Mike Slaughter wonders what it says about society when a football coach does the right thing and it gets treated like a big deal.
Congratulatory letters, faxes, and cards are pouring into his office at Marquette Catholic in Alton, Ill. Radio stations and newspapers are calling from New York to Los Angeles.
He's been coaching high school football in obscurity for 25 years and suddenly he's a hero because he had the guts to suspend 16 starters arrested for underage drinking at a house party.
It would be nice, though perhaps naive, to believe that every coach in the country would act the same way Slaughter did, especially in his circumstances -- the team 10-0 and poised to challenge for the school's first state championship.
This was his ''once-in-a-lifetime'' team, but the way Slaughter saw it, the way any coach should, is that he had no choice except to suspend the players, one of them his own son.
''It boils down to accountability,'' Slaughter says. ''It doesn't matter if they drank half a beer or a six-pack, they still broke the rules. I always told my boys that you get in trouble with alcohol, tobacco, drugs, I will suspend you from the team.''
The lesson hit home for the players when they stood on the sideline the weekend before last, watching their teammates take a 63-0 pounding that ended their season.
''The players know they threw away a prime opportunity to make some history,'' Slaughter says. ''They will be bothered by this for the rest of their lives. I feel sad for my son because I know that five, 10, 20 years from now he will always remember that he and his teammates ended the season under this cloud.
''For me, this was very sad. It tore me up. I'll always feel a sense of hurt and betrayal.''
There have been other coaches, other communities that have attached more importance to victory than following the rules. Offenses far worse than drinking a little beer have been swept aside, punishment postponed or ignored, in pursuit of championships. For Slaughter and the parents at Marquette, that wouldn't stand.
On the night of the party, Slaughter was called to the sheriff's office to pick up his son, a halfback celebrating his 18th birthday.
''He was very apologetic, very embarrassed,'' Slaughter says. ''The biggest humiliation came in having to look his father, who is also his head football coach, in the eyes. On the way home, I said to him, 'Son, all I can tell you is you messed up. I'll always love you, but you need to learn from this.'''
Slaughter told the suspended players that they didn't have to come to the next playoff game or suit up because he didn't want to hold them up to further humiliation. But they all came, dressed, and rooted for their struggling teammates.
''It began the healing process,'' Slaughter says. ''It gave these kids a chance to start making amends and start facing up to what happened and go out like men.''
At the end, the players took off their helmets and held them to the sky as they had in victory, then went charging up the stairs to the locker room while the crowd of 1,300 gave them a standing ovation.
''The applause, the remarks from people, it was overwhelming,'' Slaughter says. ''These kids had tears in their eyes, partly because of what had gone on but also because of the positive attitude that we got from the Marquette community.
''This could have been any high school in America. Drinking is a problem in a lot of schools. These were good kids. They made a mistake. They know that. They just needed to be taught a lesson in responsibility.''
Some have suggested that the punishment, even the arrests at the house of a student whose parents were in Hawaii, were excessive, that the officers could have let them off with a reprimand.
''My attitude was no, they couldn't, and no, they shouldn't,'' Slaughter says. ''If this party would have been allowed to continue or these kids would have been stumbling, fumbling, bumbling drunk, there were so many that surely a lot of them would have been driving home.''
Slaughter had gotten several phone calls over the years, telling him someone had gotten killed while driving drunk.
''To a parent, that's the biggest fear in our lives,'' he says. ''I told my son that at least I wasn't coming down to a morgue to identify his body. It could have been worse.''
Slaughter can't understand why anybody, knowing how serious teenage drinking can be, would suggest that he could have done anything less than suspend his players, no matter what the stakes were on the field.
''It's strange,'' he says, ''that we get this much publicity for doing what we consider the right thing.''
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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