by Rebecca Stotsky, Sports Editor, and John Timko, Sports Reporter
photo by Olivia Wong
As South’s football team departed their Oct. 22 game against Boston Latin, with a 24-6 win, nothing was out of the ordinary. The team settled into their seats with excitement, playing music to celebrate the win. However, the environment suddenly changed when the music became too loud and distracting for the bus driver, and the assistant coach responded to the bus driver’s request for the players to turn off the music. When referring to the music, the coach used a racial slur.
Principal Stras sent an email to students and families the next day, stating that the assistant coach’s language was “unacceptable, inexcusable and will not be tolerated at Newton South.” Stras added that any language that racially targets and threatens the emotional safety of anyone in the South community violates the school’s core values. The assistant coach was fired on Oct. 23.
The incident adds to a growing list of similar incidents involving racist language on high school football teams around Massachusetts, including Georgetown High School, Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood and St. John Paul II School in Hyannis.
Senior football co-captain Roberto Figuereo said that he was taken aback by the assistant coach’s racially charged language.
“I was shocked, and it was like, ‘did he really just say that?’ It was like, ‘woah what just happened,’ and I was angry,” he said.
Similarly, junior and football player John Toyias, said that the coach’s use of the hurtful language shocked him given the relationship the team had been building with the assistant coach.
“We were building that trust with him and then when he said that, it was just very confusing,” Toyias said.
His teammate junior Zezo Beshir said that when asking for the music to be turned down, the language the assistant coach used was unnecessary.
“After a win, you should be celebrating that rather than focusing on the music,” he said. “If he didn’t want it playing, saying, ‘would you turn down the music?’ is just as adequate.”
Junior and South senator Wasan Rafat said that there are lasting impacts to racially charged language.
“Once the words have already been said, it’s already hurt people. You can’t take the word back,” she said.
Rafat is a member of South Senate’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee, which works to address instances of racism and implicit bias in the community and the school curriculum. She said that the concept of DEI goes beyond sports, and that making South’s curriculum more diverse is a good first step in the right direction.
On Oct. 27, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) Board of Directors implemented the National Federation of State High School Associations Implicit Bias course, a program that educates people on implicit biases in sports, school and beyond and how to be aware of them.
The board also instated the MIAA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Pledge, which prohibits hurtful or discriminatory language or actions towards others. Henceforth, all student-athletes, coaches and athletic directors must take the Implicit Bias course and the DEI Pledge every year.
Senior football co-captain Patrick Sullivan said that these measures are a solid step forward towards preventing similar incidents in the future.
“Whatever prevents things like this from happening to other people, I’m all for it, because this is just a terrible situation,” Sullivan said. “I don’t want anyone else to ever have to go through that again.”
Despite the incident, the next week, the team displayed their camaraderie and strength in a 20-14 win over Cambridge Rindge and Latin, Toyias said.
“We were battling through adversity with our coaching staff, and we still managed to become unified as a team through the trouble and ended up winning,” he said.
Beshir said the team’s increased unity helped raise the team’s competition level and confidence as they continued through the season.
“Right before those games, you can see the mood of everybody switch from feeling like ‘this is a game that we just have to go out and play’ to ‘this is an opportunity for us to win and prove that we earned this, and it wasn’t the coach,’” he said. “It was us that made the team.”
Beshir said that the community element of the team was a key factor in overcoming the emotional challenges.
“In football, especially, having that bond with your teammates is crucial to being a good team. Having that to begin with is what helped us get through,” he said.
Figuereo said that the incident made him cherish the support of his teammates more than ever.
One of the most important qualities of the team is that they can always rely on each other and will always give their all, Beshir said.
“When we go out there on the field, it’s 11 kids who want to compete and want to get better. [They] are willing to take on those challenges or take on teams that think we’re bad or think that we can’t do it,” he said. “Having 10 other people besides you that believe the same thing you do and are willing to fight for that is really important.”