Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Archive for April 3rd, 2010

Notre Dame recruit dies in spring break hotel balcony fall

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(NOTE: Update following April 3 afternoon police news conference is at the end of the piece.)

I’ll reserve any judgments about the circumstances surrounding the April 2 death of 17-year-old Matt James, a Notre Dame football recruit from Cincinnati who fell from a hotel balcony in Panama City, Fla., where he was celebrating his final high school spring break. There are already enough Internet yobbos questioning his parents or slamming Catholics or doing something to make it sound like James deserved his demise — which, of course, he didn’t.

However, I will say that whether your high schooler is a big-time football recruit, an average athlete or a member of the show choir, there are places other than Panama City you would rather have him or her go for a parent-free vacation.

James isn’t even the first 2010 Panama City spring breaker to die from a hotel balcony fall. A 19-year-old Georgia college freshman, a former high school football player, died March 25 from a similar fall. An autopsy has been performed, but results aren’t expected until May or June. Local authorities and hotel managers, though, say there’s two endemic problems that result in falls: either heavy alcohol use and/or the pastime of trying to crawl, Spiderman-style, up the outside of the hotel by climbing the balconies. Two other spring breakers have fallen off of balconies and survived.

Speaking of alcohol, in its “Operation Spring Break 2010” in March, the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverage and Tobacco police reported 1,092 arrests statewide in its crackdown on underage drinking — with 1,004 of those arrests in Panama City and its environs. That area had six times the number of arrests as six other targeted cities combined.

The alcohol police arrest numbers for Panama City were actually down slightly from last year, but police have an explanation for that: more violent crime has them more occupied with things other than underage drinking. Panama City police themselves have reported a 144 percent spike in spring break-related crime from the previous year, and they noted having to deal with more situations such as the near-critical shooting of a 20-year-old Birmingham, Ala. man. That crime is going to be difficult to solve because police report, as they do at many sites at spring break when they arrive, a hostile, uncooperative crowd.

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Some out-of-towners meet the local constabulary.

These are the sorts of problems that caused other Florida cities, such as Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach, to take steps to drive out spring break business. However, despite tension from the community and older snowbirds, the authorities of Panama City are hardly ready to drive out what is a major moneymaker.

In a rather bizarre column, Panama City News Herald editor Mike Cazalas, whose paper has special spring break sections in print and online, including bikini contest shots, noted that the problem is not spring break, but alcohol.

Well, yes, Spring Break is about the money. So is summer tourist season, the restaurant business, moped rentals, the military bases and every job held by every person in this county.

There are other factors, of course: quality of life and enjoyment and such. But money is a part of all of it.

What is it really about, though, this hatred of Spring Break? Is it about tourists who come down and use something we perceive to be “ours,” to the point that we can’t get to it for a few weeks out of the year?

If, for some, it is a belief we are “promoting” dangerous activities with no regard for safety, I’d suggest that is naïve.

College-age kids die tragic deaths, they do it year-round, and they don’t have to come to Panama City Beach to find a balcony.

The message I get from that column is, “Hey, college kids! If you’re going to die a stupid, alcohol-soaked death, at least come to Panama City and drop some coin before you go!”

More details are expected to come in Matt James’ death, such as whether alcohol was involved. Regardless, it’s a horrible thing that’s happened. Though I hope James at least the courtesy to frequent some of the Panama City News Herald’s advertisers while he was there.

UPDATE, 3 p.m. CT, April 3: Panama City police, in a Saturday afternoon news conference, said witnesses described the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Matt James as drunk and “belligerent” before his fatal fall from a fifth-floor Days Inn balcony at 6:30 p.m. April 2. From the Cincinnati Enquirer, which covered James when he was a star offensive lineman at St. Xavier High School:

At one point, police said, he went out to the balcony to argue with guests in a neighboring room, leaned over and fell. Police believe there were adult chaperones, although it was unclear where they were when the accident happened.

Police also said his death appeared to be from blunt force trauma, although the official cause, along with toxicology results, may not be released for another six to eight weeks.

There were adult chaperones? Oh boy. That just makes it worse.

Hazing in sports has a news explosion

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Lest one thinks Carmel, Ind., is the only place where youth sports-related hazing occurs, based on my breathless coverage of its boys’ basketball team’s situation, I bring you updates from just the past few days regarding other cases. Although Carmel is back in the news, too.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — According to KOAT-TV, a plea agreement is on hold regarding a 2008 hazing case in which six now-former Robertson (N.M.) Las Vegas High football players were accused of sodomizing teammates with a broomstick during football camp. A judge is examining the guilty plea of Steven Garcia, one of those players. On March 30 he pleaded guilty to rape and other charges, but in such a way that he can maintain his innocence even while being technically found guilty, and that he can be treated as a juvenile. Some parents shouted “no deal,” but a special prosecutor said others want it so they can put the incident behind them.

BREWER, Maine — A former Brewer High softball coach who sued the school over her firing has dropped her case March 31. According to the Bangor Daily News, Kelly Jo Cookson claimed she was fired in 2006 because she is a lesbian. However, the school said the firing was because of hazing. For example, according to the Daily News, the school said Cookson “had allowed student athletes to walk barefoot through sheep manure during a team picnic … .” Cookson dropped the case after the school refused to settle on the eve of a trial after two courts had supported the school’s contention that she condoned and supervised hazing.

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Basha High School announced on March 31 that it had hired a new football coach, Bernie Busken, who had led Mesa Mountain View to an 82-9 record and three Class 5A state championships in seven seasons.  However, that was from 1995-2001. Busken had been in exile, coaching small college football, since spring 2002, when he resigned, as put it, “amid allegations of verbally abusing players, allowing hazing rituals and excessive athlete-on-athlete contact after being warned to desist by the school district.” At the time, Busken was defiant, blaming his departure on a parental and media witch hunt. Now, he’s more contrite, those this statement to sounds more like the classic sorry-you-were-offended apology:  “I have never done anything where I meant to hurt someone physically, mentally or anything else. I just tried to prepare them for their one shot to do well. All I can do now is apologize. If I was kidding around and I crossed a line; for those things I was wrong and I am sorry.”

COOPERSVILLE, Mich. — An Ottawa County, Mich., judge, considering a FOIA request by the Grand Rapids Press, on March 31 forced the Coopersville schools to reveal how much was paid to two victims of 2007 junior varsity baseball hazing that resulted in four team members being expelled from school and receiving juvenile sentences for gross indecency. The two victims had sued the district, claiming it looked the other way while coaches encouraged or ignored hazing. One student received $95,000, and another received $55,000. The school did not have to admit guilt. Not only that, the school was pretty pissed off the settlements were made public. The superintendent told the Press that, fuck you very much, you’re now peeling the hazing scab off itty-bitty Coopersville. “They have been through a lot. They don’t need any more trouble from their neighbors or the community,” O’Neill said. It appears he meant the perpetrators as well as the victims.

GARFIELD HEIGHTS, Ohio — Trinity High School baseball coach Nick Fratalonie resigned April 1 after the school confirmed a hazing incident the previous month involving his team. The school would not confirm exactly what happened and to whom, except that it was “not sexual in nature” and that team members received “disciplinary consequences.” Fratalonie told the Cleveland Plain Dealer he didn’t resign because of hazing. It was for “personal and family reasons.”

And last, but certainly not least:

CARMEL, Ind. — One of the two freshman boys basketball players allegedly assaulted by three senior teammates on a bus ride back from a game in Terre Haute has hired a lawyer. Robert Turner said the bus incident was not the first time his client, no longer a student at Carmel High, had been victimized, and there were other incidents with other victims. “In a school context of so-called hazing, bullying, as this has been characterized, this was much more than that,” he said to WRTV-TV in Indianapolis on March 31. “It’s the worst case I’ve seen … ever.” A prosecutor is considering whether to file charges against the players for the bus incident, which had police investigating possible battery and criminal deviate conduct, a sex crime. Turner said the victim’s family hasn’t decided whether to sue. Uh-huh.

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Inspired by his Hoosier forebear Booth Tarkington, Robert Turner is getting ready to go all Penrod and Sam on Carmel High.

Written by rkcookjr

April 3, 2010 at 12:30 am