Friday, September 18, 2015

Marching orders

So there they were today on Good Morning America, and, once again a mental image breathed its last. Michael Moreno wore a dark jacket and a white shirt and a crisply knotted tie, and sported horn-rimmed glasses. Victor Rojas wore a blue shirt and a crisply knotted tie. All that was missing were their National Honor Society pins.

Hardly the thuggish hit men we all imagined them to be.

We have held that image of them since the video went viral, a handful of blurry, vicious seconds that said nothing good about high school football -- and perhaps even less good about high school football in Texas.

The video begins with the snap of the ball, and immediately here comes Rojas, charging headlong from his place in the defensive backfield toward the game official, whose back is turned. Down goes the official, head snapping with the impact of Rojas hitting him from behind; then, from the other side of the field, Moreno piles on, helmet-first. You can watch it 50 times and still not quite believe what you're seeing, because it's so utterly beyond the pale of what we've come to view as acceptable behavior even in so violent an environment as a football field.

No punishment would have been harsh enough: That was your reaction, my reaction, everyone's reaction in the full immediate flower of that video's first viewing.


Well, now things are not so clear-cut.

Now Moreno and Rojas show up on national TV, and they are not the monsters we imagined. They are, more disturbingly, just high school kids, and articulate ones at that. And the story they tell is one anyone who's ever been around high school football suspected immediately, which is that they didn't do what they did on their own accord.

Instead, they say, it was a coach who put them up to it on the sideline.  And so now the question becomes, who is most culpable here? The actors or the instigators?

It's a tougher question to parse than it seems, if only because everything gets muddled when race is involved, and both players claim the official in question used racial slurs within their earshot. (The official in question denies doing that). So you've got a situation fueled already by an overload of testosterone, exacerbated by dagger words either spoken or just heard, seasoned heavily by the rote imperative of a coach's absolute authority.

Easy to say, given all that, that even high school kids know right from wrong, and thus the weight of judgment is on the two players for carrying out the coach's orders. But this is expecting too much of them, frankly. It would be expecting too much from most adults, most of whom are as in thrall to authority figures as any teenager.

When Coach says jump, you say how high: It's drilled into youth athletes from the time when they first pick up a ball or wander into an athletic arena. And in this case, the two young men in question were already at a high level of agitation from what they either heard or thought they heard, which amounts to the same thing. And so Coach said jump, and they gave the appropriate answer.

This is not to say they didn't deserve whatever punishment they got. They did. But if what they say is true, the grownup in question deserves far more.

He is, after all, the grownup. At least allegedly.    

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