Here’s the thing about high school football, and really, about all high school sports. Most of the kids who play them aren’t going to end up as professional athletes. But all of them, God willing, are going to end up as responsible adults, ones who will have benefited from being part of a team, where they worked together toward a common goal, where they won and lost with equal grace, where they formed bonds of friendship that last a lifetime.
In other words, where they learned, not just about a game but about life.
Because sports, when done right, double as some of life’s greatest classrooms, teaching these living, breathing lessons in everything from the value of hard work to perseverance during hard times.
Which is why the Duxbury High School football story is so singularly awful. It made a mockery of the educational mission that should be at its core, so much so that it’s still difficult to believe it really happened. In allowing players to use anti-Semitic words such as “Auschwitz” for its audible play calls, Duxbury betrayed itself and whatever educational mission the town’s school system purports to have.
“I try to think for myself, if I was sitting on the bleachers watching a game like that and hearing that, I would have doubted that I was actually even hearing it correctly it is so offensive,” Karen Spilka said over the telephone Friday, an afternoon break from her work as Massachusetts State Senate president bringing up the same tangle of emotions she has wrestled all week.
“I lost a lot of my family in the Holocaust and a lot of relatives in Auschwitz and the other concentration camps,” she said. “I think it really does heighten the fact that we need to teach our kids about genocide and bigotry and that words do matter, whether it be for religious reasons, ethnicity, color of a person’s skin, for whatever it is. We need to make sure our kids understand what these words mean.”
Spilka will never forget. Her late father, Sydney Spilka, served in the Army in World War II. He helped liberate the Nazi death camp in Buchenwald, and though he rarely spoke of the experience, was scarred enough that his daughter remains convinced it contributed to his untimely death at age 58.
“I have pictures of my father’s being at Buchenwald concentration camp and liberating it, and to say they are heartbreaking doesn’t even touch upon it,” she said. “The prisoners that had been there were basically skin and bones. On the back of one of the pictures, my father’s handwriting appears and says, ‘This man is in his 20s, he looks closer to 80.’ And there were pictures of the gas chambers.
“I did not personally, firsthand experience it, but when I heard this story my mind immediately went to those pictures and I felt nauseous.”
The hows and whys of what happened in Duxbury remain under investigation, with voices from local activist groups to statewide lawmakers demanding answers. The first step in accountability came swiftly and justifiably, with the firing of the team’s head coach, Dave Maimaron. But firing one man is like snipping the head off a dandelion in the garden. Without pulling up the root, the weed will bloom again. That’s why the leaders of Shirat Hayam, a small Jewish congregation serving Duxbury and the surrounding towns, are also speaking up.
“To have a reference to that tragic time in history used so flippantly during gameplay is horrifying,” the board told the Globe in a statement on Friday. “We affirm that the actions taken so far by the Duxbury Public Schools administration have been appropriate. The initial evidence shows an ongoing, systemic failure to address this type of behavior. Words matter. Lack of intervention by both adult and youth leadership is downright unacceptable.”
There are so many questions still to be answered. How long has this been tolerated? What other objectionable words have the players used? Does it go beyond the anti-Semitic, as rumored, and include homophobic and racist words, too? Where are the adults who should have known better? What have these kids been learning (or not learning) in their classrooms?
“This wasn’t a one-and-done situation. From what I hear it had been ongoing for a while,” Spilka said. “And that is my question, and why I think it’s so important to do an investigation. Where were the referees, where were the officials, where were the parents and even fans? If you’re yelling out the plays, then you have to yell them, people hear them, voices carry. How long was this going on for?”
It is only with those answers that a path forward can be laid, with a full understanding of how much this culture needs to be changed.
As the temple’s board put it, “We are hopeful and confident that we can find the strength within ourselves to do what’s necessary to heal and move forward. We look forward to working with the community to make Duxbury a more welcoming place for all.”
As recently as Feb. 1, the town of Duxbury’s Select Board publicly adopted a statement that said it “is committed to ensuring that our town is a safe and welcoming community that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion. We unequivocally condemn discrimination in all its forms.” It ended with a promise to “educate ourselves, town employees, and town residents.”
That statement feels hollow now, but maybe it’s also cause for hope. There were people in town who recognized a problem and were looking for ways to solve it. Their foresight should have been heeded better, but at least it was there.
As Howard Cohen, the rabbi at Shirat Hayam, put it, “There are a lot of people in the community who are eager to organize other ways of speaking out against what happened and show support. The community is much more than that little ugly incident.”
One group called “Duxbury for all” posted two weekend rallies for support of the Jewish community on its website Friday. State Senator Barry Finegold, who played football at Andover High School and at Franklin and Marshall College, wrote an open letter to Duxbury that included an offer to meet. Perhaps Patriots star receiver Julian Edelman would do the same. Edelman has been a passionate advocate for open dialogue about the ignorance of anti-Semitism, recently posting his own open letter to then-Miami Heat player Meyers Leonard, who was heard on a livestream using an anti-Semitic term.
And Spilka and her fellow lawmakers are once again pushing their Bill SD. 1592, “An Act Concerning Genocide Education,” which was passed by the Senate last July but not by the state House of Representatives. The bill would fund an academic program for middle and high school students across Massachusetts, citing a 2018 statistic that 31 percent of Americans and 41 percent of millennials believe 2 million Jews or fewer died in the Holocaust (it was 6 million) and that 66 percent of millennials do not know what Auschwitz is.
“My hope is that we can get this bill on the governor’s desk,” Spilka said.
Changing hearts and minds is the challenge here, and it’s an enormous one. But sports has always been a great equalizer. Shame on Duxbury for allowing that to be so corrupted.