On October 10, seven football players from Sayreville War Memorial High School in Sayreville, NJ, were charged in sexual assault and hazing allegations that made national headlines. The teens, who haven't been publicly identified, are accused of several monstrous acts which allegedly took place in the football team's locker room. A parent of one of the victims was the first to come forward a few days prior to publicly discuss the abuse.
"It came without warning," an anonymous parent told NJ.com. They described how their son told them a senior would make a howling noise. All the lights would go out. Then, "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," the parent continued. Since then, players have made additional reports of kicking, punching, and groping.
The team and its coaching staff are already facing serious consequences. Sayreville Superintendent of Schools Richard Labbe canceled the remainder of the football season on October 6. Though the students who were arrested are minors (ranging in age from 15 to 17) they may be tried as adults.
As a result, the cheerleading squad and marching band have a Friday-night-sized hole in their schedules. Myles Hartsfield, a player who hasn't been named as part of the hazing, lost his athletic scholarship to Penn State, as the university, which has its own history with sexual assault, attempts to distance itself from further criticism.
For those born-and-bred in the New Jersey town, the canceled program is a crippling loss. Sayreville councilman David McGill told The New York Times, "It's a town that lives on Friday night lights; it was something for everyone to enjoy." And, the Sayreville Bombers had a serious record. The football team has won the past three out of four state championships. Coach George Najjar was recently inducted into the New Jersey Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Many of the school's employees, like its band director, are SWM graduates. So, when you're talking about the football program, you're talking about a cornerstone of Sayreville.
Almost immediately following the scandal's revelation, we saw Sayreville enter a familiar pattern of a community in mourning. The town held a vigil for its victims. Facebook groups like Sayreville Stay Strong and Support Sayreville Victims Start The Healing formed. The community held a pickup game for students who are missing out — some might say unfairly — on an entire season. On October 20, the coaching staff was suspended, albeit with pay.
Despite all the local efforts to handle the situation and move forward, there's little interest discussion with anyone outside the community. Indeed, a trip to the town revealed that if you do want to talk about the program and its scandal, suddenly the conversation stops.
The only real way to gauge the town's response to the sexual assault scandal is through online discussions between Sayreville residents, parents, and alums — namely on Facebook and Twitter. Most are supportive of players and victims. Few criticize the coaching staff. Here's what the conversations look like:
The anonymous group administrator of War Heads — whose name is a play on the high school's name — wrote on October 11, "These 7 individuals lack the commitment and character that the coaches stress to them day in and day out, and did not conduct themselves as Bombers should. Real Bombers have a bond of brotherhood that lasts a lifetime and would defend each other as they do on the field. These boys do not deserve the Bomber title.” The Sayreville Strong administrator wrote on October 8, "We weep. Not for our football team, but for the victims."
Twitter user @_Veintidos, who claims to be a varsity football player, has been tweeting that everyone ought to mind their own business. He blames the "nosey" community for the canceled football season. Still, despite his frustrations, he expresses solidarity. "Love my coaching staff #SayrevilleFootball #SayrevilleStrong," he tweeted on October 19. The group Support Coach Najjar & The Sayreville Bomber Football Program calls for the reinstatement of the coach. A petition for him has almost 900 signatures as of this writing. There are countless posts and testimonials to vouch for Coach Najjar's character.
For as vocal as it gets in the digital realm about the sexual assault scandal, Sayreville's remarkably silent in real life. A walk through SWM's halls is eerily quiet, as if I'd been there after hours. (I was granted a brief tour around 1 p.m. last Tuesday.) Two other journalists were trying to locate the high school's yearbooks. The main office at SWM told them it was at the Sayreville Library. The librarian there directed them back to SWM. I saw a Wall Street Journal reporter escorted off the SWM campus by police.
The conversation about the scandal is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. It's in the whisperings at Frankie's Pizza. "They wanna shut down the program for four years. What are the younger kids supposed to do?" It lives in the conversations of patrons on their way into the Sayreville Library. "They put their fingers in those kids' asses and then in their mouths? That's disgusting," said one patron. "Yeah, but we don't even know if that really happened," answered her companion. It exists within the Sayreville-decal-decorated cars, but not outside of them. Seventeen messages to SWM students, SWM alums, and organizers of community events went unanswered.
Those who live in neighboring towns to Sayreville couldn't even tell me anything about the town itself, nor the people who live there. "All I can tell you is it's come a long way as a working-class community," a law professor from Rutgers told me when I arrived in New Brunswick on my way to the tarnished town. Multiple requests to friends and contacts from the surrounding areas responded with their regrets — they may have driven through the town, but they never had any business there.
If Sayreville was so insular before the scandal, this situation has only made it more of a closed circle. In a way, their silence is understandable. And, it's easy for a town that's become the target of national news to bond over their common enemy — the media. The administrator of the Facebook group Support Sayreville Victims Start The Healing wrote on October 15, "My thoughts are let's stop talking to the media for many reasons but most of all these poor young men are reliving this over and over again we need to help them and this community move forward."
John Kimbrough, a member of the group, replied, "It seems to me that the media will continue to make inquiries regarding this sad situation. Perhaps if this keeps up, a group of those who are being contacted could meet with one or two or three pool reporters to discuss the situation." But, his suggestion was met with little support.
As the town prepares for its Board of Education meeting tonight, the community remains protective and unified. The War Heads administrator has taken initiative for previous meetings to bring together supporters. On October 6, group members received instructions: "All participants meet at the auto shop at the high school nearest the parking lot entrance and school drive at 6pm. We will go as a big blue family. More details TBA. #bombsaway #unitedwestand." In a town blinded by its loyalty to the football program, residents are choosing to exclude outsiders from the situation for as long as they can. As War Heads group member Cheryl Sandstrom wrote, "Silence is golden. It is better than repeating 'no comment.'"