In response to repeated heckling at an away game last Thursday that was allegedly sexual in nature, the Hartford High School (White River Junction, Vermont) girls soccer team walked off the field with six minutes to play.
When the Hurricanes next took the field, just two days later, they decided it was their time to be heard.
There were no individual player introductions; the young women opted to be introduced as one.
Their opponent, Otter Valley Union High School (Brandon, Vermont), chose to do the same. At midfield, in a show of solidarity, they lined up and linked arms, but the teams weren't on opposite sides of the center line. Players from both teams were alternating and stood together.
Then a few of the senior leaders on Hartford's team took microphones and addressed the crowd. They read a variation of a statement prepared by the school's athletic leadership council that had been written Friday.
Then, like they would for any game, and to complete the purpose of why they were there, both teams heard the playing of the national anthem — arms still locked — and they played the sport they love.
A statement from Hartford High School’s athletic leadership council. pic.twitter.com/EPSu4sgszf
— Caroline Hamilton (@CarolineJH22) October 9, 2021
"Really, what this is all about — and it's got echoes of the gymnastics scandal, the figure skating scandals and the NWSL thing — girls and women should be able to participate in athletics without being sexualized the same way that boys and men aren't sexualized," Hartford's girls soccer coach Jeff Acker told USA TODAY Sports. "I played soccer my whole life. Never once was I sexualized by an opponent, by a fan, by a coach, by anyone. I was just a soccer player. Girls and women deserve that same opportunity at every level, but certainly at the high school level.
"That opportunity was taken from my kids, simply because of their gender. This would never happen to a boy."
In the face of the incident, this group of young women has chosen to use their voices and their platform to speak out against these issues. And their strength is getting noticed. State representative Becca White tweeted that she was proud of the team and that "this is what bravery looks like." This was after an influential executive and pastor in Massachusetts Council of Churches tweeted about it. And the team is looking to change the system that allowed the alleged harassment to take place.
So proud of our Hartford girls for standing up against sexism and harrasment- this is what bravery looks like. I think a state house resolution is in order for this win for solidarity ❤️. #vtpoli https://t.co/Cr5qCogKLY
— State Rep. Becca White (@rebeccastudent) October 12, 2021
The alleged sexual comments came from the student section at Fair Haven Union High (Fair Haven, Vermont), Acker said, in a 6-0 Hartford loss Thursday.
Acker said one player "was specifically really singled out," though other players were also targets of the alleged harassment.
Acker, however, didn't know that it was happening at the time; the bleachers at the Fair Haven field are on the opposite side of the pitch. Throughout the game, all Acker noticed was that the crowd was making noise during stoppages of play when cheering would usually wane: balls kicked out of bounds, throw-ins, the time before set pieces.
He noticed "that something was off." The body language of his players wasn't what it normally would be, even in a blowout.
Late in the game, the player who had been targeted simply walked off the pitch during a break in the action. She had enough. Acker sent an assistant coach to talk to the player.
The entire sequence caught Acker off guard. A substitution hadn't fully warmed up so he was trying to manage the game and figure out who would replace the player. The assistant coach then went to Acker and told him what had happened. Acker said he immediately went over to talk to the player, who confirmed what was said "in just three words."
He spent another minute trying to determine which player to substitute, when it hit him: Sending out another player would only make her a target of the harassment as well.
Acker then realized that the only option would be to walk off the field.
Getting reports that our girls soccer team did not finish their game tonight. They walked off the field. Together. As a team. They realized finishing the game was nowhere near as important as taking care of themselves and of each other
— HHS Athletics (@hcaneswirl) October 8, 2021
"I think we're all worried," Acker said. "They're getting all this support now, of course, and they need it. But what's the long-term? What happens when soccer season ends and everybody else turns the page, but some of these girls can't turn the page?"
After Hartford walked off the field Thursday night, they held a previously-scheduled light practice Friday in preparation for the Saturday game. At the Friday practice, Acker, Hartford athletic director Jeff Moreno and assistant principal Ben Gardner offered any and all players the forum to speak about the incident and discuss their thoughts and feelings, if they were interested in sharing. The message the administrators gave was: "It's your choice to decide how to respond. That's your ability to take your power back."
That was when they decided to read the statement at the Saturday game.
"They're just such resilient, incredible young women," Moreno told USA TODAY Sports. "They deserve so much better than what the world is giving them right now. For me, that's where the emotion came from, it hit me like a ton of bricks. We failed them. But here they are, still sitting here, enjoying every moment and playing a game two days later, with smiles on their faces."
While the young women on the team are the faces of this cause, they are also getting support around them.
Before the game Saturday against Otter Valley, there was one other thing Acker wanted to do to send a message. Late in the game that his team walked out of, he was planning on inserting three players who don't often get playing time as substitutions because the score had gotten out of hand.
Those players never got the chance to play because of the walk off. On Saturday, Acker made all three of them starters.
"That was my way of taking back my power to coach the team the way that I see fit because I wanted to do everything I could to help these kids take back their power as best as I could," Acker said. "Those three subs were cheated out of that time and I was going to make sure they got it."
Hartford won the game 3-1.
The Hartford boys soccer team actually had a scheduled game at Fair Haven on Friday, the day after the alleged harassment took place. After some discussion, the boys team was leaning toward not traveling. Some of the team's leaders, however, realized that by not playing, they would be forgoing a chance to use their platform.
Instead, they traveled to Fair Haven and read a variation of the statement written by the athletic leadership council to the same crowd, on the same field.
"It's important to acknowledge that this isn't just our world," Moreno said of the boys and men offering support. "If it's starting to bubble up to us, for us to notice it, how bad must it really be? That's something I keep thinking about."
Moreno said he is working in conjunction with Fair Haven athletic director Kim Alexander to investigate how the alleged sexual comments came to go unchecked.
Messages left by USA TODAY Sports for Alexander were not returned, but she told the Rutland Herald that Fair Haven "take(s) these allegations and accusations very seriously."
For his part, Moreno said he took ownership for not having sent Hartford administrators to the Fair Haven game to assist with any potential issues.
Hartford is scheduled to play Wednesday at Mount Anthony Union High School (Bennington, Vermont), in its first road game since the alleged harassment. Moreno said players will continue to be offered support. A senior at Hartford started a chapter of Hope Starts Here that specifically focuses on student athlete issues. The girls soccer team is also one that has a social emotional learning coach on its staff.
"In athletics, we talk about toughness," Acker said. "Someone took a big hit and bounced right back up or whatever. That's easy. That's fake tough. This is real tough. Because the system doesn't want to be changed. What I can tell you is, if we are allowed to have any say about it, the system in Vermont high school athletics will no longer allow this.
"You fight the man, the man fights back. The man has resources, but we have voices."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: High school girls soccer team speaks out for change after heckling