Sayreville, NJ — Another night, another feeding frenzy. It was after the meeting, and the Board of Education had just upheld Superintendent Richard Labbe’s decision to suspend five football coaches, including the renowned and beloved head coach George Najjar.
The alleged hazing-ritual-turned-sexual-assault among players on the football team had already been ravaging the borough for weeks. Seven players had been charged and arrested during the course of the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s investigation, and now the culpability of the coaching staff was unclear. Why had these indefinite suspensions, with pay, been handed down so suddenly? The board president had insisted that no discussion regarding the termination of their employment had taken place, but a unanimous decision to dock their annual stipends seemed to be an ill omen.
Labbe, for his part, was preparing to issue a short statement to the dozens of wild-eyed, frantic journalists that were now encircling him like a group of sharks, each one more desperate than the next to devour the prey. Giant camera lenses were thrust into the superintendent’s face from all angles and, even as he spoke, questions were thrown at him in rapid succession.
When he finished giving some innocuous statement – something like, “we will be beginning our investigation shortly” – a final question came from somewhere within the throng: “Will you comment on rumors that you were overheard celebrating the coaches’ suspensions behind closed doors?”
Labbe shook his head and began to back away. When the group lurched forward and a few cameramen broke ranks to follow him, he finally realized just what sort of grave danger he was in. He turned around entirely and looked as if he were prepared to sprint off in any direction, but in an instant he was surrounded. A few school officials managed to help shepherd him out into the parking lot, where he threw terse and ambiguous responses and ‘no comments’ to the oncoming horde.
I had stepped away from the circus by then. I stood next to who I assumed was a veteran reporter based on his age and demeanor. He was equally appalled by what he saw. “I think we’ve got all we need,” he said, half to his cameraman and half to me.
“That’s for damn sure,” I muttered. “No way am I going to be part of that.” The whole thing was devolved. The clamoring of my colleagues for just one more scrap of information, one that clearly wouldn’t be given unless the superintendent were water boarded, was almost pathetic. And for a moment, I really believed they were about to strap him to a chair, gag him with a towel, and break out a few five gallon jugs.
I’m a local reporter. I spend plenty of time on the ground in the Borough of Sayreville. When the mainstream media’s cable trucks all roll out and they have long forgotten about this town on the Raritan River, I will still be here watching the community pick up the pieces. The media attention is unwanted by the residents; we’re even despised at this stage of the game. Watching the scene in front of me I finally came to understand why. It was clear now why not a single student at Sayreville War Memorial High School would even look me in the eye, let alone talk to me, when school let out one day in mid-October.
Journalism is one of the most vital professions in any democracy, and the alleged sexual assaults in Sayreville are certainly a matter of public interest. The national attention the story has received, and the response by media professionals, is almost unbelievable. In a town where I am usually the only news person on the ground it is eternally strange to walk into a forest of video cameras and network microphones. And now I am just another one of them, but the last thing I wanted as I watched the swarming mob holler and spit and rave like violent lunatics was to be counted among their ilk.
“Where is the dignity in this?” I thought as I went over my notes. Perhaps I’m not looking in the right place, but I haven’t found a single scrap of the stuff yet.