The news that Brunswick High School had canceled the remainder of its football season and fired its head coach in the wake of a hazing scandal has spurred emotions throughout the state’s sports community.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I feel terrible for everyone involved in Brunswick. We’re saddened for those kids, those coaches, that community, all of them,” said Dan O’Connell, athletic administrator and head football coach at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor.
“But it does send a stern message that hazing will not be tolerated.”
Hazing, bullying and harassment are among many topics discussed by coaches, student-athletes and parents during preseason meetings at schools around Maine throughout each academic year, and schools often complement the meetings with handbooks that put those conduct standards in writing.
While local coaches emphasized the growing importance of these conversations, some also wonder if eliminating traditions such as team retreats could limit the possibility of similar events in the future.
The hazing on the Brunswick football team took place at a preseason overnight team retreat Aug. 16-17 at Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick. The investigation was launched on Sept. 2 after school officials were informed that a football player was held down and a sex toy was put into his mouth at the retreat, a report obtained by the Portland Press Herald revealed.
The team’s Sept. 24 game against Lawrence of Fairfield was canceled once Brunswick superintendent Phillip Potenziano announced that an investigation into the incident was underway. Head coach Dan Cooper and assistant coach Greg Nadeau were placed on paid administrative leave and a number of players had been suspended.
The remaining players and coaches returned to play the team’s Oct. 1 game at Skowhegan. Brunswick lost 61-14.
A letter from Potenziano on Wednesday said that with Cooper no longer affiliated with the athletic department and given the removal of players involved in the hazing, the school would cancel its final three football games of the season because he was concerned that it would not be able to safely field a full squad.
While preseason retreats are fairly common as team-bonding opportunities in many sports, whether they are worth the risk of having an event like the current hazing case may not be quite as certain any more.
“Those things can be extremely positive, the team building can be really great,” Bangor High School baseball and football coach Dave Morris said. “At the same time, the temptation for kids to do things they know aren’t right to do makes it tough for the coaches. … To chaperone them and make sure things aren’t happening is a tough job.”
Longtime Bucksport football coach Joel Sankey expressed a similar sentiment.
“I would be very cautious and very skeptical about doing that today,” he said.
O’Connell said the anti-hazing and anti-bullying message that coaches and athletic administrators share with student-athletes often is supported by efforts made by the state’s athletic conferences, citing the Penobscot Valley Conference student leadership seminar and similar activities within the Little Ten Conference as recent examples in eastern Maine of schools working together to foster positive messaging.
“I think we can always continue to teach, we can always continue to inform, and we can always continue to promote positive behavior and language,” he said. “Some of those things will continue to evolve and we’ll continue to discuss them, and I think we’re all looking forward to that.”
The conversations regarding hazing and bullying don’t end when the season begins, Sankey said.
“You’ve got to remind them, you’ve got to keep mentioning it, and you just hope something like that doesn’t happen because it’s awful for all parties involved, for the kids, for the coaches, for the community and for the school,” he said.
“But the message is loud and clear.”
Morris believes positive reinforcement is pivotal to developing team chemistry, and that one way to reduce the potential for hazing or bullying incidents may be to emphasize the development not only of good players, but good teammates.
“We want to make sure we’re really celebrating kids and teams that are showing those kinds of behaviors that you want to model because you can take those for granted,” he said.
“We’ll often talk not just about being a great football player but being a great teammate. When kids know what it is to be a good teammate and feel good about themselves they’ll want to spread that and it becomes contagious.”