On John Jay High School Football And The ‘Friday Night Lights’ Mythology
Over the weekend, a referee was targeted and tackled by high school players. Does Texas have a football problem?
Friday night’s John Jay-Marble Falls football game made national news after two Jay players targeted and tackled referee Robert Watts from behind. The video of the attack, which is maybe the clearest example of an assault on a game official that you’ll ever find, has been viewed nearly ten million times.
The incident is shocking, but not only for its brutality. The uniformed San Antonio high school players hit Watts mid-game and while his back was turned, a move universally recognized as cowardly even if the boys hadn’t been larger, younger, stronger, and faster. Perhaps more upsetting, though, is that it was coordinated. One player knocking a ref down while in pursuit might be a rogue kid acting on his own. Two players spearing a man then hitting him again while he’s down takes coordination. And perhaps not just from the players.
The many people who suspected the attack was ordered from the sidelines have more reason to believe that’s true: John Jay suspended 29-year-old assistant coach Mack Breed Tuesday amidst allegations that he said something that could’ve provoked the attack. As the San Antonio Express-News reports:
Mack Breed, 29, will not be at Jay while the Northside Independent School District investigates his potential involvement in the event that has attracted national attention through video of the incident. The district made the announcement during a press conference Tuesday.
The district is also filing an official complaint to the Texas Association of Sports Officials (TASO) regarding alleged racial slurs directed toward Jay’s players by Robert Watts, the umpire who was hit in the final minute of last week’s game by senior Mike Moreno and sophomore Victor Rojas.
“The incident is shameful to us, and yet in no way does it reflect the work that goes on at John Jay High School,” NISD superintendent Brian Woods said.
Late in Friday’s loss, Mustangs players allege Breed said that Watts “needs to pay for cheating us.” Jay players were also frustrated by what they believed were bad calls by the officials, the district said.
There’ll be consequences for the sophomore and senior who tackled Watts. Indeed, John Jay High School may face consequences—the University Interscholastic League held a hearing Wednesday to discuss how to handle the aftermath. But talking about it solely in the context of John Jay High School, Mack Breed, and the boys who carried out the hit ignores some context that’s important in this discussion: Namely, that our Texas-bred Friday Night Lights mythology, which tells us that the discipline and brotherhood associated with football programs can turn boys into good young men, is showing a whole lot of cracks.
There’s an assumption that there’s a Friday Night Lights Coach Taylor at the helm of every football team—that coaches are men of good character who are determined to provide fatherly guidance to boys and young men who need it, and that football is the instrument by which they mold them. It’s an appealing myth. Certainly there are football players who need father figures, and when we see that play out—whether between Tim Riggins and Coach Taylor or Vince Young and Mack Brown—it reaffirms one of the things we love about sports. In that mythology, the outcome of the game doesn’t really matter. If coaches can make us better people, then the measure of success lies in learning to be a winner, believing that you can accomplish things you thought were impossible, trusting in the value of hard work, and being there for your teammates. All of that is what gives hoisting trophies its meaning.
But like all myths, it doesn’t hold up under closer examination. There’s a cultural assumption that just because we want coaches to be that sort of person, then that’s who they are. But coaches, just like all other people, are not all alike. Some of them are noble men with the best of intentions. Some are venal, cowardly bullies—and they are leading by example, too.
We’ve known for some time that there are coaches at all levels of the sport who tacitly tolerate violence, if they don’t outright excuse it. The “mold young boys into men” line was trotted out about Steubenville, Ohio high school football coach Reno Saccoccia even as he actively worked to keep players involved in a horrific gang rape on the field. At Baylor, head coach Art Briles kept Sam Ukwuachu on scholarship even after rape allegations against the player had been filed—making him the second Baylor player to be indicted and later convicted of sexual assault in two years under Briles’ watch. The Baylor coach chose to treat the allegations as “some issues.” In the NFL, former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh insisted that his team had a “zero tolerance” policy regarding violence against women while allowing Ray McDonald to suit up as a starter after he was arrested on domestic violence charges (McDonald was charged with rape last month).
The belief that Saccoccia, Briles, and Harbaugh are exceptions to a widespread rule leads parents to trust those coaches with their sons. We grant an inherent credibility to coaches, and its sometimes ill deserved. Cleveland Browns offensive line coach Andy Moeller was suspended by the team last week after being accused of rape—but until that accusation, Moeller was tasked with molding young men at Indiana, Army, Missouri, Michigan, and with the Baltimore Ravens.
All of this suggests that the two deeply contradictory images of football—a chance to learn about pride and discipline, but also a sport in which violence runs rampant—is, at least in part, a result of how we treat coaches. Watching what happened on Friday night, and considering the subsequent allegations that the coach said something that could’ve provoked players, it’s clear that we can’t afford to blindly buy into the myth that football coaches are all Coach Taylor when, too often, many of them are J.D. McCoy’s dad.
Those good coaches do exist. They always have. But if we’re going to give them credit for what happens when a kid with problems turns his life around—and we should—then we also need to be prepared to lay some blame for what becomes of the young men who are emboldened by the minimization, dismissal, or active encouragement of destructive and abusive behavior at the feet of their coaches. If that means that we regard the people who are imparting lessons on what it means to be a man to our boys with a great deal more suspicion, that just may be the consequence of what happens when your myths let you down.