Sports are all about numbers, and the numbers in the “game” being played out in Sayreville, N.J. are particularly brutal.
Seven: That’s the number of students who’ve been suspended from Sayreville War Memorial High School and charged with hazing and sexual assault. Four: That’s the number of teammate-victims and the number of incidents. Five: That's the number of coaches with tenured teaching positions who’ve been suspended (with pay pending the outcome of the investigation) and have seen their coaching stipends cut in half.
Numbers, however, never tell a whole story, and they can’t tell this one – of a season lost, of football scholarships rescinded, of futures in jeopardy and of a football-proud town divided between the victims and their supporters, who are seeking justice and truth, and the alleged perpetrators and theirs, who wish the whole thing would just go away so they can get back to lives lived under the Friday night lights.
It’s interesting that the school is named after a World War II memorial and the team is called the Bombers.
“Every game resembles war,” Mark Edmundson writes in his sharply observed new “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game” (The Penguin Press, $26.95). “Tennis, soccer lacrosse: You might say they all domesticate violence…. Of the games I know, football comes closest to war without falling over the border and becoming war pure and simple.”
There are those – including many who connect the dots between Sayreville and the NFL’s domestic abuse crisis – who say that football has crossed the line. The wives and children who’ve been beaten, along with freshman boys who were held down, kicked, punched and anally raped, are casualties of the gridiron wars.
But “Why Football Matters” suggests it’s possible to play the game aggressively, yet leave that aggression all on the field. And to illustrate this, Edmundson offers the contrasting warriors from “The Iliad” – the Trojan prince Hector, who can turn his warrior’s wrath off like a faucet and resume his mantle of thoughtful dignity, and the Greek hero Achilles, who knows only the warrior’s bloody heart.
“There is one problem with being Hector,” Edmundson knows. “Hector loses. Not only does he lose; he is humiliated and degraded.”
So is the answer to be an Achilles – all fierceness all the time? But then, Achilles’ fate is sealed – spoiler alert – the moment he kills Hector. In the Trojan War story that continues after “The Iliad” ends, Achilles is felled by Paris, Hector’s playboy kid bro (oh, the irony), and all because of the one part of his body that is not immortal – his heel.
We are each allotted, it seems, so many victories and so many defeats, so we might as well be competitive on the field and more humane off it. But given what we now know about football head injuries and dementia, which is characterized by violence, is it possible to turn football ferocity on and off?
It’s a question that Quinn Novak, the hero of my upcoming novel “In This Place You Hold Me” – part of “The Games Men Play” series – wrestles with as he visits the NFL’s violence on himself.
But given what has transpired in Sayreville, I would say the answer to the question is “No.”