Marc Sawyer did something few educators do nowadays. He spoke from the heat of his heart when he resigned as Westbrook schools’ athletic director last weekend. He couldn’t continue in the position he once considered his dream job because of the “incestuous culture of the community, individuals placing their own needs ahead of the overall group.”
His words and others like them were harsh and damning. They carried the pain of a native son who had returned to his hometown to succeed, not to fail. He wanted to teach and guide student-athletes in a community that had experienced a rebirth of pride in its sports teams.
Then came the party last fall where alcohol was available to under-age kids, including those same student-athletes. Suspensions by Sawyer followed. Some were rescinded, and suddenly all suspensions were lifted by Principal Jon Ross, who believed the process was flawed.
It happened just in time for a football playoff game, and in time for six football players to be reinstated. A son of a school board member was among those initially suspended.
Sawyer, beginning his second year as athletic director, looked for support and guidance and found little.
An independent investigator later found flaws in Westbrook High School’s sports eligibility policy and the process of administering it. Westbrook became this school year’s example of what happens when student-athletes violate a policy and don’t pay the consequences. In Westbrook, the blame game had a life of its own.
After looking in the mirror long enough, Sawyer decided his community was no longer his home. He resigned.
Too bad the parents and residents with more clout and louder voices couldn’t find their own mirrors. They had a teaching moment last fall and failed to take advantage. They had the opportunity to keep a conscientious if inexperienced administrator from walking away. Sawyer wanted to give back to the community that raised him. He came face to face with strangers, instead.
“The community wanted my strike zone to be a little bigger,” Sawyer, a former baseball coach, told my colleague Leslie Bridgers, who first reported this story. Meaning, they wanted Sawyer to be a little more forgiving.
A drinking party with teenagers who happen to be high school players is a decades-old problem. Last fall, it was Westbrook’s problem. In the winter, it was Boothbay Regional High’s problem when six basketball players from its boys’ team were suspended for a week or so before the Western Maine tournament began.
I visited Boothbay Harbor in the morning before the team’s first game in the tournament. With the game to be played that night in Augusta, people told me they stood behind I.J. Pinkham, the coach who suspended his players.
Boothbay Regional was seeded second in the tournament. It had a good chance to reach the state final. Pinkham knew the cost of the suspensions. Playing with freshmen and sophomores brought up from the junior varsity, Boothbay was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
But that community understood the greater cost of winking at rules and becoming enablers. People made a point of saying they weren’t like Westbrook.
This spring or next fall, your community or mine might have the drinking party where rules and the law will be broken. You can’t look the other way.
Sawyer’s resignation and choice words should be the slap in the face Westbrook needs. They got the community’s attention this week. What happens next is important.
Will Sawyer become an afterthought when a new athletic director is named for the 2014-15 school year, or will his example provoke the silent majority to start acting together for the greater good?
I asked Gary Groves, the athletic director at Gray-New Gloucester High School and another son of Westbrook who went home to what he thought was his dream job as athletic director, more than 10 years ago.
There was a long silence at the other end of the phone call, punctuated by two attempts to say something. He finally sighed. He didn’t know.
Like most men and women who take on the thankless jobs of athletic directors, he lives for the teaching moments, or the moments when he can bring together different parts of the community through the excitement and joy of high school sports.
That’s their reward, not the salary that can break down to a few dollars for every hour they’re at the school.
“You want everybody in the community to have a piece (of the success),” said Groves.
He didn’t say that everyone should also share in the failure when teenagers break rules, but he could have.
Several days after Sawyer’s letter of resignation was opened, the heat from his heart had left him, replaced by disappointment and a certain sadness. We should be sad, too. A community fumbled its moment to teach.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: