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Is Torrington's football program being unfairly targeted?

POSTED March 31, 2013
BY Rick Wilson
Twitter: @scribewilson

                                      Torrington troubles go beyond football

          TORRINGTON – I have known Mike McKenna for about 30 years now and I know he didn’t sign on for this. Of course nobody does, do they?

            McKenna signed on as the new Torrington High Athletic Director last August replacing Janet Giampaolo, a surprise to most. Simply because, it is a position with the potential for great satisfactions yet overwhelming in its scope, demand and potential for great pitfalls. At this stage of the game, the idea that McKenna wanted to tackle it all opened a few eyes.

            Parents, budgets, playing time issues, collecting money, the list is endless. It is a 24-7 job.  I have been told by several school administrators that it is without a doubt the toughest job in the building and the pay, well, it is enough to make a grown man or woman cry. I was offered the A.D. position at an area high school way back in the mid 1980s and through my writing experience had enough sense to turn it down.

            Kudos to those who navigate all the pitfalls and pot holes and make it work for their schools and themselves and are able to let the positive dominate.

            McKenna knew what he was getting into to a certain extent. Nobody knew it would turn into this. By now unless you have been living in a cave with no TV reception or newspaper delivery, you know the Torrington community has been devastated in recent weeks.

            For those with faulty cave reception, two Torrington High students, Edgar Gonzalez and Joan Toribio were arrested in February and charged with sexual assault (statutory rape) against two 13-year-old girls. A third student whose name has not been released was arrested two weeks ago and charged with sexual assault on one of the 13-year-old girls.

            On Wednesday, according to the Waterbury Republican, a fourth student was arrested on charges of second degree sexual assault and risk of injury to a minor for a sexual assault that happened in January.

            All of which has brought the school, the city and the THS athletic department under unwanted and unpleasant national media scrutiny. TV trucks, radio stations, the print media have descended on Torrington High School like lions to a dead carcass.

            Here’s the rub. Every student involved has been referenced as a member of the Torrington High football team and the program in some circles reduced to `a new gang of dangerous thugs’ in the Torrington area. The first line in the Waterbury Republican’s article on the fourth student arrest began, “A fourth member of the Torrington High football team….” The Register Citizen talks about, “allegations of rape against Torrington High School football players….”

          Every reference whether it be television or print has described the accused as Torrington High football players.  Consequently, there is an enormous hammer hanging over the program.

           Lets back up a few steps here.  While accurate references, the students did play football, the incidents involving the students took place long after the football season was over. The last time I checked the last game played was on Thanksgiving Day. I know I was there. At least two of the students are seniors, their careers over.

         Is this a problem with the football and athletic program or is this four students who happen to play football? If the students involved were members of the chorus would the headlines blare out, “ Four members of the Torrington High chorus have been arrested…..”.

          If all were in U.S. History class together would be taking about four U.S. history students arrested for….?

          I tend to think not. This is not to minimize any part of what has happened here. This a horrific tragedy. But this is a school and community problem not one that is owned by the football program.

          The football program had its issues this past season including a well-publicized hazing incident that has had a long shelf life. There were whispers of loose control although no other incidents came to light. Coach Dan Dunaj resigned at the end of the season and the reason given was to spend more time with family. You can toss that around a little bit.

          Two of the players had felony charges against them prior to the season and were allowed to participate in the program. You can discuss that and the wisdom and legalities that go along with it. All actions that are legitimate fodder for discussion and investigation.

          But to somehow blame all of the recent events on the football program is just wrong. In Saturday’s Register Citizen, State Reps. Michelle Cook (D-Torrington) and Roberta Willis (D-Salisbury) called for a review of the culture of the district’s athletic department.

           Okay, let’s check out coach Mike Fritch’s girls basketball team and Joe Minutillo’s golf team. Let's do the cheerleaders and dance team.  Check it all out.  Better yet, how about this, let’s review the entire school culture. It’s easy to pick on the football program here. Easy, but not necessarily wise.

           Is this about the culture of the football program or the community?. Did all of this happen because these students were football players?. There are other sordid aspects to this ugly occurrence. Reaction from different parts of the student body has been nothing short of shameful. The bullying, the insensitivity, the immaturity. The posting of texts on Facebook ripping into the victims with the language at times of a salty sailor on a bender.

             You shake your head at the absolute indifference shown the alleged victims and hope that it can be turned into a meaningful learning experience.  Frankly it is both sad and scary.   

              How about a review of the entire town culture? This is about everybody from A to Z not just the football program.

              I did not call Mike McKenna before writing this. His last comment regarding the situation was misinterpreted and he was taken to the woodshed in some quarters. He did not shy away from the incident or minimize it. He tried to make the point that Torrington is not some island of evil where these things happen. Like other communities, Torrington has its problems, it doesn’t stand alone.

              He wasn’t trying to excuse what happened or somehow suggest this behavior is the norm. Only to point out that other communities are dealing with the same deep-seeded issues. How about Steubenville, Ohio? Somehow his point got lost.

               McKenna will talk when the time is right. For now, he is trying to guide the athletic department, particularly the football program through a dark time.  It has taken its toll. These are long days and at this point, they will continue.

              The tragedy here is everywhere. It starts with the victims and extends to the student reaction for those who fit the bill and the school. The impact of it all will be felt well into the future.

                But the tragedy is a community tragedy. So let’s get off of the labeling kick. It makes for great media sales, but it is grossly inaccurate and unfair to suggest by implication that this is the football program’s doing. Maybe we can find something else the four accused had in common and blame that.

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