MADISON—Madison County High School will forfeit this week’s varsity and junior varsity football games with Page County because of “unsportsmanlike conduct” within the program.
Madison County Principal Betty-Jo Wynham said the self-imposed ruling stemmed from three incidents that were brought to light on social media following last Friday’s 26-24 victory at William Monroe High School.
The first incident was a post-game video of the Madison County players in the locker room celebrating the victory by signing snippets of a popular rap song by recording artist Jeezy, which included profanity and the N-word.
The 14-second clip posted on Snapchat and shared with many through other forms of social media on Saturday, showed members of the football team rapping in unison the chorus of the song.
“It is unfortunate,” Wynham said. “I do think this is a popular rap song, that many kids listen to frequently and for some reason get pumped up to. I think we really have to do a better job of educating that it’s more than just a beat, it’s more than just trendy, it’s a certain word and to have that as a snippet out there of our kids signing that for someone that doesn’t know that popular rap song, that can’t make reference or connection with it, that could be very racist. I do believe that.”
Wynham said the song was not approved by football coaches or school administrators and a student arbitrarily played the song on his own device following the game.
“It wasn’t like a planned thing, it’s just what they listen to,” she said. “It’s a song that they would probably ask to have on a warmup tape that we would absolutely not play. Those music warmup tapes can get sticky, it’s hard. What pumps them up we rarely can play, so we end up deviating back to other time periods and decades because it is really hard to find music that is relevant. It’s just difficult.”
Madison County athletic director Mike Sacra agreed.
“I think they were celebrating and they used the wrong choice of song,” he said. “We’re going to educate them and make them better men.”
School officials acted quickly and reported the incident to the Virginia High School League. In addition, Sacra took written statements from the players involved to determine if there was any malice in the comments.
“When we looked at every single statement, really consistency between what kids were saying, but no intent from their heart to directly insult someone racially,” Wynham said. “I think what failed was the song choice, was obviously not a good choice, but also, the snippet of the song that was videoed. If you just look at it in isolation, it could be very offensive. But we have to be able to help kids understand that, because as much as I want to say they are kids and you can pick apart anything they say, but I got into this field for kids. That’s what I’m here for and to help them.”
A second allegation stemmed from a social media post shared with the school that included a screenshot of a Snapchat making a “disheartening and unacceptable” statement in reference to the outcome of the game, and former William Monroe running back Josh Johnson, who died this past summer during a family vacation.
Wynham said the comment was posted following the game by a student that did not attend Friday’s game. An investigation is currently ongoing involving the student and separate consequences are forthcoming, Madison school officials said. In addition, the family of the student made contact with Johnson’s family over the weekend and extended an apology.
The final accusation involved a member of the Madison County football team and an alleged social media post commenting about running over a painted jersey in the end zone to memorialize Johnson. Wynham has worked with William Monroe principal Katie Brunelle and the entire William Monroe administration to determine when and where this potentially occurred.
“If it was said and we can nail it down when it was said, it’s not acceptable with our program,” Wynham said. “However, if we can’t isolate where it was said or show some sort of proof where it was exchanged, I think it is really unfair for that kid, who has been labeled because of his number and his name, that it’s on him. I think it’s unfair and I think as a community, both communities, we need to do better and help the situation. If you know exactly when it was said, let Principal Brunelle know; if here, let me know. I think we have to find a way to let someone not have that attached to them forever if we can’t figure it out. That’s the hard part of being the principal.”
William Monroe administrators did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Wynham and her staff at Madison County have worked diligently since Saturday to come up with a solution to these problems.
“I really made sure we looked into them with a lot of seriousness and also trying to gain an understanding for the whole situation,” she said. “Anyone that was at the game can attest that in regard to football competition, it was great. The game on the field, I believe our team demonstrated strong sportsmanship and did a great job with that. I think this has just reinforced the importance of it spanned off the field. It’s social media, and when used correctly, it can be amazing, when used with our core values, which it can be inspiring. But it can also go the other way.”
The decision to forfeit Friday’s game wasn’t easy. Wynham and her staff weighed several options and believed the decision was the right one.
“I think we do have to have consequences, paired with a love, like we still support you and love you, but this is something that could really endanger you when you get out of high school,” she said. “Should I teach these kids that that’s OK? I think I failed them because when they leave here, there’s a likelihood of them repeating it. I just think, change happens through hard decisions and I think if we can reduce this from repeating itself, even with a couple of kids, I think we’ve accomplished something. I just don’t feel like taking everything away from them is the answer.”
Madison County football coach Larry Helmick, who also played for the Mountaineers, understands the importance of the decision.
“Coach Helmick is very supportive, but is also devastated,” Wynham said. “He’s taking a lot of this on his shoulders and bearing it and trying to fix it all. I don’t know if we can fix it, but I think we need to do the best we can so that it doesn’t happen again. We met with the coaching staff yesterday and it’s hard for them to wrap their minds around. They take a lot of ownership for stuff and I think they’re an incredible group of coaches.”
In lieu of game preparation, the Mountaineers’ football program will focus on learning from the incident. On Tuesday, Wyndham planned to address the team with a special guest.
“Ms. [Gail] Temple, one of our lead teachers here, very influential and a woman of color, and myself we’re going down to the locker room at the start of practice. I want them to see me as the one making this decision and for them to be educated on the why,” she said. “Then we’re going to have a little talk-it-out time with Temple. For her to just really focus on what it could mean, but also there are some great things that are kids do and I want them to not forget those and lose those.”
Looking forward, Friday night’s incidents could have a lingering effect on contests between the rivals.
“We’re here to serve kids; we’re a school” Wynham said. “I feel like we all need to work a lot better, everybody, to come together. Fighting hate with hate is not going to help us solve anything and I just hope that’s what we can learn from all of this. I hope that eventually we can reinstate a productive game with Greene. When that happens, I’m not sure, because I’m not sure we’re ready, I’m not sure the adults are ready and I’m not sure our students are ready.”
Wynham and Brunelle spoke Monday night and contemplated future games between the two schools, starting with basketball this winter.
“I would say were looking at it,” she said. “We just threw it around because we have to assure safety, not just physical safety, but mental and emotional safety. If we’re at a point where we can’t navigate that, I think we need to think about our why and what’s the point of it all.”
As for football, no mass suspension with regards to players or coaches is expected when the Mountaineers return to action Oct. 1 at Parry McCluer.
“The majority of the team will be able to play,” Wynham said. “We’ve had some specific disciplinary consequences that will be forthcoming. We have a meeting [Tuesday] based on one pretty serious allegation as an individual, but that whole varsity team will be able to play.”
Moving forward, Wynham believes last Friday’s game and the ensuing aftermath could be a landmark moment in school history.
“I think the win against Greene was the turning point for our Madison County football program,” she said. “I think this is a turning point for our football program for the better. I truly in my heart believe this is going to make us better. I think if we allow it, it’s going to just reform us. We’re working with our whole athletic program, making sure we’re getting better in every area. I really hope in a couple months we can look back and say, man that was probably one of the hardest and one of the best things that could’ve happened to us.”