Sayreville War Memorial High School football team in Parlin, New Jersey is the latest to have multiple players accused of sexual assault. In this case, players allegedly committed sexual assault against their teammates during acts of hazing. Seven players have racked up a substantial series of charges:
"Three of the players were charged with 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. One of those defendants and four others were charged with various counts including aggravated assault, conspiracy, aggravated criminal sexual contact, hazing and riot by participating in the attack of some of the victims."
As a result, the entire football season has been cancelled and the charged players have been suspended from school. On Wednesday, the Sayreville Board of Education upheld a suspension of the team's head coach George Najjar and four of his assistant coaches. Rumor has it that a star senior running back on the Sayreville team, who had verbally committed to Penn State, was "removed from Penn State's commitment lists" after the news broke about his teammates.
Sayreville is a big-time high school football team. According to the New York Times, Najjar spent two decades leading the team, which has been to the state playoffs 18 consecutive times. On top of that, he's helped build "a proud fan base and an active booster club, the Sayreville Touchdown Club, which earned more than $244,000 through merchandise sales and donations from 2008 to 2012, according to tax documents," which leaves one to wonder about additional revenue like ticket sales. In New Jersey, as in nearly every state in the U.S., battles over funding for schools is an acute problem and for a single sports program to bring in the equivalent of $140 per student is no small thing (roughly 1,700 students attend Sayreville).
It's no secret that some high school football programs have elite standing in their communities and/or are big financial draws. Allen High School in Texas made national news earlier this year when its new $60 million stadium was shut down to repair cracks in the foundation. It was recently featured in a Dallas Observer post titled "The Five Best High School Football Stadiums in DFW." In central Florida, Plant City High School's football team recently partnered with Nike "to make a custom training shoe […] coated in Las Vegas gold with the school mascot panther's paws stamped around the school's name." The first 500 pairs of the $100 shoes sold out in 20 minutes. You can order your Steubenville (Ohio) Big Red football sweats and hoodies directly from their online store,, download the Roll Red Roll football app to easily keep up with the team, or listen to Coach Reno's weekly radio show.
Of course, I brought up Steubenville for another reason. It is probably the most famous example of a high school football sexual assault case. Two players were eventually found guilty of rape and the town, the team, and the coach all received substantial scrutiny. But it is not as if Steubenville or Sayreville stand alone on this sad list. This time last year, Maryville, Missouri grabbed the national spotlight when the home of a girl who had accused a local football star of sexual assault was burnt to the ground. That was hardly an isolated incident. If you look around at all, you'll find plenty of other examples:Glen Ridge High School in 1989, Mount Vernon High School in 2003, Mepham High School in 2004, and Silsbee High School and Robertson High School in 2008. At a moment in time when we are seeing these patterns of violence repeated in college and the NFL, it's hard not to recognize them early and, in turn, ask about solutions.
The Steubenville High School football field. Photo via VisitSteuvenville.org
Futures Without Violence (FWV), which works to end violence against women, children, and families, has created one possible solution: the program Coaching Boys Into Men (CBIM). CBIM started roughly 15 years ago with "coaching" used as a broad metaphor, the idea that any man could be a coach to a young man and could positively influence that boy's behavior in his relationships. In 2008, they launched the current version, in which mentoring is actually done by coaches, most of them high school (though the program can be scaled to fit a middle school or university program). In short, CBIM is a 12-week program (which matches the length of a typical high school sport season) during which the coach has or facilitates a 15-20 minute weekly discussion with his team about "respect, integrity, and non-violence," focusing specifically on dating violence but touching broadly on issues like gender-equitable attitudes. It's designed to invite men to be involved in the work being done to prevent violence because when FWV asks men if they are willing to be active role models in the lives of youth, they get an overwhelmingly positive response.
The program is free (you can download it right now) and so, according to Brian O'Connor, the director of Public Education Campaigns and Programs for FWV, it's hard to know exactly who is using it and in how many schools it is in, but they do know it's in all 50 states in some capacity. Beyond that, O'Connor says "we are in about 35 to 40 communities with an organized implementation," by which he means programs where the coaches are working directly "with our partners on the ground and support."
One such example can be found in Arlington, Texas, where Dallas Cowboy Jason Witten's foundation sponsors the program in high schools throughout the area.
It looks like the program does work. According to a randomized controlled trial published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2012, by the end of the sports season in which their coach did the CBIM program, the boys had "statistically significant increases" in their recognition of abusive behaviors and their intentions to intervene if they saw that behavior. CBIM was found to be "one promising strategy to reduce DV perpetration."
Yet, it is just one strategy and its scope is limited. O'Connor says that it works best in cases when the implementation of the program is voluntary, not mandated. A big reason for this is that coaches, like all staff in public education, are strapped for time and so those who are "on board because they see the value and think [CBIM] is important" are more likely to spend the necessary time on it. The logic is solid: you don't want men teaching boys about respecting their intimate partners if the coaches are doing it begrudgingly, with resentment, or partially. You can't half-ass equality. At the same time, that means that CBIM is no panacea, especially when we are looking at programs like Sayreville, Steubenville, or Maryville. What about the boys who might need it the most?
This dovetails with my greatest concern about CBIM and one I addressed with O'Connor: Can you really trust coaches to educate these boys on this particular topic, the very men who are products themselves of the system that CBIM is trying to change? We now live in a post-Sandusky world where we know that coaches, as much as anyone, can perpetrate dangerous and violent sexual behavior themselves, not to mention encourage (or at least not discourage) the sort of misogyny and homophobia that plagues the taunting language of sports. O'Connor says that CBIM is about meeting coaches and players where they are right now in this moment: "These coaches are already in leadership positions and already have influence over these boys, strong influence both positively and negatively." And so, O'Connor says, when he is trying to convince coaches to take up the CBIM mantle, he pointedly tells them that "everyday they have a chance to affect these boys" and that with the help of this program, they can choose for that effect to be positive.
Essentially, CBIM is a program that is working to slowly change the system from the inside. A respectable goal, one that appears to be attainable on a small scale in spaces where CBIM is voluntarily implemented. And yet, when you see cases like Sayreville, it is hard not to crave a blowtorch that can burn everything down instead of a bunch of matches that can burn away tiny pieces at a time. O'Connor reminds us, though, in these moments of frustration, that it's the success stories that "don't make the headlines." Here's to less headlines.