Football, and Football at Lakeside


Content Warning: Mentions of sexual assault and rape

The culture of football in America has undoubtedly unhealthy aspects. Disparities and injustices are glaringly apparent at the highest levels of the sport. At many colleges and universities in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), football coaches are paid more than any other university employee, even the president. In many states, in fact, they are the highest paid of all publicly-paid employees. The University of Alabama, whose football team is consistently at the top of the NCAA rankings, paid its head coach, Nick Saban, more than $10 million in 2021. The $755,000 annual salary of the university’s president Stuart Bell, according to the Washington Post, would only be the fourth highest among the Alabama football coaching staff. Additionally, big-program athletes are routinely at the center of scandals involving money, special treatment in the classroom, and double-standards in cases of discipline and criminal behavior. Disparities like this exist throughout the world of college football and beyond, and can lead to a concerning culture. 

In November of 2016, former National Football League (NFL) star and broadcaster Darren Sharper was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty or no contest to various charges of drugging and raping nine women in four states. Over the past several years, there have been numerous cases like this one involving professional players, and some experts argue that football is the underlying cause. Many have voiced agitation about the entitlement and toxicity that is created in the football community. 

Many researchers state that rape is particularly prevalent among those who play aggressive team sports, and that the behavior is driven by a so-called rape culture that normalizes sexual violence against women. They also believe college and professional athletes may feel a sense of entitlement because of their celebrity status and that teams and schools sometimes minimize or cover up bad behavior to avoid negative publicity that could harm big-money sports programs. Research released six years ago by economic researchers Jason Lindo, Peter Siminski and Isaac Swensen for the National Bureau of Economic Research offers a troubling look at an aspect of college football, stating that Division 1 football games increase daily reports of rape among 17- to 24-year-old victims by 28 percent. 

Taking into account these positive portrayals of Lakeside football, the question now becomes this: are these claims of inequality made by students substantiated, or are they simply a result of negative views on football at higher levels?

All of these things contribute to the overall view of football in our broader society. Countrywide, people think that the culture of the sport is toxic and unjust. At Lakeside, these concerns are echoed. But are they fair?

A few months ago, Tatler posed a question to its monthly poll: What are your thoughts on Lakeside football? Purposefully a very open-ended question, dozens of responses poured in. One student responded, “For as much as Lakeside claims to be an inclusive and respectful place, football is not great. I know they have improved over the years, but especially in light of the recent group chat situation, I believe football has exacerbated toxic masculinity within many football players.” Unfortunately, though the Tatler poll is not a scientific poll, many students shared the same concerns. A majority of the 113 respondents mentioned the football team’s low metro and state rankings as well as a perceived abundance of funding and privileges that other higher-ranked sports teams don’t get. As such, the team is often belittled for the attention they get from the school despite their lack of wins. A few poll respondents, however, stated that, “the football team can be a source of bonding and community that otherwise wouldn’t exist for some of the people on it,” and that “football games are really great to go to in order to have time to socialize with others within the community and forge strong bonds.” Taking into account these positive portrayals of Lakeside football, the question now becomes this: are these claims of inequality made by students substantiated, or are they simply a result of negative views on football at higher levels?

To explore the truth behind football at Lakeside, Tatler spoke to Mike Lengel, the head of the football program at Lakeside, Chris Hartley, our director of athletics, and Luke L. ’23 and Kuba H. ’23, the current captains of the football team. When asked for comment, Coach Lengel said immediately, “I think that people are right to not like football for a lot of reasons.” As someone who played college football, Lengel told Tatler about how he experienced the toxic environments that can be present in the sport. He explained how his coaches only ever cared about winning, saying that he “never felt like they cared about me as a person.” He described how he witnessed that football can be extremely damaging to young people’s brains and mindsets. Lengel said that his mission as head football coach at Lakeside is to make sure that nobody that plays football here has the experience that he had. 

However, despite knowing the negative sides of football firsthand, Lengel said that though it is important to recognize these aspects of football, he would caution people to make sure they aren’t subconsciously projecting them onto the Lakeside football team. “There’s nothing that Lakeside football can do to erase the negative stereotypes of football,” he said. Instead, he tells his players that “if there are already negative perceptions, or if people already think things about our football team, that image of you walks into a room before you do. And it’s your responsibility. You don’t just get to join the football team and not shoulder some of those things that come along with being a part of [it].” 

Football at Lakeside is inherently going to be affected by the culture of football at higher levels. Stereotypes about the sport and its culture are not baseless. They have been proven by countless examples in the NCAA and the NFL, and that, fairly or unfairly — sets a tone for football at Lakeside.

Lengel also described to Tatler how he and the football program are doing their best to actively work to change some of society’s broader perceptions. He recognizes that it, “takes active work, it takes practice, and it takes reflection. And so we do a lot of work around mindfulness and reflection and conversations between people. And we try to keep ongoing conversations about what it means to play on Lakeside’s football team.” The football team starts every meeting, every practice, every game, with a minute of breathing and learning how to be present and centered. The coaching staff has open lines of communication with every player, in the hopes of encouraging players to be open and honest. He emphasizes that he coaches his players with the goal of shaping good people and citizens first and the aim of shaping good football players second. 

Many on campus often poke fun at how football rarely wins. Football captain Kuba told Tatler, “We definitely hear all the stuff that people say about us. And like, we’re not proud of our record. No one wants to be two-and-eight. I don’t want to be two-and-eight. I know the team doesn’t want to be two-and-eight. But all we can really say is we’re working. This sport means a lot to me. This sport means a lot to the team. And it’s sad that our record doesn’t show that, but we’re gonna work to improve it, and we’re gonna work to fix it, because we know that we can. We have a lot more potential than what we typically display.”

The other complaint that emerged in the Tatler poll regarding the football team is about unfair funding. In the poll, students said things like, “They should share the turf field with soccer,” and “I wish less of the funds were allocated to that one sport, especially since they’re objectively one of the worse teams at Lakeside,” also mentioning extra apparel like sweatshirts, unnecessary new helmets, and team meals. To look into those concerns, Tatler spoke to Mr. Hartley. 

Mr. Hartley spoke to a few main things, first being the issue of equipment. He told Tatler that the fact is that “football requires more equipment than most other sports. So, there is a big difference between what the golf team needs and what football needs. Golfers tend to have their own clubs, so there is not much else needed.” Football requires helmets and pads, blocking dummies, and balls in order to be successful. Most of these things are simply more expensive than the gear necessary for other sports. Big purchases rarely happen since the football team takes good care of their equipment, but some purchases are a necessity. Football, lacrosse, and baseball have helmets as part of their required equipment, which need to be replaced every few years as technology advances and makes them safer. The helmets the football team had before getting new ones this year were almost seven years old. 

Mr. Hartley also mentioned that another thing that goes into football’s higher budget is their need for more coaches. While some of Lakeside’s football coaches are actually volunteer coaches, the sport still requires additional staff due to the number of specialized players and positions. Nor is the number of coaches excessive, as the football program has around 50 players and other big programs like track and field and cross country have a similar number of coaches. There is also money budgeted for every athlete on every sports team to get one piece of apparel that players may keep. The same amount is set aside for athletes on each sports team, and no team receives extra funding for the purchase of additional apparel. The football coaches make use of that extra funding; not all other sports do, even though it’s available.

In response to concerns voiced about inequity in the number of Lakeside-provided meals football receives, Mr. Hartley told Tatler that “Lakeside athletics covers the cost of any team meals when team competitions begin after 5 p.m. (like basketball or football) or when teams have long competitions (like cross country or track & field). So, the football team gets meals on Fridays because their games are usually at 7 p.m. Soccer does not get regular team meals because games (for the most part) begin at 4 p.m. Those student-athletes do not need the meals. There is money budgeted in all team budgets for snacks and meals to support team bonding.” 

In addition to everything else discussed about football culture at Lakeside, there is a final topic that should be addressed: the perception of football’s perpetuation of toxic masculinity, and the things that it can lead to. Actions by members of the Lakeside football team this year have unfortunately given some merit to these concerns. During the football season this fall, several members of the football team were involved in an instance of sexual harassment in a football team group chat while many other members of the team were bystanders. Repercussions for this were handled by the Judicial Committee and administration, but many still wonder what this says about our football team. What about the culture of our football team made these players feel like this was okay?

Coach Lengel told Tatler that he wants to know the same thing. “Understanding what happened, why it happened, what role the culture of football played, is a really big thing for me to understand and figure out,” he said. Lengel emphasized that he fully agrees that everything that happened was damaging and inappropriate, but wants Lakeside to know that he and the football program are committed to making sure something like this never happens again. 

“We will be doing a lot of work this season on things like: what it means to be a bystander; what it means to be a leader; what it means to be the right kind of person that steps in and stops something like this from happening,” Lengel said, describing how the football team will be engaging in guided conversations and learning about how their actions contribute to the reinforcement of stereotypes about their sport. They will continue to discuss how their actions can be harmful to the team, school, and individual people. “It’s important work, and we’re committed to it.” 

Team captains Luke and Kuba spoke to the same commitment to changing the culture of football at Lakeside. Kuba explained that, “if this wasn’t called out initially, then this would just be accepted as part of our culture. But I feel like that’s the reason that this is so polarizing. It was because it was called out.” He says that for the longest time, no one would have thought twice about the incident in the group chat. In the past, because of the culture of football, things like that were just accepted. He is glad that it was called out, because that is the first step to changing things. He finished by saying that he and Luke as captains, “have the power and the platform to change [the culture]. Because ultimately, it starts with the leadership: it starts up top. That’s the only way that anything is ever gonna change.”

Luke added that, “it’s our responsibility. Our best start to [changing] is just shutting that stuff down when it happens. And I think we just kind of have to start there. Once we do that, that just becomes the way that our team is. Like our juniors, they see us and they’re, like, this is how they did it. So we’ll do the same thing right. And then, over time, hopefully that will flush that stuff out.” He explains how, as younger players enter the team, they just want to fit in and find their place. While in no way an excuse, it’s understandable that they may seek to act on the example of older players. Luke said that to change this, he and Kuba want “to build an environment where people can feel safe. People shouldn’t have to feel like they’re gonna be ostracized if they want to speak out. It’s up to us to make that a place where that can happen.” 

Football at Lakeside is inherently going to be affected by the culture of football at higher levels. Stereotypes about the sport and its culture are not baseless. They have been proven by countless examples in the NCAA and the NFL, and that, fairly or unfairly — sets a tone for football at Lakeside. Professional players and coaches have created a culture around football that is difficult to shake. As a result, players at Lakeside see these examples and are influenced by them. It’s up to the leadership on our team to instead create new examples.

It is so important for our community to continue to hold each other accountable, and for us to take accountability for our mistakes. There is no other way for us to grow and learn, and that is what Lakeside is all about. The football team is an example of this partnership of growth. The team acted inappropriately, and someone called them out. In the future, Lakeside football will continue to grow and improve, and the Lakeside community will continue to make sure everyone is held responsible for their actions. As time goes on, we hope to see significant changes in the culture of football, at least at Lakeside.