Op-ed: Why can’t a private fight remain a private affair?
Editor’s Note: The following opinion piece was submitted to The Darien Times by Darien High School students WIll Pegler and Jack Tierney and published at their request.
This past Thanksgiving the Blue Wave Football team (that hadn’t lost a game in three seasons) was shut out by - in our opinion - a quite simply average New Canaan team. Everyone understands what transpired the night before the game and how it affected the outcome. Before we write anything else, though, we want to make it clear that we do not support fighting between New Canaan and Darien in any way, and understand that there was some very bad judgement exercised on both sides. What we do want to write about is this: the disrespectful handling of the situation by New Canaan players, parents, fans, and media; as well as the questionable timing of events that prevented three players from playing football on Thanksgiving Day.
Try to see it from the players’ perspective: they are Varsity football players at Darien High School who have dreamed since third grade DJFL of playing in the Turkey Bowl against arch rival New Canaan with thousands of people cheering them on. On the eve of this monumental game - the last Turkey Bowl for seniors - the team is told that three teammates will not be playing, including the team’s quarterback. Their Turkey Bowl is starting to look very different from how they dreamed it.
Further, the timing of the three players’ removal from the game resulted in a perception to some that all members of the Darien team were “criminals” and an embarrassment to the town. From posters and cheers, the New Canaan fanbase was apparently buying into that narrative. Why should all of these players who’ve done nothing but give all they can to a program — who have had their final Turkey Bowl changed for them on the night before — be called criminals?
Here’s what we do know: on the night of Nov. 6 at around 11:15 p.m. (17 days before the Turkey Bowl) there was an altercation between students from Darien and students from New Canaan. The altercation took place on Old Kings Highway in New Canaan. According to many witnesses, it was a consensual, albeit stupid, fight. Given that the fight occurred at private property and the evening’s events are under investigation, it is up to the judicial system to unravel the events of the night and to decide the culpability of those involved — it should not be up to the New Canaan fanbase to try the case out of court and jeer at the players who were on the field that day.
What raises the biggest question is the timing on the part of the New Canaan Police Department in its timing of calling in the three players. The incident took place on Nov. 6t and the warrants were not issued until the night — the night —before the game, November 22nd.
The New Canaan football team was 7-2 going into the Turkey Bowl game and were facing a sixth straight Turkey Bowl loss and needed to win this game in order to qualify for the state Class L playoffs. If the team lost, it would be the first time in 12 years that the Rams had not made the state playoff tournament. This game was a “must win” for New Canaan.
While probably far from the actual circumstances, it is difficult to think anything other than it was strategic that the New Canaan Police decided to exercise the arrest warrants on the eve of the Turkey Bowl, giving Darien no time to prepare and adjust its lineup. One wonders if the arrests would have been expedited or delayed further if the accused were not the quarterback and two other key players. Football fans know that quarterbacks are virtually irreplaceable, especially late in the season.
Further, the timing of the warrants seems designed to not only disrupt the team set-up but also to kill the team’s morale. The Darien team was not aware that the arrests would take place that night, and that game suspensions would follow.
It also seems that the New Canaan news media may have been alerted to the arrests.That evening, the NewCanaanite and the New Canaan Advertiser had two of the students’ mugshots up on their websites’ homepages. The fact that students from another town were made front page news seems insensitive and opportunistic at best. (Editor’s note:The New Canaan media received the press release and mug shots at the same time shortly after the arrests and published them at that time.)
There is also disagreement about whether or not Darien Public Schools was ever notified that three of its students were suspected of criminal acts and might be subjected to arrest. While New Canaan Police Leon Krolikowski released a statement saying that “Darien High School leadership” (as reported by the New Canaan Advertiser) was informed of what took place as early as Nov. 7, the day after the fight, Darien Superintendent Dr. Daniel Brenner responded in a statement that: “No one from the Darien High School Administration nor anyone on staff of the Darien School System had official information provided to them from the New Canaan Police Department concerning the alleged incident between certain Darien and New Canaan students prior to Wednesday night, Nov. 22 at 6:45 p.m., the eve of Thanksgiving.”
As support for our assertion that the timing of the arrests portrayed the entire Blue Wave football team as a disgrace is the behavior of many New Canaan fans. During the game, New Canaan students and fans brought with them posters of the DHS students’ mugshots, calling the Darien players criminals and convicts. This was a disrespectful act, both to the accused as well as to the innocent players on the field that day. Further, a New Canaan student put shirts on sale that read, “Catholics vs. Convicts”, portraying the New Canaan players as rule-following “saints” and Darien as the exact opposite. The shirts were unoriginal and unfunny, an obvious ripoff of the shirts made by Notre Dame students when they played Miami in 1988. The shirts, posters and chants were not designed to hearten the Rams but targeted the Blue Wave players in a disrespectful and unsportsmanlike manner.
What was also disturbing at the game itself was the treatment of the New Canaan student who was allegedly part of the fight and who was not charged with criminal actions stemming from the altercation. After New Canaan won the game, the team hoisted the student (who is not a player) up on its shoulders and called him the MVP of the game, almost as if he were the savior of the Rams’ season. The team took several pictures with the accuser showing him holding the trophy. This student was being treated as having played an active role in the New Canaan victory.
The ensuing drama between the two towns does not end with students’ behavior at the game itself. New Canaan residents and others are commenting on social media posts — at least one on a college recruiting page — emphasizing the students’ arrests and mentioning their alleged crimes. The way many residents of New Canaan have handled this controversy has been tactless and without merit, as many people were quick to listen to alleged events, then label all Darien players as criminals.
The timing of the issuing of the warrants we believe inflamed this reactionary behavior and gave both school districts no time to get in front of the disrespectful behavior of the New Canaan fans. The timing promoted the case to being front page news and incited members of the community to try the case outside of court via the rumor mill. Being students ourselves, we have always been told the basis of the justice system is built upon the ideal that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty. After watching this controversy play out, we have yet to see this inalienable right being practiced by many members of the New Canaan community.
The football season is now over. The Blue Wave, without two of its key players, won the Class LL State Championship. For those in surrounding towns, however, the “all Darien players are convicts” narrative has continued. Greenwich fans were seen sporting “Cardinals vs. Convicts” t-shirts at the championship game. It seems that the only people who did handle this fraught situation with any class are the Darien players themselves, who just went out and played football, fighting through hateful rhetoric coming at them from many angles. It’s without argument that this is the number one team in the state, on and off the field.
Even recently the state’s newspapers have spent time approaching this story from an angle that created more drama.This type of irresponsible journalism sets a precedent for other competing writers to blow up stories in order to gain sales or clicks. We wish the writers realized that these stories affect students’ morale and psyches. It is unfortunate that students’ private lives have become easy news.
Unlike celebrities, the members of the DHS student body are private citizens who have not sought out the limelight of public scrutiny. It seems appropriate at this time for the furor to die down, for the public at large’s attention to turn to more important matters, and to allow all students at DHS to enjoy the holidays free from unwarranted scrutiny and attention.