The 2016 high school football season kicked off on Friday. For more than 10 years, my husband has been on the coaching staff of a Minneapolis high school football team. For the last six years, my four children and I have sat underneath the Friday night lights as part of our own weekend kickoff routine. What happened this past Friday evening was something I hope my children never have to see again.
The first game of the season was anticipated to be a big one. The Minneapolis Washburn High School Millers would be playing on their home field against their long-standing rival, the Minneapolis North High School Polars. Last year’s season’s kickoff resulted in the Polars’ defeat of the Millers.
The air carried a cool, slight breeze, enough to keep the mosquitoes away, a perfect night for football. I remember passing by one of the officials as I took my children to the restroom. I thought: Oh, boy, he’s got his work cut out for him tonight. My children gobbled down food from McDonald’s and, after the national anthem, settled into playing with their new toys.
It was near the end of the first quarter during a punt return when one of the players on the North team was tackled near the Washburn sideline. I have no idea what details set the fight into motion. All I remember seeing is mayhem quickly taking over the game.
I witnessed pushing and punching, the North player falling on the ground surrounded by orange-and-blue-clad athletes in pads and helmets. Then, suddenly, as if a spark had ignited, players from North’s sideline rushed across the field. As the full-on brawl happened in front of me and everyone else in the stands, I grabbed my children and wrapped them close to me.
We watched their father and the other coaches and officials trying to gain control among the storm of fighting football players. The whole scene unfolded as if we were actually at home, on the couch, watching “SportsCenter” — except we weren’t. Other spectators and I shouted “No!” down onto the field. It was all we could do from the bleachers. I felt unsafe for my children, and unsafe for my husband.
After the situation had been diffused, the teams had been separated and the officials had decided on penalties, 25 minutes of anxiety had gone by. I left the game and headed home at halftime, my heart totally out of the game.
When my husband and I spoke about the incident, it was clear that he and I are of differing opinions. I do understand that he is in the position of being a coach of one of these teams and that I am of the position of being his spouse and the mother to our children. He speaks from the sideline he coaches; there is a natural desire to find who’s at fault. I’m sure coaches from the other team are just as heartbroken about the behavior of their athletes.
I do know this. My children should never go to a football game to watch their father coach and instead find themselves frozen with confusion as a brawl threatens to trample him.
I also know that Washburn has in recent years been subject to unfavorable publicity, whether it’s connected to administration issues or the crises of current and past students.
But this is about sportsmanship, which is intended to guide an athlete’s moral compass. Doesn’t the national anthem before games set the tone for moral behavior? Isn’t it inevitable that we’ll all be tested with moral choices and that we’ll tap into our moral code to guide our choices?
It’s easy to blame a person when they carry out risky behavior on their own, but who’s to blame when sportsmanship goes south and a football brawl takes on uncontrollable action involving both teams? Maybe for the remainder of this season we can consider a greater moral issue. Each of us — athletes, students, coaches, officials, school staff and parents — attending football games is responsible for ensuring the integrity of our collective moral code.
Erica Wallace is a resident of Minneapolis and mother of four children.