Caramore. "CHSD takes proactive steps toward healing and teaching social responsibility." Mepham Today. http://www.mepham.org/healing.html
David B. Caruso. "Grand Jury Investigates Alleged Hazing By N.Y. Football Team. USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/sports/preps/football/2003-09-22-hazing-investigation_x.htm
"Don't Talk Like These Pirates." Small Victory. September 19, 2003. http://asmallvictory.net/archives/004697.html#004697
The Eleven Day Empire. September 23, 2003. http://www.elevendayempire.com/movabletype/archives/006099.html
"Fourth Teenager Charged in Mepham Football Attacks." Eyewitness News. Jan. 28, 2004. http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/news/wabc_012804_mephamupdate.html
Brian Harmon. "Ringleader of Hazing Pack. New York Daily News. December 20, 2003. http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/story/147824p-130462c.html
Kenny Herzog. "Express Checkout." Long Island Press.. January 15, 2004. http://www.longislandpress.com/v02/i02040115/expresscheckout.asp
"The History of Mepham High School." http://www.mepham.org/history.html
Robert Kessler. "Two Teens Attached Three Separate Times at Camp." Newsday.com September 16, 2003. http://www.newsday.com/news/local/longisland/ny-limeph163457001sep16,0,4566864.story?col l=ny-li-span-headlines
Robert Kolder. "Out of Bounds." New York Metro.com http://www.newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/news/features/n_9391/
Newsday.com http://www.newsday.com/news/local/longisland/ny-mepham-video,0,60158.realvideo?coll=ny-h omepage-right-area
Karla Schuster and Keiko Morris. "Appalled and Sickened." Newsday.com. http://www.newsday.com/sports/highschool/ny-limeph113703242mar11,0,3955249.story?coll=n y-hsports-utility
Jason Straziuso. "Pa. Judge's decision in football hazing cases raises ire of parents." Ithaca Journal. http://www.theithacajournal.com/news/stories/20031114/localnews/638292.html
Greg Thurston. Personal Interview. March 12, 2004.
Grant Wahl and Jon Wertham. "A Rite Gone Terribly Wrong." Sports Illustrated. December 22, 2003.
Jonathan Wald. "Football coaches fired in alleged hazing aftermath." CNN Thursday Nov. 6, 2003. http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/Northeast/11/06/coaches.hazing/
Jane Weinkrantz. "Mepham Pain and Mepham Shame." http://www.pobct.org/mephampain.html