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Sunday, October 12, 2014

My take on the Sayreville nightmare

First things first about this entire Sayreville football horror story. There is no way in the world that veteran head coach George Najjar knew anything about the ongoing in the Sayreville locker room. Impossible.

I’ve known George for almost 20 years now and he’s about as professional and steadfast as they come in the coaching ranks. He’s been nothing but a strict disciplinarian since he arrived at Sayreville and it’s no coincidence that the program has been one of the most successful in the entire state for the last decade.

It’s almost certain that Najjar is going to get thrown under the bus for this entire mess, get blamed for not knowing what was going on. Some are even going as far as to saying that Najjar was a lot like Joe Paterno and turned a blind eye to it all _ which is definitely not the case. Others are saying that Najjar was involved in some sort of hazing when he was the coach of Lincoln High School in New York _ but there’s no way that could be tied to this disgusting mess.

Najjar did not condone such behavior and I’m willing to stake my entire reputation as a sportswriter that he knew nothing of the rituals at all. If he did, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have put a stop to it right away and punished those involved, regardless of their stature on the team.

I’ve spoken to two parents who requested anonymity, as well as two Sayreville officials and a law enforcement representative, all of whom have to remain anonymous for legal reasons, who have told me that the students charged with the sexual assaults already in the case are not the only ones involved.

In fact, there are as many as 15 upperclassmen who took part in the rituals that involved as many as eight freshmen. And that the younger players weren’t only brutalized with fingers, that pieces of fruit and vegetables, as well as other tools may have been used in the assaults.

So this is a story that is not going to go away anytime soon.

So were the powers-that-be in the Sayreville school district correct in dismantling the season? Absolutely. The parents that went to the Board of Education meeting last week to voice their displeasure about the decision had to be totally naïve to not agree with the decision or were just flat out stupid. How could anyone think about playing high school football when boys have been brutalized in such horrific manner?

There have been some who have come out to say that it was unfair to penalize the entire program for the ridiculous actions of just a few. Well, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office already had wind of the widespread abuse and knew that criminal charges were pending. Once the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office got involved, you knew that it was going to be extremely serious.

So the Board of Education and Superintendent Richard Labbe did the right thing by cancelling the rest of the season _ and maybe beyond. It would not be a stretch if the program takes a hit moving forward. Who’s to say that the penalties won’t extend into the winter sports, because a lot of these football players compete in other sports like basketball and wrestling in the winter months?

And anyone who thinks that they didn’t do the right thing, just wait until the indictments are handed down against the criminals who are of adult age. It seems as if as many as three of those involved are 18 years old, so they will be tried as adults.

Now, for the coverage of this story. New Jersey Advance Media and, the newly formed media conglomerate that has replaced the old school organizations the Newark Star-Ledger and Dorf Feature Services, has done a good job in gaining the information it has attained.

However, they actually had a reporter camped outside the home of Myles Hartsfield, the premier Sayreville player who has already given a commitment to Penn State. The reporter was there to see if Hartsfield would be led off in handcuffs, so he was parked outside the home, camera in hand, snapping pictures of the family vehicle and reporting every single tidbit of information that went on.

Now, this goes beyond the realm of simple reporting. What has sports writing become? TMZ East? Is that what sports journalists are going to be asked to do from now on, thanks to the pressures of social media, of Twitter, of Facebook and the rest? This wasn’t reporting. This was stalking.

The young man has not been charged, as this blog has been written. But because of this stalking incident, he’s already been implicated. Hell, he’s been tried and convicted before officially charged. If anything, his reputation has been severely tarnished by all of this. Who knows? He only has a verbal commitment to Penn State. Do you think that school, with everything that happened with Jerry Sandusky and that horror show, wants to welcome someone implicated with a similar type of horrific incident?

What editor in his right mind actually assigned this reporter, who is new to New Jersey high school sports, to do this kind of stalking work? Is this why this new reporter left Oregon, to come to New Jersey, and park himself outside of a player’s house. “At 10:15 p.m., Mr. Hartsfield was spotted walking the family dog.” C’mon now.

It’s bad enough that the lead reporter in this case has had a reputation of misleading interview subjects, saying that he’s writing about one thing, then writes another one altogether.

He did it to gain entrance into North Bergen High School two years ago when the Star-Ledger was investigating the recruiting allegations against legendary coach Vince Ascolese, saying that he was writing a positive story about Ascolese’s career, when in fact, he was set to take down the legend’s career.

And he did it recently when he wrote about St. Peter’s Prep standout Minkah Fitzpatrick’s almost departure to Paramus Catholic in 2013, telling Prep head coach Rich Hansen he was writing about recruiting in general and not Fitzpatrick and instead stirred up a kettle of fish that really didn’t serve a purpose because it was now a moot point.

But all of that gets away from the real crux of this story: What in the world possessed these punks to even think of doing something to their own teammates? Is that fun? Is it a sense of power? A sense of superiority? It’s just sickening to think that kids would have such thoughts in their minds. To stick something like a finger or a broom handle and shove it up a kid’s rectum as he is being held down in fear, then take that finger or handle and put it in his mouth? Who in the world is that sick and tormented?

I was part of locker room hi-jinks in my day. It usually meant slapping wet towels on someone’s bare bottom or putting shaving cream or baby powder in one’s locker. I was personally subjected to scorn and ridicule as a freshman, because I had not yet matured physically and the older seniors laughed and pointed that out to everyone, calling me a eunuch because I had yet to grow pubic hair. Because of it, I made sure I showered when no one else was remotely around me.

That was embarrassing in itself.

Well, can you begin to imagine what is going on in the minds of the freshmen at Sayreville, both those who were physically abused and the others who were in fear of going in the locker room, waiting for the lights to get turned off? How about the ones now who are being investigated? They’re being asked to point fingers on their teammates, classmates. How about the ones who didn’t do anything themselves, but knew about it? They’re also being asked to be basically stool pigeons. How do they go back to that school just to study, never mind being an athlete?

I’m hoping that the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office and the Sayreville police conduct a thorough investigation and prosecute these deranged criminals to the fullest extent of the law. And I hope that the adults involved, those who are 18, get prison sentences with no leniency.

It’s a shame that George Najjar will be made the scapegoat for all of this. He’s more than likely going to lose his job over it and it’s just not fair, because there’s no way he knew about it and definitely would never condone such behavior in the locker room.

One thing is sure about this. The NJSIAA will enforce laws that will require at least one coach to remain in the locker rooms until the last athlete has showered and left, that the last one in the room will be a responsible adult. The coach will be the one to turn out the lights.

In the past, coaches left that responsibility with a team captain. Unfortunately, that responsibility will no longer be left in any student’s hands in New Jersey. That’s the one change that will come from all of this horror show in Sayreville.

But be rest assured: The story is far from over in Sayreville. In some cases, the story has just begun to be properly told _ and it’s one that has to be told in its entirety with no rush to judgment in the process.