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Salk: Tragic Issaquah story reveals priority problem in sports culture

Two weeks ago, this story ran on MyNorthwest and other media outlets in Seattle. It is hard to read. It tells of a teen girl in Issaquah who was raped by her “boyfriend” and another teen. The rapists were football players at Skyline High School who plead guilty to sexual assault and transferred to Gig Harbor.

That is a terrible story. No one should have to go through an incident of that magnitude, let alone a teenager. Her life will be forever changed and my heart aches for her and her family.

And yet the news is not about the rape nor is it even about guilty plea entered by the two assailants. Those happened years ago. It is about a community that bullied and harassed the victim and her family and the school district that did not come to their aid.

Yes. You read that correctly. The community bullied and harassed the victim. Not the rapists. The victim and her family. Nathaniel Hawthorne would be so proud.

I did a little digging into this case, talking to folks in the community, the Domestic Violence prevention world and experts in legal cases like this. The resounding message was that this was not an uncommon story. It stands out because many of the facts are not in dispute. The attackers plead guilty so they are not “alleged attackers” like we so often see. Many of the threats and incidents of harassment that occurred later have been documented so there is not a debate over who really did what. The legal case will come down to whether the school district is responsible for the actions in the community.

On a personal level, this story terrifies me. It’s easy to say that I worry about my young daughters one day being in this same situation — easy, because it is true. But I also worry about others –other people’s children, sisters, and friends.

But it also leads to a lot of questions about our priorities. I love sports. I grew up playing and watching them constantly. I was very competitive (even if I wasn’t destined for greatness) and I wanted to keep score and win. I learned as many lessons through athletics as I did in school and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

But athletics were kept in balance. They were a part of life, not life itself. For most of us, there will be no athletic scholarship let alone a professional salary. And so our team activities are fun learning experiences. A chance to compete and run around while taking in the lessons that prepare us for adulthood.

This story shows imbalance.

If the reaction to an assault conviction in your community is to worry about how it affects the football team’s ranking, sports may have become too important. If one’s sense of community is solely defined by athletic achievements at the local high school, it is easy to miss the real problem right under our collective nose.

I don’t want this to just be about moral hand-wringing. I am horrified by this story, but I think there is a clear path to avoiding this type of thing in the future. There is a program in Seattle called Coaching Boys Into Men.

It aims to curb domestic violence and sexual assault by working with young athletes to help them learn to lead with respect.  The early results have been incredibly positive and the program is looking to grow in the Seattle region. Athletes tend to be leaders and they tend to listen to their coaches. This program offers those coaches a way to teach athletes to lead the right way.

It isn’t a reaction after the fact. It isn’t a lawsuit that costs taxpayers money and costs a school and community their reputation. It is a simple way to do some good and tackle a real (though often unspoken) problem at its root.

My goal here isn’t to torch any one community or to retry any one case. It’s just to point out that there is a creative new path. I look forward to seeing where it leads.

RELATED: 2 women sue school district for bullying, retaliation after rape