Lamoille Union High School girls’ soccer team triumphed in an overtime victory against the higher-seeded Missisquoi Valley Union High School team in the opening round of the Division 2 playoffs Oct. 27, but it wasn’t just the odds on the field the Lancers overcame.
The girls won despite being subjected to “repeated harassment, sexualization and debasement” by rowdy Missisquoi fans, which Lamoille played on its home turf, according to a statement released by the high school on Monday.
“At the start of the game, a large group of rowdy MVU fans gathered at midfield, which prompted Lamoille head coach Amy Sparks — in light of recent events with Hartford and Winooski soccer programs — to request that the referees be on alert for any inappropriate comments or behavior,” the statement read.
“By the end of the first half of play, Lamoille players reported inappropriate comments from fans. Some players requested substitutions and came off the field in tears, others requested to change field positions to be on the opposite side of the spectators,” the statement said.
At halftime, Sparks urged referees to act, to tell Missisquoi athletic director John Lumsden about the fan’s behavior and to have it stop immediately.
Though Vermont Principal Association Executive Director Jay Nichols said “the people on duty” told him that Missisquoi administrators did take action and remove some “kids” from the spectator area of the game, Lamoille Union reported that the harassment the girls faced from Missisquoi fans only intensified in the second half and into overtime.
According to Sparks, Lamoille Union staff had no contact with Missisquoi administrators during the game and were never informed about what actions the administrators did or did not take.
“Those gathered on the sidelines directed their comments at the players’ weight, chest sizes and disparaging their physical appearances. In addition, other players reported repeated comments about their families and parents. The level of spectator comments exceeded typical razzing of visiting players and support of their home team,” the statement said.
After recent incidents at Vermont high school games — including harassment Lamoille girls experienced earlier in the season and a highly publicized match between Winooski and Enosburg boys’ soccer teams that allegedly involved Enosburg hurling racist insults — referees at high school soccer games began reading a code of behavior for participants and players.
Among other regulations, those rules require participants and spectators to “behave in a respectful manner” and specifically ask spectators not to “heckle, jeer, distract or call players by name or jersey number,” among a series of other rules. A statement and the list of rules have recently been read before each high school soccer game.
But when Lamoille players asked referees to do something to address the Missisquoi fans, referees reportedly told the girls that the comments being hurled at them were not “mean enough” to warrant their involvement.
After hearing repeated complaints from her players, Sparks tried to talk to referees again as the tied game headed into overtime, insisted abusive fans be removed and referenced the rules of conduct.
Referees said they would speak with Missisquoi administrators but, according to Lamoille’s statement, “those responsible for the abuse were not removed, and when play resumed in overtime, the harassment of Lamoille players continued.”
Despite the personal targeting and abusive language, Lamoille players stayed in the game, and the Lancers won with a goal in overtime.
According to Nichols, the Vermont Principals Association main failsafe to protect teams against fan abuse allows coaches the power to end a match at any time.
“If I’m saying, ‘My team is being threatened, I’m not playing anymore,’ I can end the game right there,” Nichols said. “That could end up being a forfeit, depending on what the situation is and what the referees say happened, what everybody says happened.”
“To Mr. Nichols’ suggestion that I could have forfeited the game to avoid the harassment of my players, I would ask Mr. Nichols if he believes it is incumbent on female players to forfeit games to avoid being harassed or abused by spectators, or should spectators be expected to behave appropriately at sporting events?” Sparks said.
Another option to deal with abusive fan behavior, said Nichols, is to stop the match and remove all the fans, an action not taken by the referees or Missisquoi.
“There was never a moment where our players, even those most upset, said we should forfeit and walk away,” Sparks said. “This was their game, not the spectators. Our girls were playing the game by the rules, the spectators were not adhering to those new guidelines and rules set out by the VPA. In my opinion, it was clearly the spectators who should leave the field, not the Lancers.”
The school’s statement pointed out that “Lamoille players, withstanding the verbal abuse from the sidelines, continued on in overtime. Those girls targeted and most upset by the comments, refused to sit out of the game. They returned to the field of play, not wanting to relinquish a postseason game in a forfeit and reward the inappropriate behavior of the spectators.”
After the game, more details and specific fan comments were shared with coaches, parents and other school staff. Parents and Lamoille Union administrators were “appalled” by the “apparent lack of swift action and response” from referees and Missisquoi administration.
According to the school’s statement, an unnamed captain of the Lamoille soccer team shared the Vermont Principals Association report log with her teammates and encouraged them to file reports about their treatment by the fans, which prompted the association to reach out to the Lamoille Union administration.
In the days following the game, Lamoille Union High School athletic director Tim Messier and school district superintendent Catherine Gallagher met with the team.
“Lamoille Union does not condone this behavior from our own community and will not tolerate our students and athletes being subjected to this type of behavior,” the school’s statement said.
According to Lumsden, Missisquoi’s investigation into their fan’s behavior at the playoff game against Lamoille is ongoing but promised the school is looking into the matter.
Lamoille is waiting for the results of Missisquoi’s investigation before making any further comment.
On Monday, Nov. 1, the Vermont Principals Association said both spectators and media would be banned from a rematch between Winooski and Enosburg in the semifinals of the boys’ soccer Division 3 playoffs scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 2.
The decision to bar media from the match was made by Winooski, which is hosting the game.
After the Enosburg-based County Courier and Mike Donoghue, who writes for the News & Citizen and is the executive director of the Vermont Press Association, threatened a lawsuit, Winooski and the association reversed course, allowing media but not spectators at the game.