More than anything else, the last few days have taught me a lesson in my own prejudices and preconceptions.
Last week I wrote that, contrary to my expectations, the high school championship football game between all-black Weaver and all-white Darien had not been marred by any racial incidents. A couple of days later, a news story was released alleging that some Darien players hurled racial epithets, including the word "nigger," at their Weaver opponents.
I was at the game. I didnít hear it. Neither did most of the coaches and none of the administrators, fans and sportswriters who were on both sides of the field.
When the story broke, I set out to prove that it was in error. After all, if it was accurate, I must have been wrong in my observations of the game. I reasoned that if someone used that word, there would have been a fight on the field. No way those city teenagers would have the discipline and composure to rise above that kind of remark.
Or maybe one Darien player muttered something that was misheard. The Darien team was being blown out something awful, and the tiniest bit of frustration being vented was certainly understandable. In any championship football game, players will say some nasty things. The Darien kids are clever enough to respond to the insults they were getting without resorting to the most offensive term in the English language.
And if something as unsportsmanlike as a racial slur took place, the referees certainly would have put a stop to it.
I spoke to some adults involved with the Darien program, and they were sincerely and honestly shocked by the allegations.
I figured it had to be the product of someone with an ulterior agenda. Darien makes an easy target if one has it in mind to look for the ugly aspects of affluent, white suburbia. The existence of even one black family in town is but a rumor. There is no shortage of $60,000 automobiles and wage-earners whose paychecks resemble the odometer on the space shuttle. Some people in town are so parochial in their thinking that Hartford might as well be Bosnia. Yet there are others who send their teenagers off to Guatemala and such places to do relief work. Itís the kind of town at which someone can look and see what he wants to see.
I remembered at the game how the Weaver team arrived in the basic yellow school bus while the Darien squad tooled over to West Haven in one of those coach-type buses. Surely it was possible the whole story was concocted by some kids who were jealous of their wealthier opponents.
Sidelight: a few years ago when Weaver went to its first playoff championship game, they prodded the Hartford mayor and some corporations to pony up for a coach bus. Weaver got shellacked and have considered coach buses bad luck ever since.
So last Friday when I walked into Weaver without an appointment, at least part of me expected to encounter an Al Sharpton "If itís white, itís not right" chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
Iíve been wrong before (just ask my wife), but never as wrong as I was on this day.
The administrators and faculty to whom I spoke were very calm and reasoned in their telling of the story. Their emotion was more of sadness and resignation than anything else. Two of them shared with me their disdain for the culture of victimization that is so prevalent today, and how they try to teach their kids that the world is what they make of it.
One guy to whom I spoke chuckled when I said he sounded like a Republican.
I asked a Weaver player about the incident and he quietly replied, "Yeah, those guys said some stuff."
What I heard in each conversation was detailed and consistent, including that requests to intervene were made to the officiating crew and the referees declined to take any action.
Like any other time there is conflicting testimony, one listens to both sides and decides what to believe. Both sides agree that neither team behaved as very well as they should have. Early in the game and possibly even before it started, Weaver trash talk included words like "cracker" and "white boy." As the game turned to a rout, there was a lot of extra pushing and shoving after the whistle. It is plausible that Weaver players rubbed their opponentís noses in the score and a few of the Darien guys responded with that one word which has no equal in its ability to cut deeply.
Stereotypes abound in and around this issue. Not everyone in Darien is rich. Weaver didnít win the game because of its "speed." In setting a record for touchdowns, Weaverís halfback ran over as many players as he ran past.
Because I gave assurances of confidentiality, I wonít name the people to whom I spoke and the players allegedly involved. Itís beside the point, anyway. This isnít a news story so much as it is an ongoing story about how each of us deals with our own consciences and misunderstandings with other people. The next chapter will be written by the people involved, hopefully without a lot of Rodney King "canít we all get along" banalities.
If the allegations are false, then we ought to be scratching our heads to figure out why they were made. If they are true, it ought to be pretty clear that the Darien school system should start thinking about more than test scores.
The coaches should go have a beer together. The school officials should do something similar and arrange for a student exchange. Soon. I expect they would find much more in common than they might have imagined.
High school athletes will remember a championship their entire lives. If we can help it, that memory should not be tinged by an incident that should never happen.
Weaver relies heavily on corporate and individual donations to maintain its program. My check is going to Weaver High School Football, 415 Granby Street, Hartford, CT 06112 because I would very much like to see these two teams play again next year. If this is handled with the open- mindedness it deserves, everyone on both sides will be all the wiser, smarter and better for it.
It could be a re-match for the books in more ways than one.