The Winooski soccer team at a game on September 28
The Vermont Principals' Association has taken the unprecedented step of banning spectators and members of the media from watching a high school soccer game in-person.
No members of the public can attend Tuesday's state playoff semifinal between Winooski and Enosburg Falls "to ensure the physical and emotional safety of all student-athletes involved," the Vermont Principals' Association said in a statement on Monday morning. The group governs middle- and high-school sports in the state.
Only team members, coaches, officials and school administrators can attend the game. It will be played at Burlington High School because it is a neutral location.
The decision quickly drew pushback from Mike Donoghue, a longtime local journalist who serves as executive director of the Vermont Press Association and the Vermont Sports Media Association. In a statement Monday afternoon, he said the groups had jointly filed an objection to the ban, with support from "various individual members."
The two soccer teams made news last month after a heated September 18 game. Winooski officials said that three Enosburg players hurled racial slurs — including "the N-word," "monkey," and "terrorist" — at the Winooski players. Meanwhile, an Enosburg player and his mother filed a complaint with the Winooski Police Department, alleging a Winooski player had headbutted him during the game.
The Vermont Principals' Association suspended the Winooski player for two games. And the police department subsequently filed paperwork with the Chittenden County State's Attorney's Office, saying an officer had found probable cause the 19-year-old committed simple assault.
But Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George said in an email on Monday that her office won't prosecute the student. She attached a letter that deputy state's attorney Lucas Collins sent to the Winooski PD explaining the decision.
"Participation in contact sports necessarily involves consent to a certain level of physical contact," Collins wrote. "Remedies for acts that go beyond the rules of the sport are available through the sport itself or the governing body. Only in the most egregious cases, where the acts are clearly outside the bounds of what could be expected in context of the sport, would criminal prosecution be appropriate.
"Having reviewed all the available evidence, I do not find that this case rises to that level," he continued. "I understand that the school and Vermont Principal’s Association have already taken up the matter, and as such I consider it properly addressed."
Vermont Principals' Association president Jay Nichols said he did not know of a previous time the organization had prohibited fans and media from a high school sports game due to concerns about athletes' physical and emotional safety. The decision was made in consultation with both schools, Nichols said.
Winooski and Enosburg officials had called off a second regular season match between the teams, which was supposed to take place in Enosburg on October 18, due to similar concerns.
Donoghue, in his statement, called on Winooski officials to reverse the ban or to hold an emergency school board meeting during which members of the public and press could weigh in on the decision.
At the time of the statement, neither superintendent Sean McMannon or Winooski school board chair Tori Cleiland had responded to the request, Donoghue said.
The investigation into allegations of racist slurs at the September game hit a dead-end earlier this month. Enosburg found no evidence to substantiate the claims, principal Joseph Donarum wrote in a report released October 18. But Donarum deemed the investigation incomplete because Winooski students declined to answer questions.
Winooski superintendent McMannon said in a statement on Monday that he supported the decision to bar spectators and members of the press from Tuesday's semifinal game. He noted that the match, scheduled for 3:30 p.m., will be livestreamed for those who want to watch it.
Winooski students and staff are planning to wear the school's colors — green and white — and "Winooski Strong" T-shirts to show support for the team, a district spokesperson said. The school district is also encouraging fans to make signs of encouragement and post them around the city.
The Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, which includes Enosburg Falls High School, also supports the ban, superintendent Lynn Cota wrote in an email Monday.
Donoghue, though, said that Winooski's plan to livestream the game falls short because it "does not allow for independent, neutral game coverage."
"If a fight breaks out, will Winooski shut off the camera?" he wrote. "We ask Winooski to reverse the decision and to restore independent news coverage, which has happened since long before the city was formed."