Hartford girls soccer ends game over sexual harassment from the Fair Haven stands

  • Hartford High School girls soccer coach Jeff Acker in an undated photograph (Valley News file — Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file

  • Hartford head coach Jeff Acker strategizes with his team during halftime at the Woodstock at Hartford girls soccer game in White River Junction, Vt., on September 28, 2015. Woodstock won, 4-0. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Copyright ? Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

    Hartford High head girls soccer coach Jeff Acker strategizes with the Hurricanes during halftime of Monday’s 4-0 loss to Woodstock at the Maxfield Complex The visiting Wasps scored three times in the second half to pull away. Valley News photographs — Sarah Priestap Sarah Priestap

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/8/2021 10:35:59 PM
Modified: 10/9/2021 11:00:12 PM

Hartford High’s girls soccer team walked off the field with six minutes left in a game Thursday night because of sexual harassment from the stands, according to head coach Jeff Acker.

Acker pulled his team from the game, at Fair Haven Union High, after at least one of the Hurricanes was subjected to taunts from the Fair Haven student section that went “way beyond even normal unacceptable unsportsmanlike high school behavior,” according to Acker.

Acker said it was unlike anything he’d encountered in his 16 seasons coaching the Hurricanes.

“We understand that occasionally maybe somebody’s going to make a comment from the student section to a player on the opposing team. And that’s really unacceptable, and the administrators are typically right there to nip that stuff in the bud,” Acker said. “And this was well beyond that. This was about a high school athlete who was targeted for harassment based on her gender. Plain and simple.”

In a Facebook post in the Upper Valley (VT/NH) group, Sara Morris Blood — whose daughter, Katie, is a senior defender and team captain for Hartford — said the comments from the Fair Haven student section were sexual harassment.

“Yes, outright sexual harassment — barking, ‘hey, tuck in your shirt so we can see your ass!’, etc.” Blood wrote.

Acker said the comments targeted at least one player and that he only became aware it was happening in the second half.

He said he intends to follow up with players who were on that side of the field in the first half to see if they, too, were subjected to harassing taunts.

The Hurricanes’ bench was on the other side of the field from the host team’s student section, so Acker couldn’t hear the actual comments, but he said he could tell something was off based on his players’ body language, as well as the timing of the crowd noise.

“We would get a throw-in, just at midfield. And all of a sudden their student section would be making all sorts of noise. Nobody’s cheering when the other team gets a throw in midfield, like this is not normal,” Acker said. “Well, what was happening was, in those instances, for example, my player would go over, she’d have to take the throw, and now she’s right in front of the student section. And then that’s when the comments would come out.”

Acker estimated 30 to 50 people were in the Slaters’ student section Thursday.

He said he decided to take the Hurricanes off the field when the player who had taken the brunt of the abuse in the second half came off the field, unprompted, during a break in action after a goal put Fair Haven up, 6-0.

There wasn’t a substitute prepared to go in. It wasn’t a coaching move. The player left the field on her own. She’d had enough, Acker said.

Acker sent another player into the game, but after a moment, he reconsidered.

“It occurred to me that what I had done was I had just put another girl out there to be the target. And that’s when I said I can’t (do that). I have to protect everybody. I have to protect that girl. I have to protect us. We’re not standing here anymore,” Acker said.

At that point, Acker walked out on the field, sent his team to pack up their belongings and go straight to the bus. He talked with the officials at midfield to explain the situation, and then Hartford headed back to White River Junction.

Hurricanes athletic director Jeff Moreno and Slaters athletic director Kim Alexander were working together Friday to investigate the incident, according to Alexander.

Alexander said Fair Haven officials are aware of the allegations. She said she was at the game but would not comment further.

“We’re taking it very seriously,” Alexander said. “We’re looking into all the allegations. And we’re going to work collaboratively with Hartford and work through any and all of the issues that may or may not exist.”

Hartford boys soccer traveled to take on Fair Haven on Friday evening.

Meanwhile, the girls team reconvened for practice Friday. Assistant coach Joe Cerniglia said the team talked about what happened and that the players expressed their thoughts and feelings.

He said everyone will have their own timeline for fully processing the situation, but that it will make the team a closer group going forward.

“Everyone’s fine, as best as you can be given the circumstances,” Cerniglia said. “It’s certainly going to take different players and student-athletes time to process their emotions. But overall, my take is that everybody is in a good place, looking to move forward and ready to get ready to play Otter Valley.”

The Hartford girls’ next game against the Otters is Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Maxfield Sports Complex.

The Fair Haven incident came the same week the Burlington School District confirmed that racist comments were directed toward the high school’s girls varsity volleyball team Wednesday. WCAX-TV reported that the comments reportedly came from the South Burlington stands and were directed at the Burlington varsity girls volleyball team.

The comments were reported to an official, and the Burlington coach then pulled her team off the court.

Late last month, Enosburg Falls High boys soccer players and spectators targeted Winooski High players with racist taunts during a game, the Winooski superintendent has alleged.

According to VTDigger, hundreds of people gathered last week in Winooski to show support for the soccer team.

During a game against visiting Oxbow High, many people in the crowd of all ages wore black shirts that read “Winooski Strong” on the front, VTDigger reported. Some brought handmade signs bearing messages such as “We Believe Black Lives Matter” and “We (heart) Winooski Soccer.”

Sexual harassment also has been a topic of conversation this week in women’s professional soccer.

A high-profile coach and the National Women’s Soccer League’s top official resigned this week after allegations of sexual harassment brought by two former players.

Players paused action on the field in the sixth minute of Wednesday night’s NWSL games and linked arms in a circle to demonstrate solidarity with the women who came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.

“Tonight, we reclaim our place on the field, because we will not let our joy be taken from us,” the NWSL Players Association said in a statement released Wednesday night. “But this is not business as usual.”

The league called off last weekend’s games while it came to terms with the allegations leveled by players.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

Seth Tow can be reached at stow@vnews.com.

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