Opinions, Column

A Shaky Line Between Fair and Unfair Insults

Earlier this month, a high school basketball playoff between Catholic Memorial (CM) and Newton North High School drew national attention—not for any outrageous buzzer-beater or display of athleticism, but for the offensive chants that were exchanged between student sections. Before tip-off, Newton North was shouting things like, “Where are your girls?” and “Sausage fest” at CM, an all-boys Catholic school. The boys responded, now infamously, by jeering back “You killed Jesus” to the student section of a school with a sizable Jewish population.

There’s no defending CM’s chant or lessening the offense to any Jewish attendees at Newton North. As a graduate of Boston College High School, which holds CM as our traditional rival, I have no love for the boys in West Roxbury. In fact, the last time I thought twice about them was walking out of Fenway after a win in the annual Thanksgiving football game. With “For Boston” playing over the loudspeakers and surrounded by the dejected faces of CM supporters, I couldn’t have been happier. So, for the first few days after this scandal, I was happy to let them reap what they had sewn and leave them out to dry.

But media coverage only intensified, as did the school’s administrative response. Despite beating Newton North, CM banned its students from attending the semifinals at TD Garden. I began to question the overwhelming attention this debacle was receiving. The CM student section’s behavior had been reprehensible, no doubt, and I was not pleased with the way it had represented Catholic schools. But in every single article I read or report I heard, Newton North’s role in the chanting was continually minimized. To retain journalistic integrity, its initial jeers at CM’s all-male population made it into most stories but almost unilaterally as an aside.

The ban left student-athletes who had sacrificed for their school and community throughout the entire season now deprived of the support that had sustained them, thanks to the actions of a small part of the overall student body. I can’t fully blame the administration, because it needed to make a public gesture of disciplining its students, and its actions were positively received by the Boston branch of the Anti-Defamation League. But let’s stop and ask ourselves what message we send by overwhelmingly focusing on the biggest stone that is thrown rather than the one that started the fight.

Newton North received only incidental, negative attention for its student section’s chants. But these chants were gender-discriminatory at best and homophobic at worst. As an alumnus of an all-male Catholic high school, I can tell you that I have seen and heard worse. I know where those chants go. “BC High, BC low, that’s where all the gay kids go,” was a favorite of our co-ed, public rivals. Even Newton’s superintendent admitted, “Sometimes our kids can say crude things at sporting events.” Considering what Newton North students said that night, it is clear they should not have gotten off scot-free. It sets a dangerous precedent that you can start whatever fights you want and avoid any repercussions as long as the other party hits harder. It sets a precedent that religiously charged insults are somehow more offensive than insults aimed at gender and sexual orientation, and that they should be punished as such.

Is there an absolute line? If so, we need national coverage for the next BC-BU hockey game when accusations of being a “Sunday school” inevitably fly toward our own fan section. But if there is to be a line, then how do we police and prioritize it? The lack of culpability and responsibility on the part of Newton North tells me that religious insults matter more than those targeting gender and sexual orientation. Do we sap support from athletes for actions in which they had no part in order to enforce it? Remember that this was before the ball had even been tipped and the chants were strictly between student sections. Though offensive, this event is a far cry from the discriminatory strife of half a century ago in athletics.

I would never deny that the perpetrators of this chant should have been punished and forced to apologize. CM officials at the game ensured that every student personally shook hands with and apologized to the principal. But Newton North never had to apologize for its chants because newspapers have labeled them as “joking.”

Nearly every community leader that commented on this event has called for it to be an opportunity for dialogue and growth, but there seems to be a monumental lack of concern for combating insults like the ones that were flung at Catholic Memorial that night. With this apparent lack of concern, we risk reinforcing an already-murky line between what is and isn’t too offensive.

Featured Image by Kristin Saleski / Heights Staff

March 30, 2016