A bag of footballs in a field
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Recreation & Sports

Column: SoCal power Mater Dei must make changes after video exposes football program culture of hazing

It’s difficult to understand why Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson and principal Frances Clare still have jobs after video exposes hazing within the team, Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke writes.

Plastered across one wall of the Mater Dei High School football locker room are the words, “Pride Poise Courage.”

What is happening underneath that sign is shameful, brutal, and cowardly.

Two players preparing to fight. The bigger player is 235 pounds. He is smiling. The smaller player is 175 pounds. He is frowning.

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The smaller player clearly doesn’t want to be here, but he doesn’t have a choice. He is new to the nationally renowned Monarch football team and must prove himself. The smaller player must engage the bigger player in a hazing drill called, “Bodies,” in which two players pound each other in the torso until one of them drops.

Their combat from Feb. 4 was captured in two chilling videos viewed by The Los Angeles Times, the disturbing images being the centerpiece of a lawsuit filed by the smaller player’s family last week against Mater Dei and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

“Ready…three, two, one…go!” shouts a voice, and they begin to brawl.

It is Mater Dei’s version of “Fight Club,” except that this is not a fair fight.

The smaller player, shirtless and wearing a cross around his neck, lunges and misses and slips. The bigger player starts charging and pounding.

About halfway into the nearly minute-long fight, the bigger player throws the smaller player to the ground. The smaller player bounces back up, and so the bigger player moves in to finish him.

The bigger player hits the smaller player with a right to the face in a blow so hard you can hear it. Smack! Then he hits him with a left to the face. Smack!

The smaller player stops fighting and is standing still, holding his head as blood spills out from around his eyes and…Smack!...the bigger player lands one more frightening right to the head. A sucker punch.

“Chill, chill, chill,” shouts a voice.

“All right, it’s over,” shouts another voice.

“Oh my goodness,” shouts a third voice.

The smaller player faces his tormentor with blood on his face and a sway in his gait. The unwritten rules of the hazing exercise had been broken, punches had been thrown above the shoulder, and the smaller player can’t understand.

In addition to gashes over both eyes, he would eventually be diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and a broken nose that required surgery.

“What the f— are you doing?” the smaller player shouts to the bigger player. “This was Bodies!”

It is indeed a ritual so common with rules so understood, among the handful of players in the locker room during the fight, two of them are idly looking down at their phones, and others are sitting quietly. What is happening in the middle of the room is the sort of untethered violence that would bring a boxing crowd to its stomping feet, yet until that final sucker punch there was no noise, no reaction, and certainly nobody trying to break it up.

This isn’t some schoolyard showdown after classes in the back of a darkened playground. This is a sanctioned fight in the middle of a school facility in the middle of the day in a room adjacent to the office of longtime football coach Bruce Rollinson.

According to the lawsuit, which refers to the smaller player as Player One, this is the culture of Mater Dei football.

Watching the videos, it is difficult not to agree. They span only 55 seconds, but it feels like an eternity. They are shocking in their raw reality. They are disturbing in their feral images and sickening sounds. They are painful to watch, difficult to stomach, the hardest of hard evidence.

Reading the supporting material in the lawsuit along with the documented facts of the incident, it is difficult to understand how Rollinson and longtime Principal Frances Clare still have their jobs.

Player One was not only beat up, but he suffered through an obvious attempt at a cover-up that makes Mater Dei football look like some second-rate gang of bullies.

“Mater Dei has a culture of winning at all costs, and a culture of cover-up at all costs,” said Michael Reck, one of the attorneys for Player One. “They’re treating their kids like commodities.”

Player One was initially told by teammates not to “snitch,” but when the school’s officials figured out what had happened, they apparently didn’t want to openly acknowledge the reason for the injuries, and his parents weren’t called for 90 minutes.

When his father finally spoke to Rollinson the next day, the coach dismissed the incident as child’s play, saying, “If I had 100 dollars every time these kids played, ‘Bodies’ or ‘Slappies,’ I’d be a millionaire.”

Rollinson also is accused of telling Player One’s father that he couldn’t discipline Player Two because his father was an influential local youth football coach who had worked with several players at Mater Dei.

But the school did administer punishment. In a move as outrageous as any sucker punch, the school actually suspended Player One for fighting, a suspension that was eventually rescinded.

Meanwhile, Player One’s father’s efforts to meet with Clare were stonewalled.

“To this day, Principal Clare has never addressed the concerns raised by the Plaintiff’s parents, instead opting to be evasive and deflective,” according to the complaint.

The family of Player One was also told by Mater Dei officials that there was no video of the fight, which proved to be untrue and represented another attempt at a cover-up.

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Mater Dei also initially refused to cooperate with a local police investigation into the fight, and, according to the Southern California News Group, did not meet with the Santa Ana Police Department until nearly three months after the incident. Even then, the school did not admit any knowledge of the fight and, despite what he had initially told the father of Player One, Rollinson told police that he had, ‘No knowledge of Bodies, or any form of hazing.’”

While the Santa Ana police department recommended filing felony battery charges against Player Two, according to the Southern California News Group, the Orange County District Attorney’s office chose not to file charges because it deemed the fight as mutual combat.

Player One transferred shortly after the fight but, as a final insult, Mater Dei placed a disciplinary restriction on his file so he could not play sports at his new school. The situation was eventually resolved, but the message was clear.

You do not mess with Mater Dei football.

When you acknowledge that you are a victim of Monarch hazing, the hazing is only beginning.

The program’s inability to protect its players is reprehensible, but even worse is its apparent refusal to take accountability when a player’s safety is compromised.

“They didn’t do the right thing even after the fact,” said Brian L. Williams, another attorney for the plaintiff. “They circled the wagons and they protected the brand.”

The school’s motto is Honor, Glory and Love, but when it comes to the football team, it’s apparently Glory, Glory and Glory. Those eight CIF titles and four national titles in Rollinson’s 33 years apparently don’t come cheap.

Player One and his family are alleging negligence, violation of California’s hazing penal code, failure to properly protect the player and infliction of emotional distress. They are seeking damages to be determined during a trial along with medical expenses, legal costs, interest and any other relief the court deems proper.

But there is a bigger picture here.

You must wonder, over the past three decades, how many other Mater Dei athletes have been injured in sanctioned locker-room fights, yet never reported it because they didn’t want to “snitch?”

You also must wonder, if Rollinson ignores such dangerous activities just steps from his office, what else does he ignore? What other hazing activities are taking place? In the wake of the lawsuit, this newspaper has already received different kinds of Mater Dei hazing videos. How many more are out there?

Finally, you have to ask, if the school will go to such great lengths to hide one locker room fight between two anonymous kids, what else are they covering up? What other rules are they breaking?

These are questions for the Diocese of Orange, which should immediately order an independent investigation into an institution that so famously represents 1.6 million Catholics in 57 parishes and centers. The Catholic church doesn’t have a great history of looking inward, granted, but this stain just became very public and is only going to grow.

Rollinson needs to be held accountable for the hazing, a tradition that generally will get a coach fired. Clare needs to be held accountable for the cover-up, which, as usual, is just as bad as the incident.

Mater Dei has said little since the lawsuit was filed.

“We’re not commenting on the story because they are minors and there’s pending litigation,” said Allison Bergeron, Mater Dei’s executive direction of communications.

Father Walter E. Jenkins, Mater Dei’s president, wrote an open letter to the Mater Dei community asking for, “Faith and trust as we navigate the process ahead.”

Right now, it’s tough to have either faith or trust in an institution that has strayed so far from its intended mission.

Perhaps the most compelling Mater Dei comment came from Rollinson himself when asked, as the Monarchs defeated Servite Friday night, to put the recent lawsuit-driven storm clouds into perspective.

“I just won a CIF championship,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.