Friday, March 1, 2024

Sunday Update: The challenges of reporting on high school sports controversies

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Editors’ Note: The Sunday Update is a new “call and response” format for the Underground Workshop, framing issues and inviting students to contribute small pieces of reporting from their own communities, along with their own views. Students and teachers: Please check out our menu of current opportunities.

Fans at Barre Auditorium for the boys’ basketball finals between Montpelier and North Country on March 11, 2023. Photo by Anika Turcotte.

by Cecilia Luce, Thetford Academy

On January 17th, 2023, a student was beaten outside of his own home in Burlington after a conflict at an Essex High School basketball game. 

VTDigger’s inbox filled up with anonymous tips regarding the incident, and editors tasked Shaun Robinson with the article. “It was clear that there was a lot of public interest, and a lot of confusion about what happened,” he said.

The assignment was challenging. Confidentiality laws (the victim and the perpetrators were all minors) and the fact that some of the tips came from anonymous sources made it difficult to confirm information. 

Additionally, a police report had not been disclosed prior to the publication of Robinson’s article. News reports are often based on accounts released by the police, but in this case, Robinson said, it happened in “the opposite direction of how those things usually go.”

Most of Robinson’s initial sources were unidentified community members who had suggested tips online, and VTDigger later had to confirm information with witnesses. Despite the swirling rumors, Robinson said, VTDigger “published everything that we could confirm was true.”

Some of VTDigger’s many stories related to incidents involving high school sports. Collage by Anna Hoppe

Robinson has experience with similar stories. He covered two separate investigations during the 2021-2022 school year in which Enosburg Falls high school athletes allegedly harassed other players with racist language during the soccer and basketball seasons. 

He also reported on a fight that interrupted a 7th vs. 8th grade basketball game in Alburgh on January 31st, where a man involved died the next day. It remains unclear whether his death was related to the brawl, but the sequence of events is nonetheless concerning.

The fight in Alburgh and the beating in Burlington are two of the most severe examples, but they are far from isolated events. Many Vermont teams have recently withdrawn from competition in a stand against verbal abuse in the form of racist, transphobic, and sexually harassing comments. 

“I definitely have had state officials say to me yes, we see a pattern here. We see a trend and it’s very concerning to us,” Robinson said, “But clearly, it’s still happening.”

Students: Send us a Reporting-Based Commentary!

For this reporting-based commentary, we want you to explore whether this statewide trend is taking place in your own school too.

 Interview your athletic director, and ask the following questions:

  • How long have you been in your role? Can you describe what the sport culture looks like at our school, and how it’s changed over time? Any specific incidents or challenges?
  • Can you describe any specific policies your school has put in place to prevent violent or offensive actions during sporting events? 
  • Have these policies been effective? Can you describe an event or issue where you’ve seen these policies be effective or ineffective?
  • Have any sports teams at your school taken a stand against violence or harassment? How have their actions impacted the rest of your school community?

Meet the Editors

Anika Turcotte (she/her/hers)

I began writing for my small school paper and eventually found my way to the UW through a Community Based Learning project. My first piece was about referees and how they adapted to COVID. When I arrived at the field to do my reporting I was nervous to approach strangers for interviews and pictures. However, once I got up the courage to pull out my voice recorder I was fascinated by the stories I heard and new things I learned. Nothing is more rewarding to me than piecing together a story and I have been writing for the UW ever since! 

I am currently a Junior at Montpelier High School where I play soccer and lacrosse. On the weekends you can find me at Sugarbush where I ski with my brother and friends.

Anna Hoppe (she/her/hers)

I started writing for my school paper and the UW last year after looking for a way to connect with my greater community and spark important conversations around issues like climate change, like with the UW’s Climate Report Card project. My first major article covered a school board candidate debate. That article showed me how much of an impact student journalism can have!

I am currently a senior at Essex High School, where I also participate in the environmental club, National Honor Society, and Spanish Honor Society. In my free time, I enjoy doing ballet, reading, hiking, and kayaking.

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