Jake Knop was about to join the Portland High football team as a freshman and he had some concerns — but not about playing.
“I had heard stories before about the past, people who had been in the school and how they had been hazed against,” he said. “I was a little concerned about the hazing at first.”
But Knop’s concerns were allayed almost instantly. First, he and his classmates walked into their own locker room. Portland has separate locker rooms for the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams and upperclassmen are not allowed in the freshman locker room. Then Portland coach Jim Hartman laid down the no-hazing-allowed talk at the first practice.
“It’s something you have to be vigilant about,” said Hartman.
Hazing and bullying have been in the nation’s sports spotlight since the Miami Dolphins last week suspended veteran guard Richie Incognito indefinitely. Incognito allegedly harassed and bullied teammate Jonathan Martin to the point that Martin left the team because of the emotional distress. The NFL is now investigating the incident.
High school and college football coaches and players throughout Maine strive to make sure such situations don’t occur here. Schools across the state have anti-hazing policies that are read to every athlete on every team at the start of every season.
“A kid who plays 12 seasons of athletics here hears that 12 times,” said Gary Stevens, the Thornton Academy athletic director.
Jack Cosgrove, the head football coach at the University of Maine, said his team does not differentiate between hazing and bullying. “Hazing can create a culture of unacceptable behavior,” he said. “It is a form of bullying.”
The Miami incident has teams talking, from the University of Maine to the hallways of Thornton Academy in Saco.
“When something like this happens,” said Kevin Kezal, the Thornton head coach, “we like to talk about it.”
And that, said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University, may be the most positive thing to come out of Miami. Bullying is a national problem, and not just in sports. According to www.bullyingstatistics.org, a website that collects and disseminates national data to aid in education about bullying and its prevention, about one in every seven students in grades K-12 is either being bullied or is a bully. And one-third of workers may be victims of workplace bullying.
“When you look at this, and what it does, there’s an awful lot to talk about,” said Lebowitz. “Because of the ubiquitous spotlight on sports and the 24-hour spotlight of television, this starts a national conversation on bullying. What needs to happen now is that we take this national conversation and make it an ongoing conversation on bullying.”
Lebowitz said that the situation in Miami escalated because no one stepped in. “Now we have to empower (people) to feel that they can (step in), to give them the tool set to do it,” he said.
Thornton Academy’s hazing policy — crafted by Stevens in 2000 while he was still an administrator at Bonny Eagle — outlines exactly what the school considers to be hazing activities. Each one could also be considered an example of bullying.
Kezal said it is important that the students understand exactly what is expected of them.
“It’s about educating the kids, but also about empathy,” said Kezal. “We tell the kids to put on the other kid’s shoes. You’ve got to understand his perceptions. You might not think it’s bullying, but if they perceive it as bullying, it’s a problem.”
Beyond that, coaches try to create a family atmosphere in their locker rooms.
“If you want to be successful,” said Kezal, “everyone has got to feel invited.”
“It’s all about being a good teammate,” said Dave Caputi, the head football coach at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. “Are you holding up your end of the bargain?”
Caputi said the Bowdoin coaching staff and captains monitor not only what’s happening on the field, but also the language that is used in the locker room. “If you don’t monitor the language, it’s often reflective of the behavior,” he said. That means no racial slurs, no sexual references, no threats. He also expects his players to represent the values of the community they are in.
Caputi called the Miami situation “a big deal on many levels. Bullying is a big deal from elementary school to junior high to high school.”
Captains play a huge role in monitoring the locker rooms. “They are the go-between for us and the locker room,” said Thornton’s Kezal.
Cody Lynn, a Thornton Academy senior end, said the captains try to handle any incident before it gets to the coach. “We all look out for one another and make sure we’ve got each other’s backs,” he said.
Portland’s Hartman has great trust in his captains’ ability to watch over the locker room. “When those kids speak, the other kids listen,” he said. “They have created a family atmosphere in our locker room and the kids take care of each other.”
Justin Zukowski, a Portland senior captain, added: “Anytime anything goes on, action has to be taken. But there’s not much that goes on here, we’re all pretty good friends and none of that has ever happened.”
Marcus Wasilewski, the University of Maine quarterback, said the violent and emotional nature of football can lead to confrontations between teammates. But you can’t let them escalate.
“There’s going to be confrontations,” he said. “There may be an argument between two guys. But if someone starts to go too far, someone will step in.
“The last thing you need during the season is a distraction like that. One of the reasons we are having so much success this year is that everyone cares about everyone else; we’re friends with everyone.”
Lebowitz, of the Center for Sport in Society, said the Miami situation opened eyes for a couple of reasons. First, it happened in the NFL. Second, it involved social media. Incognito allegedly sent racist and threatening text messages and voice messages to Martin.
“When we hear about bullying at the middle school or high school level, we’re often all too quick to dismiss it as something we all went through as kids and that kids should just toughen up and get through it,” he said. “But what we have here, in a visceral nature, is much more intense than what it used to be, with the advent of the Internet, the advent of voice mail, the advent of text messaging.
“Being bullied can be a 24-hour event now. It’s not just something that happens at recess and you can go home.”
Cosgrove isn’t surprised this happened in the NFL. “Not at all, based on some of the things our players (who went on to the NFL) indicated,” he said. “They had some tough first years. In our conversations, it was obvious some of the guys got into great situations, others not so great.”
Regardless, he said, what happened in Miami went beyond the typical rookie hazing, where first-year players are sometimes required to carry equipment or pay for lavish dinners.
“I’m more worried about the authoritative things, the demeaning things, that are done,” he said. “They have no place in our game.”
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:email@example.comTwitter: MikeLowePPH