A late-night report by our sports staff back on Sept. 7 was both troubling and surprising.
There had been a "scuffle" following the high school football game between Naples High School and long-time rival Immokalee High. An Immokalee coach and a number of players climbed into the stands following a 55-29 loss.
It's always troubling when the blocking and tackling on an athletic field doesn't end at the final gun.
It's always surprising when you hear reports that Immokalee high school students acted in any manner other than respectful and dignified, even in defeat.
(A personal note: I first met Immokalee 34 years ago this Tuesday when I joined the Naples Daily News as a reporter. Immokalee was my beat. I came to know the community well and the people. Immokalee High School has a reputation among educators and visitors as harboring the most polite, respectful, motivated students in Southwest Florida. It's a "rep" that's well-earned.)
Details were few and far between that night, but it was clear that the incident didn't involve Naples fans or players. This wasn't bad blood between schools; it was something internal to Immokalee, even though the game was being played 45 miles away in Naples.
The Collier County School District, citing student privacy concerns and a need to do a complete investigation, issued little information following the incident.
Adam Fisher, a Daily News reporter, did an exceptional job sorting fact from rumor and tracking down those who knew what had happened.
Within days, he reported that there was a shouting match in the stands behind the Immokalee team bench as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Rodelin Anthony, an assistant football coach, saw that the heated words involved his fiancé, who was there to watch the game with the couple's young son. He rushed to her, jumping a railing that led to the spectator seating. Several players followed their coach.
By the time they got there the dispute among fans had ended and the coach and players had stopped short of an altercation.
Fisher found that three Immokalee fans were being blamed for sparking the incident and they had been banned from all future school games and activities.
This past week, the Daily News was notified by the school district that its investigation was over, making the findings a public record. We picked up the 126-page document and it confirmed that our earlier reporting was on the money. It also gave us some insight on what's been going on in Immokalee – a few bad apples for weeks and months have been causing duress, even fear.
On the plus side, the report showed that Immokalee High School is more than holding its own.
(bullet) The school continues to preach respect and sportsmanship.
The shouting match in the stands was sparked by a play on the field, the investigator found.
Late in the game, an Immokalee player blocked a Naples player to the ground, the whistle sounded and the Naples player extended his hand to the Immokalee player to be helped up. The blocker declined and stood over his opponent, his helmeted head wagging from side to side. After another play, the ball changed possession and the blocker trotted to the sideline. When he got there assistant coach Anthony met him for a teaching moment. "You are better than that, have better class than that," the coach told the player, as a way of reminding him that helping up an opponent is a team standard. The player, perhaps frustrated by the score, responded, "I don't care." A second coach stepped in. Words were loudly exchanged, including this from the player to the second coach: "I'll kick your (expletive) ass..."
The player's father, brother and a friend witnessed this from up in the stands and, according to a dozen witnesses interviewed by the investigator, started yelling similar threats to the second coach. That coach's girlfriend along with Coach Anthony's fiancé were sitting in front of the three irate fans and the yelling escalated, according to the sworn statements. The sworn statements all said that the three spectators were cursing and heckling the team and coaches by name the entire game.
(bullet) Immokalee's coaches and players have each other's backs.
When Coach Anthony ran to the stands to make sure his loved ones were OK, between three and seven players followed, but not to fight. In sworn statement after sworn statement the players said they were hoping to stop him for fear there would be an altercation and their beloved assistant coach would lose his job. The reported "scuffle" the night of the game was really players holding other players back from going into the stands to retrieve their coach.
One player's testimony is worthy of note here. It shows the toll a small group of fans can take.
"Throughout the game, I heard multiple people in the stands yelling out that we suck and that we need to fire our coaches and get new coaches," the player testified. "The thing that bothered me about Friday night was that our own people had turned against us."
That leads to a bigger issue for Immokalee.
A few fans, the investigation revealed, have magnified the bad side of high school sports.
In a sworn statement, one student called one of the banned spectators "a cancer to our community and to our football team."
In another sworn statement, Head Coach Jerrod Ackley revealed. "One of my JV players came to me a few weeks ago and told me that he and his youth group at church had been praying for the safety of me and the other coaches because they heard that members of the community were going to harm us."
A coach's wife testified that there are threats and they have to be taken seriously:
"When I go home, I check in my mirror to make sure no one is following me."
Others told the investigators that a small group of fans have been trying to garner community support to fire the coaches.
That, unfortunately, is not unusual in high school sports. I used to be a sports editor in a small community in Ohio. It happens. As a parent I've seen it happen in Naples.
It's a challenge.
I've seen Immokalee handle challenges in the past. I'm confident it will again.
Phil Lewis is executive editor of the Naples Daily News. His email address is email@example.com