St. Paul's receives a healing hand

Lacrosse: Mitch Whiteley guides his players through life's larger lessons in the aftermath of controversy.

April 12, 2001|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

The St. Paul's lacrosse team had just come from behind to beat Gilman, 11-4. In his post-game speech, Crusaders coach Mitch Whiteley hit on a familiar theme.

"We're starting to come together, starting to play well," Whiteley said in the St. Paul's huddle. Then he repeated what he has said after many Friday afternoon games: "How well we do this year is not going to be determined so much on the field as off the field, particularly on the weekends, and what you do and how you stick together and the decisions you make."

It was 6 p.m. on Friday, March 23.

"By 7:30, a kid in our program had made this tape which was about to bring down this program," Whiteley said.

A 16-year-old player on the St. Paul's junior varsity secretly videotaped himself having sex with a 15-year-old girl and then showed the tape to teammates.

Over the next few days, as the story rocked Baltimore's private school community, the boy who made the video was expelled and two others were suspended for two weeks. Whiteley and other school officials investigated the incident, and on April 3, they announced the school was canceling the rest of the lacrosse season.

"From the moment that videotape went into the machine, the dreams ended for the season we thought we could have," Whiteley said. The Crusaders were the nation's No. 1 team in Inside Lacrosse magazine's preseason rankings.

When news of the scandal first broke, Whiteley said he held every player who viewed the tape accountable, because no one stood up and said it was wrong. No one stood up and pushed the eject button. He declined to comment during the investigation and what he called "a media feeding frenzy [Sports Illustrated, HBO and NBC inquired about the incident] that raged out of control."

Late last week, however, he agreed to an interview. Wearing a suit and tie that befit his roles as assistant principal, college guidance counselor and history teacher, Whiteley, 49, sat at a long table in the boardroom of the Brooklandwood Mansion, the school's administration building. His words flowed as easily as the steady rain outside.

The players who viewed the tape were "brought down by that fatal flaw which is there in so many adolescents," he said, "the inability, really, to think past themselves and the immediate. I realize there were pressures from a variety of directions for the kids to act the way they did. There really wasn't much thinking beyond what they were doing and the immediate situation at hand - that was the tragic flaw.

"Overall, these are good kids, and I'll stand behind them, no matter what," Whiteley said. "I'd put these kids up against anybody - and yet, look what they did. Sometimes, people say, `You have so much influence over my children.' But we can kid ourselves when we talk about who really has an effect on these kids. I never considered myself old-fashioned, but when you consider what is acceptable behavior to these kids - boys and girls across the board - it's mind-boggling."

Standing on principle

Whiteley's willingness to sacrifice the season didn't surprise those who know him.

"The cost to him, personally ... the team, a possible championship, were all disappointments," said St. Paul's principal Christopher Dorrance, who has worked with Whiteley for six years. "He's somebody that the kids like and respect, and yet he's often in position to be the disciplinarian. The bigger the issue, the clearer Mitch is in his principles."

Ben Strutt played for Whiteley on the teams that won back-to-back Maryland Scholastic Association titles in 1991 and 1992. Now a first-year assistant coach at Princeton, Strutt spent the previous three seasons as an assistant at St. Paul's.

"That's Mitch; he really believes what he's telling the kids," said Strutt, 25. "You start to see where he has to be the educator and cares more about kids as people, more so than as lacrosse stars. ... I know the kids on the team, and I think a lot of them just forgot that this is not a right, playing lacrosse, but a privilege. But if they find themselves in that position again, every one of them will be that more likely to be the first to push the eject button - and that's 100 times more important than winning a lacrosse championship."

Whiteley has coached lacrosse at St. Paul's for 20 seasons. He grew up in Towson, was an All-Metro goalie at McDonogh and thrice earned All-Ivy League honors at Dartmouth. He and his wife of 25 years, Jackie, have three daughters - 9, 11 and 13 - and a son, Tim, who starred at St. Paul's and went on to become an All-America attackman at the University of Virginia.

"I think Mitch felt betrayed, initially, because he's always worked to instill loyalty and integrity in his players," said Jackie Whiteley, a public school counselor in Baltimore County. "He was upset by all the negative press, comments from people who don't know his philosophy and what he tried to overcome.

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