In a couple of weeks, Lackawanna (N.Y.) High School Athletic Director Heidi Steckstor will begin hearing the sweet sounds of fall practices: shoulder pads crunching, volleyballs bouncing, cross country runners heading out for a run. But there will be one sound missing. Not one ball will sing through the air on the boys’ soccer field.
Last fall, unsportsmanlike conduct by the Lackawanna boys’ soccer team spurred administrators to go further than most in doling out penalties. They wiped the program’s 2007 varsity and j.v. seasons off the schedule. And while it’s been a tough and unpopular decision, administrators say it’s one they’d make again.
On Oct. 30, 2006, the Lackawanna varsity team played Akron High School, losing the match 3-2. After the final whistle, Lackawanna players began shouting obscenities at their coach, opposing players, and fans, and they accosted and verbally abused Steckstor. They assaulted an official and threatened his family before crossing the street to a parking lot near a senior citizens home, where they pounded their fists on cars and threatened the residents.
"A police officer who has provided our game security for 30 years said he had never seen anything like it," says Paul Hashem, Superintendent at Lackawanna. "It was unreal."
It was not, however, a complete surprise. "Unfortunately, this was the tip of the iceberg," Hashem says. "Problematic behavior by this team dates back to 2002. Our players have received more red and yellow cards over the past few seasons than all the other teams in our section combined."
Over the years, lesser sanctions had been applied. Individual players had been suspended from games, and a handful of games were canceled. Head Coach Abdusalam Noman had been warned to get his team under control.
After the Akron game, however, Hashem concluded the measures weren’t working. He talked with Steckstor about options and then drafted a resolution canceling the ’07 season and recommending a three-year probationary period once the program is reinstated. The school board unanimously approved the resolution, which included the j.v. team because its players’ behavior had followed a similar pattern and some had been involved in the Oct. 30 incident.
Criticism came quickly after the decision was announced. Community outcry called it overly harsh, and Noman publicly denounced it, saying only the players directly involved in the incident should have been punished. "We dealt with the criticism by simply telling the truth," Hashem says. "I met with any group that wanted to discuss it and explained to them the reasons for the decision—the fact that it wasn’t just a few players, and it wasn’t an isolated incident."
The resolution also thrust Hashem and Steckstor into the local media spotlight. "I was up front and honest and always returned reporters’ calls," Hashem says. "I felt it was better to get the facts out than to avoid the questions. That strategy worked well—they were appreciative of my willingness to talk and they had the information they needed to write accurate stories."
As contentious as any season cancellation would be, reaction to the decision was compounded by accusations of racism by some players and parents. Lackawanna has a large population of Yemeni immigrants, and the school’s soccer team is predominantly made up of Yemeni players. Noman and his players alleged that they were the targets of discrimination post-Sept. 11, particularly after six local Yemeni-American men (the "Lackawanna Six") were arrested in 2002 and accused of being linked to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.
Hashem acknowledges that the boys faced racism on the field at times. "There were a handful of instances when they were called names, and we dealt with those situations immediately," he says. "But that does not excuse their behavior.
"I am an Arab-American man, so maybe they thought I would overlook what they did," he continues. "But I have to hold them to the same standard as any other student-athlete, and we have to help them understand that when you are the target of racism, this is not the way to respond."
Talking with players who were innocent of wrongdoing but lost their season anyway has been the hardest part for Hashem. "They are the collateral damage," he says. "Knowing that some innocent players would lose out—some with possible college playing opportunities—was very difficult for me. I told them, ‘This is an incident where someone else’s behavior is costing you, and it’s not necessarily fair.’
"But I also reminded them that there may have been times when they could have stood up to their teammates and pressured them to change their behavior," Hashem continues. "I hope this was a learning experience for them."
Section VI, the regional governing authority of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, helped dictate the terms of the team’s three-year probation, which will begin in 2008-09. For the first year, a section representative will attend every match and report on the players’ behavior. The school will also be required to assign an administrator to attend and report on every game the first year and all home games the second year. The third year, an administrator must file a report at the end of the season.
Coaching issues were also addressed by Section VI. Any soccer coach who was in place at Lackawanna in 2006-07 must attend a specified coaching development program in order to continue coaching, and any new coach who comes in must develop a season-long sportsmanship improvement program for the team. It’s unclear, according to Hashem, whether Noman will return in 2008-09.
As Lackawanna gears up for a fall without soccer, its players are being encouraged to try out for other sports. "We’re trying to keep them engaged and involved," Hashem says. He and Steckstor will also provide sportsmanship training in preparation for 2008-09, when soccer will resume.
Hashem offers a piece of advice to other administrators: When it comes to sportsmanship, don’t ignore red flags. "There were signs of trouble over the past few years, and while we thought we’d dealt with them, I can see now that we didn’t deal with them effectively," he says. "Going forward, if I see a problem, I will act immediately and decisively. I’ll never know whether we could have prevented this from happening, but in the future, I don’t want to have to ask myself that question again."