In response to repeated heckling during an away game last Thursday that was allegedly sexual in nature, the Hartford High School women’s football team (White River Junction, Vt.) Left the field with six minutes left. to play.
When the Hurricanes next entered the field two days later, they decided it was time for them to make their voices heard.
There were no individual presentations of the players; the young women chose to be presented as one.
Their opponent, Otter Valley Union High School (Brandon, Vt.), Chose to do the same. In the middle of the field, in a show of solidarity, they lined up and tied their arms, but the teams were not on either side of the halfway line. Players from both teams alternated and stood together.
Then a few of the top Hartford team leaders picked up microphones and addressed the crowd. They read a variation of a statement prepared by the school’s athletic board that was written on Friday.
Then, as they would with any game, and to complete the goal of their presence, both teams heard the national anthem – arms still locked – and they played the sport they love.
“Really, what it is – and this echoes the gymnastics scandal, figure skating scandals and the NWSL – girls and women should be able to participate in athletics without being sexualized in the same way as boys and men aren’t sexualized, “Hartford girls’ soccer coach Jeff Acker told USA TODAY Sports. “I’ve played soccer my whole life. I’ve never been sexualized by an opponent, by a fan, by a coach, by anyone. I was just a soccer player. Girls and women deserve the same opportunity at all levels, but certainly at high school level.
“This opportunity was taken by my children, simply because of their gender. It would never happen to a boy.”
Faced with the incident, this group of young women chose to use their voices and their platform to denounce these problems. And their strength stands out. State Representative Becca White tweeted that she was proud of the team and that “This is what bravery looks like.” It was after an influential leader and pastor of the Massachusetts Council of Churches tweeted about it. And the team is looking to change the system that allowed the alleged harassment to take place.
The alleged sexual comments came from the college section of Fair Haven Union High (Fair Haven, Vt), Acker said, in a 6-0 loss to Hartford on Thursday.
Acker said one player “was specifically singled out”, although other players were also targets of the alleged harassment.
Acker, however, didn’t know this was happening at the time; the bleachers of the Fair Haven field are on the other side of the field. Throughout the match, all Acker noticed was that the crowd was making noise during stoppages as the cheers generally subsided: balls going out of bounds, throw-ins, time before kicks. set pieces.
He noticed “that something was wrong”. The body language of his players was not what it normally would be, even in a rash.
Towards the end of the match, the player who had been targeted simply left the pitch during a break in the action. She had had enough. Acker sent an assistant coach to speak to the player.
The entire streak caught Acker off guard. A substitute wasn’t fully warmed up yet, so he was trying to manage the game and figure out who would replace the player. The assistant coach then went to Acker and told him what had happened. Acker said he immediately went to speak to the player, who confirmed what had been said “in just three words”.
He spent another minute trying to figure out which player to replace, when it hit him: sending another player would only make her a target of harassment as well.
Acker then realized that the only option would be to leave the field.
“I think we’re all worried,” Acker said. “They are getting all this support now, of course, and they need it. But what is the long term? What happens when the football season ends and everyone turns the page, but some of these girls just can’t turn the page? “
After Hartford left the field on Thursday night, they held a previously scheduled light practice Friday in preparation for Saturday’s game. During practice on Friday, Acker, Hartford sporting director Jeff Moreno and assistant manager Ben Gardner offered all players the forum to talk about the incident and discuss their thoughts and feelings, if they were interested. to share. The message the administrators gave was, “It is your choice how to respond. It is your ability to take back your power.”
That’s when they decided to read the statement in Saturday’s game.
“They are such resilient and amazing young women,” Moreno told USA TODAY Sports. “They deserve so much better than what the world is giving them right now. For me, that’s where the emotion came from, it hit me like a ton of bricks. We failed them. But here they are. , still sitting here, enjoying every moment and playing a game two days later with a smile on my face. “
If the young women of the team are the faces of this cause, they are also supported around them.
Ahead of Saturday’s game against Otter Valley, there was one more thing Acker wanted to do to send a message. At the end of the game his team withdrew from, he planned to insert three players who often don’t have replacement playing time because the score got out of hand.
These players never had the chance to play because of the retirement. On Saturday Acker made the three starters.
“It was my way of taking back my power to coach the team as I see fit because I wanted to do whatever I could to help these kids take back their power as best I could,” Acker said. “These three subs were cheated at that point and I was going to make sure they got it.”
Hartford won the game 3-1.
The Hartford boys’ football team actually had a game scheduled at Fair Haven on Friday, the day after the alleged harassment. After some discussion, the boys’ team was inclined not to travel. Some team leaders, however, realized that by not playing they would forgo a chance to use their platform.
Instead, they went to Fair Haven and read a variation of the statement written by the Athletic Board of Directors to the same crowd, on the same field.
“It’s important to recognize that it’s not just our world,” Moreno said of the boys and men offering their support. “If it starts to take hold of us, for us to notice it, how bad does it really have to be? It’s something I keep thinking about.”
Moreno said he was working with Fair Haven athletic director Kim Alexander to investigate how the alleged sexual comments got out of hand.
Messages left by USA TODAY Sports for Alexander were not returned, but she told the Rutland Herald that Fair Haven “takes these allegations and accusations very seriously.”
For his part, Moreno said he made it his own for not sending directors from Hartford to the Fair Haven game to help resolve any potential issues.
Hartford is scheduled to play at Mount Anthony Union High School (Bennington, Vt.) On Wednesday in his first road game since the alleged harassment. Moreno said players will continue to receive support. A senior from Hartford started a chapter of Hope Starts Here that focuses specifically on the issues of student-athletes. The women’s football team is also a team that has a social and emotional learning coach on its staff.
“In athletics, we are talking about tenacity,” Acker said. “Someone took a big hit and bounced back right away. It’s easy. It’s wrong hard. It’s really hard. Because the system doesn’t want to be changed. What I can tell you, that is, if we’re allowed to have any say in it, the Vermont high school athletics system will no longer allow it.
“You fight man, man defends himself. Man has resources, but we have voices.”