Throwback Thursday: Not a football-related incident — really?

This is a column I wrote a couple of years ago for the Burlington Times-News about an incident that occurred in Alamance County back when I was a young sports writer in 1987. This involved something at a local high school and the actions of a coach and something he told me as if to explain his actions. This probably shaped my view on sports for the following 30 years. So this is an anniversary column of sorts.

—-

I’m not sure exactly when the call was put through to my desk. It could’ve been a Monday, maybe a Tuesday. Perhaps even Wednesday. Morning … afternoon … night — it all runs together after a while. I’m relatively certain it was in October, but it might’ve happened in early November.

It was most definitely and certainly football season though.

This was in 1987 after all. My memory is starting to get a little rusty. And besides, I had no idea this particular call would be what I now recognize as the official beginning of an end. I didn’t reach that conclusion until years later.

But I’m sure of one thing. I did get the call.

The person on the other end was a voice I recognized. It belonged to a teacher who worked in athletics for one of the high schools in Alamance County. He wasn’t a football coach, but like most involved in sports on that level, Friday nights are occupied with handling all the associated machinations that go into a high school football game. There’s more of everything when it comes to football — for good and bad.

At the time, though, I mostly associated it with the good.

In those days, I wanted to be a sports writer and was paying my dues. I covered mainly high school sports and had done so long enough to develop what we call sources in the news business. I knew people. They knew me, maybe even trusted me. Who knows for sure?

This particular caller began with some casual conversation. Then he posed the question he called to ask. “Did you hear about what happened before our game last Friday?”

I had not.

“Well, you really need to check into this,” he said, and added that the opposing team made a curious detour in the school’s activity bus on the way across the county to play the game. They stopped to pick up their star player who was in something of a jam.

“They took the whole busload of players to the county jail in Graham, and then (the coach) bailed the player out of jail and started him in the game,” the caller said. “Can you believe it?”

I had to admit I could not.

“What kind message does that send to kids?” he asked.

“A pretty sorry one,” I said.

I DECIDED THIS was a story that needed to be pursued, so I did.

The first thing I checked was the public record of arrests the Times-News publishes. Sure enough, the player’s name was in there. The charge was statutory rape. It involved a young girl from an orphanage in the community.

The next part was the one I dreaded. I had to call the coach and ask some direct and perhaps uncomfortable questions. I was raised by a woman who insisted on impeccable manners. I’d be the first to admit such training didn’t prepare me to be a hard-hitting journalist. It’s a career-long struggle.

The coach was one I knew fairly well. I was friendlier with some others. Oddly, that made me more hesitant. I decided the best thing to do was just blurt it out and get it over with.

So I did.

“Yes,” he responded without hesitation or hint that something might be amiss about it all.

I was the one who hesitated. “Did you think about sitting him out for the game, or down the road?”

“No,” he answered.

“But why?” I asked, a little surprised by how cut-and-dried this all seemed to be.

“Because it wasn’t a football-related incident,” he replied.

“Not  . . . a football-related incident,” I repeated. “Uhhhh, OK.”

It’s a phrase that still bounces around in my head from time to time. It did last week.

“Not a football-related incident.”

I left sports writing less than a year later.

THE STORY APPEARED without fanfare or complaint. I received not one question about it. No action came from school officials that I was ever aware of.

Things went on as before. In many ways, it was as if it never happened at all.

I didn’t use names here because after so many years it serves no purpose. But I remember them all. I looked up what happened to the player. After the cheering stopped, he was criminally charged multiple times over the years with everything from strong armed robbery to financial transaction card theft. In 2006, he was charged with statutory rape again, this time with a 15-year-old girl. Because no friendly coach was there to bail him out this time, a year later he remained a guest of the Alamance County jail. There he was charged with running a scam on an inmate who couldn’t speak English.

As for me, I never really looked at covering sports the same way again.

First, I made a mental note to start checking the daily arrest reports just in case high school athletes made the list. Needless to say, it wasn’t why I became a sports writer. But it became a part of the job anyway. By the fall of 1988, I decided to spend my time doing something else.

To be fair, I wasn’t so naive that I failed to understand there is legal due process to consider in such cases and a host of other variables. I was also aware that bad things happen in sports, as they do in every segment of society. But I also knew that there was something inherently sleazy about what occurred. That it did send an awful message. That it was indicative of a dangerous mindset regarding the games we watch, the people we cheer for and the standards we set as a society. I knew it would only grow worse.

It was wrong then, and it’s just as wrong today when the Carolina Panthers will likely suit up a player already convicted of domestic violence. He’ll be cheered by thousands.

“Not a football-related incident.”

Hardly. Everything’s related.

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