DUXBURY – In a meeting on the third night of Passover, Duxbury selectmen and residents anguished over the high school football team’s use of offensive and anti-Semitic terms such as “Auschwitz” to make audible play calls during a March 12 game against Plymouth North.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a Nazi death camp in Poland during World War II where more than 1 million Jews were murdered – including at least 200,000 children.
The players’ use of the offensive language on the field cost the high-school’s winning head football coach Dave Maimaron his coaching job, but it also hinted that this was a systemic failure and that it went on for years.
It has sent shockwaves of sadness, anger, embarrassment and hurt through this small South Shore community of 16,000. Both residents of the town’s small Jewish community and town residents and officials said they were affected.
“The hurtful events that have taken place have impacted all of us,” said Selectman Fernando Guitart during the March 29 remote meeting. “I’m appalled, shocked and back to shame and embarrassed.”
On March 24, after the incident came to light, Duxbury schools “severed ties” with its five-time Super Bowl football coach – nearly two weeks after the team reportedly used terms like “Auschwitz,” “rabbi,” and “dreidel” during the game.
Selectmen and residents spoke Monday night about ways they can come together in various groups, like Duxbury for All, to learn from this and heal, but not much more by way of specifics was learned.
Duxbury selectmen addressed the controversy after a group called Duxbury For All, formerly known as Prejudice Free Duxbury, issued a statement calling on selectmen to live up to its Feb. 1 anti-discrimination proclamation.
“We at Prejudice Free Duxbury were appalled to hear that our high school football team used blatantly anti-Semitic and other racist language in its play calls in a recent game,” the letter said. “A lapse of judgment on the part of immature young men? We think not. The choice of words such as ‘Auschwitz,’ ‘Gas Chamber,’ ‘Hitler,’ and ‘Holocaust’ can have one intent only—to hurt and offend. This behavior is symptomatic not only of bias, but the belief that belittling others is somehow acceptable behavior. The trivialization of genocide by coaches and players sets a precedent that has no place in building young men into future leaders.”
Board of Selectmen Chairperson Amy MacNab said the board could not promise such events would never happen again and acknowledged there were problems in the community. She said the town would work with organizations such as Duxbury for All, the school administration and volunteers on a “clear and collaborative process.”
“What we can promise is the town of Duxbury will never, ever be tolerant of anti-Semitism, bigotry, racism or any other forms of discrimination,” MacNab said.
After the incident became known, the school administration took action to investigate the incident, she said, and the town supports this move, but MacNab said the town could not speculate further while the investigation was ongoing.
“I’d say it’s a dramatic failure on the part of the coaches,” said Rabbi Howard Cohen of Congregation Shirat Hayam of Marshfield, in an interview.
The congregation is made up of about 40 families, he said. The rabbi said he recently spoke with the football team’s captains and heard there appeared to be a history of these audibles being used for some time.
For instance, the term “rabbit,” which would be used to signal a roll out to the right, became “rabbi.” Other words were then thrown in to disguise the signal. Somewhere along the way, Cohen said, more offensive terms like Auschwitz were added. “They couldn’t tell me when each of the terms fell into place,” Cohen said, adding he thought the coaches must’ve known what was going on.
“Why they chose ‘Auschwitz ‘and why the coaches didn’t stop it, I cannot begin to guess at that,” Cohen said. “To say it’s unfortunate is an understatement,” said Cohen of the incident. “It leaves us all wondering why they didn’t say anything.”
He said he tried to impress on the players that ‘Auschwitz’ is a general phrase for any number of Nazi death camps and is used as an affirmation of hate by neo-Nazis. Cohen said Duxbury schools have done work to address racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and other forms of hate.
He said the players he spoke with were remorseful and realized the seriousness of the incident, given how the pandemic has affected their football season, which was moved from the fall to the spring.
“Football is their life and everything has been upended,” Cohen said. He also said the coach’s life has been upended as well, but “ignorance” of such terms was no excuse. “He just developed a moral blind spot,” Cohen said.
In a statement, Duxbury Superintendent John Antonucci told the Jewish Journal that: “We are in the midst of an investigation into the use of inappropriate language by members of the DHS football team and cannot comment on the exact nature of the terms reportedly used or the duration of time the terms were used.”
Duxbury’s football season has not been canceled, the school department said through a public relations firm, though this week’s game against Whitman-Hanson has been canceled.
A letter from the high school principal and athletic director said the team planned to hold two mandatory “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workshops” over the next two weeks. The first took place on Wednesday morning in the school’s cafeteria.
“This program will focus on the Holocaust, not just as a historical event but as a lived experience that continues to impact families every day,” the letter said. “The second workshop will focus on the role and the responsibilities of being an upstander.”
In interviews with some in the Jewish community, and statements made during the Selectmen meeting, it’s unclear when the anti-Semitic and offensive words crept into the team’s playbook.
“If it was a one-time event,” said Karen Wong, a Jewish member of the Steering Committee of Duxbury for All, I think having some conversation and training and setting the record straight on what these words mean would’ve been sufficient. But it’s my understanding is this has been going on for years. Maybe almost 10 years.”
Last week, before he was fired from his coaching job, former Coach Maimaron apologized in a statement “for the insensitive, crass and inappropriate language used in the game.” Maimaron, who was hired by Duxbury in 2003 and has been the head football coach since 2005, earned a coaching stipend of $10,715, according to the school department. Maimaron, who is also employed as a special education teacher at the high school, has been placed on paid administrative leave from his teaching job, according to the school department.
Superintendent Antonucci, who was appointed in 2016, said he was not able to discuss any disciplinary action against players or coaches. In an email, Director of Athletics Thom Holdgate referred questions from the Jewish Journal to Antonucci.
Other members of the football coaching staff include assistant coaches Matt Landolfi, Jon Cuccinato, Kyle McCarthy and freshman coach Mike Armandi, according to the Duxbury High’s Athletics website. Landolfi runs the Partnership Program in the special education department, Cuccinato works in the high school’s guidance department, McCarthy coaches the high school’s wrestling team and Armandi works as an eighth-grade civics teacher.
In a statement last week, Antonucci called this “a systematic failure,” and reached out to the Anti-Defamation League.
“We certainly welcome the independent investigation. There are a lot of unanswered questions and the community needs answers and it’s essential to have those answers if we’re going to have a pathway forward that includes institutional change,” said Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Boston office.
Trestan said that since the incident became public, the ADL has fielded calls from people who reported that they heard the Duxbury team using these plays a year ago.
“This was a systemic institutional problem. What’s different about this case than other cases is that apparently it was going on for a long time, and nobody recognized that it was wrong, and nobody said anything. Nobody asked any questions,” said Trestan. “And that’s an indication that it wasn’t just one game, it was part of the program, it was part of the playbook that was supported and encouraged by the coaching staff.
“The question is how come nobody recognized that calling a football play ‘Auschwitz’ was a problem. Imagine if you’re a Jewish football player on that team or you’re a Jewish player on the opposing team, what message does that send when you hear that play called on the field? And how many students graduated from the program, and left with the message that it’s OK to use Auschwitz as a substitute for a football play? And what’s the impact of having learned that in high school, and heard it from the coach or an adult who is a role model? Those are important questions and I think that’s why this is a serious case.”
During Monday’s selectmen’s meeting, Antonucci urged against speculation until the investigation is completed.
“Honestly, I can’t share that much with you tonight,” said Antonucci, “because we are in the middle of an active investigation.” The investigator, Edward R. Mitnick of Just Training Solutions LLC, of Springfield was expected to begin its work this week, he said.
“Mr. Mitnick is an experienced attorney and investigator, and has provided services to employers throughout the United States for over 30 years,” Antonucci said in a statement last week. Mitnick is described on the company’s website as a “certified workplace mindfulness facilitator” and the company specializes in discrimination and diversity training.
Mitnick is certified in the area of Title IX investigations, the civil rights law forbidding sex-based discrimination in schools, and the company’s website says he “regularly conducts investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct on university campuses.”
Antonucci declined to provide selectmen a timeline for when the investigation would be completed.
Antonucci said he was optimistic this could be an opportunity to make “substantive and long-lasting change” around issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and religious and racial sensitivity.
Congregation Shirat Hayam in Marshfield also issued a statement that read in part: “The use of terms referring to the Holocaust and Auschwitz death camps has no place in any society that values inclusion and acceptance.”
“To have a reference to that tragic time in history used so flippantly during gameplay is horrifying,” the congregation’s statement went on to say.
On Thursday, April 1, the congregation planned to host an opportunity for Jewish and non-Jewish families that are hurting from the incident, given words were also used during the game that were hurtful to others, Karen Wong told selectmen Monday.
Wong said Monday the selectmen’s response was important while also sharing her thoughts about what the past week has meant to her as a Jewish woman whose husband is Chinese and having raised three kids in Duxbury.
“It’s mostly been a very positive experience,” Wong said of her time in Duxbury, “but I can tell you between the anti-Asian hate that’s been going on in the country and the recent murders [in Atlanta] that brought up a lot of stuff for my family, and then before that even got digested, we had this whole thing break with the football team,” Wong said.
Wong said in the past week she fielded “an unbelievable number of phone calls, emails, text messages from people in the Jewish community who are hurting, most of the people I didn’t even know.”
Wong said she was trying figure out what was going on, “because I think it’s well known this was not an isolated incident.”
She told selectmen she spoke with some current and former football families, and while she appreciated the dialog, “nobody that I spoke with will go on the record.” She hoped they would speak openly to the school department and its investigator “because that is really the only way that we can move on from here.”
Duxbury School Committee Chair Kellie Bresnehan said the committee condemned the offensive and anti-Semitic remarks made by the football team and said the school board was committed to working with the community.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with Karen [Wong] and community members the last 10 days, this has been my entire life,” Bresnehan said.
Christine Hill, a private admissions counselor in Duxbury, told selectmen about her misgivings regarding what happened.
“I am not at all surprised that this happened,” Hill said. She said she understood the reason for Antonucci’s need to keep much of it private, but she said she has contacted the schools in the past “when my clients have been having issues, my Jewish clients in particular, were being mistreated in the school, and not as much has been done as I would’ve liked. Really, nothing.”
“There is a long history of these things like Karen was talking about happening in Duxbury,” Hill added, “and it’s not just the football team, and I really want to make sure we get to the bottom of the entire systematic issue here.”
“Personally, as a community member, I’m disappointed, I’m sad, I’m grieving,” said Laura Neprud, the immediate past president of Marshfield’s Congregation Shirat Hayam and a member of the Steering Committee of Duxbury for All, in an interview.
Neprud does not know when the offensive terms crept in and said any use of religious terms should have been shut down immediately. “That would have been my gut instinct,” said Neprud, who works in special education for Duxbury Middle School.
Neprud said she has been dealing with the fallout nonstop since word of what happened broke on social media and then became public. She credited school officials and various groups in town taking action.
“It makes me sad,” Neprud said. “I love my town and the people I work with. It’s hard to reconcile there is this underbelly. It’s sad.”
She added that there are those on a town Facebook page defending the coach.
“He’s not a bad person, he’s just a man who made a mistake,” she said, adding, “he’s an adult in the room and he should’ve known better.”
The incident prompted state Sen. Barry Finegold, a Jewish member of the state Legislature who represents the 2nd Essex and Middlesex District, to reach out to the team.
“I have heard a lot of line-of-scrimmage audibles, but I never heard anyone use ‘Auschwitz’ before,” he wrote in a statement inviting the team to meet with him.
The Andover Democrat managed to meet with the team in a remote meeting on Saturday, March 27, on the eve of Passover. Finegold played football for Andover High and Franklin & Marshall College.
He said that after he issued his invitation, a team member called him. The superintendent and athletic director arranged a Zoom meeting which he said was well attended by the team. Finegold said he did not talk about the on-field incident, but instead concentrated on educating the team.
He spoke about the Holocaust, and included clips from the Steven Spielberg film about the Holocaust, “Schindler’s List.” He showed the team a picture of his family, his wife and three kids, and told the players these were the types of people who were killed in the death camps.
He played a clip of Auschwitz survivor and author Elie Wiesel talking about the importance of learning and remembering to create a better world so that history does not repeat itself.
Finegold said when he heard about the Duxbury incident, he felt bad for the team because they had almost lost their season due to the pandemic.
“At the same time, I was very offended by what was said, and I really truly believe the players are not racist, they are just ignorant, and what I really wanted to do is go down there and explain to them why saying a word like ‘Auschwitz’ is so harmful and hurtful to people who are Jewish,” Finegold said.
One of the things Finegold tried to impress on the team was the Hebrew concept of t’shuvah, which translates to returning or repentance.
“I believe there is a chance for redemption and I do believe being Jewish, you give people a chance for redemption, but I really wanted them to understand the seriousness and why using a word like ‘Auschwitz’ is so hurtful,” Finegold said.
He also got involved with the team because as a lawmaker, and knowing that 35 percent of students in Massachusetts can’t name a single concentration camp, “that’s a failure on all of us.” He said a bill to mandate teaching about genocide is something that needs to get passed this term.
Other Jewish members of the Legislature agreed.
State Senate President Karen Spilka of Ashland said on Twitter: “My father helped to liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp as a US Army soldier. As a Jew who lost family at Auschwitz, a daughter of a WWII veteran, I find the … news about the Duxbury football team and their use of anti-Semitic language appalling.” She called for accountability for those who failed to stop the use of the terms, and passage of the bill promoting genocide education.
“I could not be more appalled by the despicable use of tropes and anti-Semitic language by the Duxbury High School football team,” said state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat. “That it has apparently been going on for some time without any kind of acknowledgement by anyone in earshot is even more disturbing and demands accountability … There is no time like the present for the Commonwealth to mandate genocide education in our schools,” she added.
During the Monday’s selectmen meeting, the Rev. Dr. Catherine Cullen of First Parish Duxbury, the Steering Committee of Duxbury for All, and chairperson of the town’s Interfaith Council, said Duxbury for All was pleased the schools took prompt action to investigate the incident.
“We expect that they will discover that this incident is hardly an isolated incident,” Cullen said. She said the school system would be only part of the solution.
“What this has uncovered is really systemic bias and prejudice in our town that needs to be addressed by all of us. We see this as an opportunity for the town to come together and work on this systemic bias and prejudice.”
“If you let it go on, you don’t think it’s a problem,” said Bruce Rutter, a Duxbury marketing strategist and Steering Committee member of Duxbury for All, in an interview.
The reaction in town breaks down into three sets of people.
“One group was appalled by what happened,” Rutter said, who thought this would provide a “pivot point” for the town to learn from it. The second group was large, was horrified at what happened, but doesn’t fully grasp its significance. A third wonders why the coach was fired.
“This is a pretty nice town,” Rutter said. “I don’t think it’s anti-Semitic.” However, such sentiments have “underlain western civilization.” The town is a place where people are “probably less likely to do overtly hateful things.”
“It’s a continuation,” said Rabbi Cohen of what the incident represents. “It’s not a one-off. Hopefully, it won’t happen in Duxbury any time soon, but it’s going to happen somewhere else.”