In A Year Of So Many Highlights, One Lowlight Should Not Standout

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Upon Further Review

Local paper’s decision to rehash drinking incident reminds me that I have both amends and resolutions to make in 2012

By Tom Crowther
BurbankNBeyond Sports Editor

As the former head baseball coach at John Burroughs High School and as a current administrator in the Burbank Unified School District, I probably had a more educated opinion to lend than most when news of “the incident” broke last spring. And yet, I had very little to say outside of my most intimate circle of family members, because more than anything else I just wanted the whole thing to go away.

Long before there was TMZ, Facebook, Twitter and the barrage of social media outlets that makes each of us think we know people better than we do, I also worked as a sports reporter for the Daily News, Los Angeles Times, Burbank Leader as well as my high school and college newspapers. So in addition to having some unique insights to the inner workings of a high school baseball team and a school site’s leadership team, I also understood local media.

I knew the magnitude and implications of last spring’s events long before those directly involved did. However, even I was surprised to read a report on ESPN.com and to hear a blurb on NPR on my car radio as I drove to work the next week. Again, I really wished I had had the power then to make the whole thing go away. Unfortunately I didn’t… no one did.

Some do, however, have the power to keep things in the spotlight. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they should.

The Burbank Leader’s tasteless and shameful decision to run not one, but two 2011 Year In Reviews in its weekend edition in which it brought the incident back into headlines has made me decide to break my silence on the matter. I am not going to recap the event, our competition at the Leader has done that at nausea in a desperate attempt to gain readership. This is not really an op-ed piece on the incident itself so much as it is an effort to validate some of the individuals involved as people.

I hired JR Schwer as an assistant coach years ago. One would be hard pressed to find a better person. When I left coaching in 2009 to start a family and to pursue school administration it was an emotional time. Seeing the program I had been a part of for 17 years go to someone else’s stewardship was tough. If I am being honest my successor could have been Joe Torre and I would have had my doubts because I was so emotionally invested. While I had some doubts about Coach Schwer from an Xs and Os standpoint, I had no doubts about his character, work ethic and strong passion for young people.

I coached JR’s oldest son, John, who was not only one hell of a ball player but one hell of a kid as well. He is smart, sincere and as straight an arrow as I ever coached. Johnny didn’t even attend his senior prom despite plenty of suitors because he was uncomfortable in the high school social scene. Parties and the things that go on at them was just not his thing. Instead, John spent that night finishing our team’s highlight video for our banquet.

When John was first coming to play for me I had heard a lot about the talent of his class. When the middle school PE teachers’ “comment cards” came in there were plenty of positive comments about the athletic ability of that group of players. Next to John’s name was the comment, “Greatest kid ever.” I think this alone says a lot about how his father raised him.

I am almost embarrassed to admit that I haven’t spoken to JR since last season was cut short. Not because I was angry, nor because I was disappointed, but simply because I didn’t know what to say. While I understood the school’s decision to fire him and to cancel the remaining games on the season, I also understood how hurt he must have been to have been betrayed by his staff and to be disappointed by his “other kids,” his team. By not reaching out to him, I failed him as a friend.

I also have ties to the assistant coaches who were fired for their poor decisions last spring. I coached them. They were competitors. They were “coaches-players” in the truest sense of the cliché. They were fundamentally sound and talented. They were also kids who I did worry about off the field because they were impressionable. I had to stay on them about their grades and their choices in friends, girlfriends and extracurricular activities — but they were kids who I loved coaching.

JR brought guys like this onto his staff in an effort to teach his players how to play the game right. He was also trying to help two young people find themselves and to keep them involved in the game that had been the only reason they had gone onto college after high school. The move back fired, but I can guarantee that many coaches have brought back former players to their staff over the years. My best man at my wedding was Jose Valle, my former coach. I was his freshmen team’s coach at 18. Ultimately, I took over his program when he retired in 2002.

Obviously, I know the players involved as well. They were underclassmen my last few seasons as the head coach at Burroughs. I have been in contact with some of them in the time since. My take on the student-athletes who made the decision to drink during a school sponsored trip is this; they let their team down.

During my time as coach I preached that a player should display good character on and off the field. I stressed that one should never do anything to embarrass themselves, their team, or their family. These guys forgot all that and it cost them big time.

I was a zero tolerance coach who dealt with off the field issues as if I was dealing with my own household. I wasn’t a parent at the time, I am now. Perhaps I would coach differently with this new perspective, perhaps not. I will admit that some things are not as black and white as I once made them. To me this incident was pretty black and white. The boys directly involved made a mistake and were given consequences. Consequences I agreed with.

They are also pretty typical teens in 2011, too many of whom get caught-up thinking about the moment and forgetting to see the big picture. My guess is that they learned a life lesson or two through this ordeal that will make them better people and parents in the years that lie ahead.

There were also consequences for their teammates. Those student-athletes who lost the remaining games of their season, some of whom I chaperoned this past summer on an educational trip abroad to Italy and Greece. We spoke at length about the incident during our travels. They endured something that I also believe will make them more successful individuals on and off of the field in years ahead. They learned that when one is part of a team or an organization they are part of something that is bigger than them.

Of course I also know Principal Emilio Urioste well. I was a student in his Spanish class my freshman year at Burroughs. He later hired me as a teacher in 2000. He was one of several mentors who encouraged me to pursue administration. I have known him for almost 20 years. The incident put Urioste in a position where he was going to be criticized no matter what he did as a site leader. To his credit, he made a decision and dealt with the domino effect. He met with all of the families involved in the aftermath, stood-up to media scrutiny and did the best he could in an impossible situation.

I agreed with the zero tolerance position he took with this incident. Why? The short answer is because Urioste was stressing the same things I always stressed as a coach. He was also taking the position that representing one’s school as an athlete is a privilege that comes with certain expectations and responsibilities. When the expectations are not met, there are consequences.

Finally, I understand the position Leader sports’ editor Jeff Tully is in as reporter. He has a job to do like all of us. I also know Jeff well; in fact I attended his wedding years ago when I was one of his reporters at the Leader. He is a great guy who was also amazing in his coverage of my program during the time that I was a head coach. That said, I disagree with his decision to make the incident the number one moment in sports in the city of Burbank in 2011.

The new Memorial Field is expected to debut at the end of the month, and the multi-million dollar project not only wraps-up a lot of history for sports in the city, but it paves the way for new traditions to begin. The construction will have a far greater and lasting impact than anything else we saw in 2011.

The Burroughs High boys’ volleyball team making it to the CIF Finals was also a far bigger story. The school continues to look for its first CIF champion in any sport, but the program reached the finals and became the first program to go that far since 1994. It is even more amazing when one considers that the program is only in its fifth year as a program since coach Joel Brinton started it from the ground up in 2007.

The Burroughs girls’ volleyball team lost only two games all season during a 14-0 league championship season that concluded with Megan Stephenson being named the Pacific League’s Player of the Year and her selection to the All-CIF Team.

Senior running back Zander Anding lead the Indians to a third straight Pacific League title and broke the school’s single season rushing mark.

Americans love controversy and scandal in their news just as much as they love their soap operas and reality television, I get it. But Americans also love competition and sports as well. In an issue that attempted to recap 2011 the Leader missed an opportunity to celebrate the many highlights of the year by focusing on one of the tough moments.

2011 came and went in a heartbeat and 2012 will do the same as time has a funny way of doing that. Watching the world all over again through the eyes of my 21 month old daughter is teaching me new things every day. Among them is the importance of seeing all the good that is around us.

Jeers! to the Leader’s coverage of 2011 and Cheers! to all for 2012. We should all be forced to spend our time chasing toddlers to teach us real perspective.

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