St. Paul's makes right choice

April 04, 2001|By Susan Reimer

ST. PAUL'S SCHOOL has shut down its varsity lacrosse season after learning that one of its own secretly videotaped himself having sex with a 15-year-old girl and then showed the tape at a team meeting attended by most of the players.

It was the right choice, the only choice, but one that lesser men might have tried to avoid making.

The offending student - a junior varsity player - was expelled and those who watched the video have been suspended for three days. That was the minimum acceptable response to a horrendous act.

But by suspending this vaunted program for the entire season, jeopardizing the Division I athletic futures of at least 11 players and the hopes of many others, St. Paul's has sent a message that the jock culture of omnipotence and entitlement that allowed this to happen will be, at least for this year, disbanded.

What of the blameless few, the ones who reportedly did not attend the video showing, for whatever reason?

Their season has ended, too.

If St. Paul's had won a championship at the end of this season, each of those boys would have had his name on the trophy, whether he started or warmed the bench. And the coach would have praised even the weakest player for his contribution to the team goal.

Every member of that team would have been on the podium if St. Paul's had won. Every member must take the fall now. Each bears some responsibility for the pack mentality that allowed this to happen. No one is blameless. Only by such drastic action does St. Paul's escape the conclusion that its players had been cut a break, that its powerful parents had prevailed on the administration.

While the turmoil continues at St. Paul's, coaches, teachers and parents all over the region are using this as a "teachable moment."

More like a "learnable moment," for adults, I think, who are realizing to their horror this is yet another conversation we didn't know we needed to have with our kids: It is wrong to videotape yourself having sex with a minor girl and then entertain your friends with the results. This must be the follow-up conversation to: Oral sex is an act of greater, not lesser, sexual intimacy. It is wrong to use it as a '90s version of spin the bottle. That's one of the other conversations we were shocked to learn we had to have - with our middle-schoolers, no less.

Putting aside for the moment that this incident is less the opportunity for thoughtful moral instruction than it is for booming, sputtering moral outrage, it strikes me that if we have to have this conversation with our 16- and 17-year-old boys, we have failed to have a lot of other conversations.

If there is a lesson here, it is this: Our young people - and particularly our young, male athletes - are capable of anything when in a pack, and their parents, teachers and coaches must be ever vigilant.

Whether it be sexual assault on a girl or an arson rampage after a disappointing basketball loss, the power of the group is overwhelming for our children, and it takes tremendous courage and maturity to separate from the group or criticize it from within.

And this is particularly true of elite athletes, who believe that their standing in a community that overvalues sports insulates them from any consequences.

We allow feelings of omnipotence and entitlement to grow unchecked in these special kids, and then we are surprised when they behave as if the rules do not apply to them. It is particularly reprehensible when gifted male athletes abuse women, and that is often where their power trip takes them.

And that mentality appears to have taken hold at St. Paul's, where a place on a nationally ranked lacrosse team is the highest station to which a young man can aspire. The sense of privilege and the desire to be accepted by the group trumped human decency in those players.

There was only one acceptable consequence, and the school, to its credit, made the right choice.

Any further attempt by administrators to pick through the alibis, excuses, and half-truths in an effort to establish varying degrees of guilt would have been a waste of time and a further injustice.

Only by canceling the season do the players, and all the athletes who witness their suffering, realize that there is a high price to be paid for such horrendous behavior.

And the athletes will pay that price, too.

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