Talking trash in sports is an accepted part of the culture, but a recent anti-Semitic incident at Lower Merion High School took it too far.
Last week, Lower Merion was scheduled to play rivals from Strath Haven High School in Wallingford, and a group of students -- and possible alumni and community members -- were swapping some trash talk on Facebook.
The Web site serves partly as a bulletin board, allowing users to post comments and messages. While some Lower Merion students are said to have posted comments calling their rivals "white trash" and insisting that their opponents "talk to me when you're in our tax bracket," according to Strath Haven principal MaryJo Yannacone, members of the group associated with Strath Haven allegedly posted messages referring to Lower Merion soccer players as kikes, and threatening to "change the pipes in the showers so water doesn't flow through them, but gas does," said Lower Merion parent Scott Shapiro.
Shapiro learned of the incident from his son, Sam, 17, who plays on the team. Sam saw the offending remarks, which he said began with Strath Haven students threatening to bring an EZ Bake Oven to the game, a remark he said was aimed at Jewish players. The comments cooled down after that before flaring up again, but he said it was "out of hand the whole time," with comments about Jews being "cheap" and "obnoxious," among other things. He said the two schools have a history of spirited rivalry, and that, as a baseball player, he had witnessed less-than-sportsmanlike behavior from Strath Haven in the past, though never to this extent.
Sam Shapiro said that, while he participated on the Web page, he limited his comments to sports-related material, mostly commenting on soccer and other teams that had defeated Strath Haven. He said that he didn't see all the comments -- he stopped reading after 12 pages -- but that he had seen the "tax bracket" comment, which he said was "out of line."
The game ended up being canceled, though because of the weather, said Doug Young, of Lower Merion High School's office of school and community relations. Young said Lower Merion plans to send a letter home to parents this week to explain how the school expects to proceed on the issue.
Young stressed that he believed "this particular content area that was created on this social networking site was not developed with the intention of being a forum for anti-Semitic dialogue or commentary. It was really, from what we understand, intended to be a message board for those attending the game -- kind of a trash talking message board. Unfortunately, that trash-talking descended into anti-Semitic and biased remarks at a variety of levels."
Young said that groups other than Jews were also targeted in the remarks.
Sam Shapiro and Lower Merion principal Sean Hughes corroborated that point, with Hughes adding that -- because of the way Facebook is structured -- some of the offending comments came from students at schools like Penn State and Columbia universities. Hughes said he did not recognize the names of those specific students, and so was unable to say with which of the two high schools they might be associated, though he notified Strath Haven's principal about those students whose names he did recognize.
Hughes' comments were limited, because the school is currently conducting an internal investigation. Strath Haven is conducting its own investigation, and Hughes said both schools are looking into possible punishments.
Scott Shapiro said he was pressing for the students who made the anti-Semitic posts to be suspended, though it is unclear what the specific consequences will be at either school.
"There are consequences, but those are private because the students involved are minors," said principal Yannacone.
Said Hughes: "Each school has their own punishment system. Depending on the seriousness of the offense -- and, in this case, I'd say it's pretty serious -- they can involve law enforcement."
Both schools have been consulting with local police, said the respective principals.
At press time, the Facebook page was said to have been deleted entirely, and it was unknown if a hard copy of the remarks had been printed.
"A lot of people think that because Facebook isn't sponsored by the school, it can't be connected, and they're not responsible," said Hughes. "That's not true. As long as there's a nexus and it can be connected, then the school has the authority to step in and apply discipline where appropriate, and make teachable moments. This is a good lesson for parents, too, to be involved in knowing what their kids are involved in outside of school."
Nancy Baron-Baer, associate regional director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, said the group is working with principals from both schools to help resolve the issue. But she said it's also important to educate the students.
"Often times individuals -- and students, in particular -- don't feel that conversing across the Internet has the same strength or the same impact on others as a face-to-face contact will have, and that's not necessarily at all correct." She stressed that even one message sent online has the ability to reach millions of unintended additional people.
As for the game itself, a replay date is still unset, but Sam Shapiro said he's ready: "I just want to do the game and win, and these kids can realize they're idiots."