A group of Massachusetts parents are holding out hope for an apology or even just a correction from CNN’s Piers Morgan and others who, the parents say, unfairly smeared their kids in a story now lost like a pair of tube socks to the news cycle’s constant churn.
“These kids were slandered. Just absolutely torn apart,” said Tom Johnson, whose son is a member of the Lunenburg Blue Knights high school football team which was falsely accused en masse last November of spray painting racist graffiti on a teammate’s house.
Johnson, like all of the parents of Lunenburg football players I spoke to, is frustrated that nobody, including the media outlets and politicians who brought the case to national attention, has been held accountable for spreading the false claims that have sullied the reputation of their kids, their high school, and their community, a town of just over 10,000 about 55 miles west of Boston.
The most high-profile baseless attack came from Morgan who, on his show on November 20th, called the Lunenburg football players “gutless little cowards” and “horrible little bullies” during an interview with the Andrea Brazier and Anthony Phillips.
The couple claimed that members of the Blue Knights football team spray painted the words “Knights Don’t Need N******” – though with the last word spelled all the way out – across the concrete foundation at the back of their home.
Brazier, who is white, and Phillips, who is half-black, told police, local media, and Morgan that the graffiti was a racial attack aimed at their 13 year-old son Isaac, who also played on the team.
The athletes were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing in the case, but not before a 300 person candlelight vigil was held, an Acceptance and Diversity Advisory Committee was created at the school, and both Morgan and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick weighed in on the supposed bigotry of the football players.
But not everyone believed the Phillips family’s story. One Lunenburg mother who sent her 15 year-old son – also a football player – to stand in solidarity with Isaac Phillips during an interview said that she soon began to question the family’s story.
The driveway to the Phillips home is hundreds of feet long, she said. The graffiti was perfectly sprayed onto the concrete portion of the house’s foundation. It wasn’t carelessly painted as graffiti tagging often is, she thought. Also, the two or three pit bulls caged up at the back of the Phillips home would have been enough of a deterrent. All of this was enough to cast doubt on the family’s claim.
The mother’s intuition paralleled that of the police and the FBI, which was brought in to investigate the graffiti as a possible hate crime.
Two weeks after the Morgan interview, in early December, Lunenburg police cleared the Blue Knights saying there was no evidence that football players were involved. The investigation took another twist as police and the FBI began to doubt Brazier and Phillips themselves.
Chief Frank Marino told reporters that Brazier was a “strong suspect” in the case.
FBI investigators said that Brazier had stopped cooperating with the investigation and that her story was inconsistent, according to an affidavit. When the FBI offered a theory to Brazier that she had painted the slur herself, she said “OK” and asked to be allowed to speak to her husband before offering more information.
Authorities issued a search warrant and took two cans of spray paint from the home. But the investigation has mostly stalled. Worcester County district attorney Joseph Early said recently that his office does not have enough evidence to charge anyone with a crime, though both they and Lunenburg police are still collecting evidence.
But some school and local officials have tacitly admitted that they were wrong to blame the football players. As of last week, they were considering scheduling a make-up game to replace the one cancelled in November.
But that’s not enough for the parents I spoke to. Ideally, they say, they want Brazier and Phillips punished for either irresponsibly claiming that the football players were responsible for the graffiti or for what they maintain is a hoax – one that made several “The Year of the Hoax” lists.
The year 2013 was given that particular distinction after numerous stories that went viral turned out to be complete fabrications. Some of the hoaxes involved false accusations of bigotry, such as a claim made by a New Jersey lesbian waitress who said a family left an anti-gay message in lieu of a tip. With those stories, the hoaxsters stole our attention, our sympathy, and sometimes even our money, as was the case with the hoaxing waitress whose story generated several thousands of dollars in donations for her before it was debunked. And sometimes, the hoaxsters and their media enablers transferred our outrage to a group of people who didn’t deserve it.
Parents also want Morgan and Gov. Patrick held accountable for jumping the gun by blaming their kids.
“He is little man hiding behind his media status and freedom of speech,” one athlete’s mother said, of Morgan.
“How can he make such ignorant and unfounded assumptions and broadcast them on national television? How is this ok?” questioned the woman who sent her son to stand beside Isaac Phillips. She asked to remain anonymous.
“When the boys were exonerated, did he call the suspect a coward on national TV?” asked Laura Howes, whose 16 year-old son plays on the team. “I think not. I think Mr. Morgan is the coward by not publicly apologizing to these boys.”
“Mr. Morgan is an ass,” said Jeanette Leinson, bluntly. “Why have we not been vindicated by the media who threw us into this chaos?”
Blue Knights parents blame Gov. Patrick as well. The Democrat called the incident as reported by the Phillips family “disgusting” and offered them his support.
“But I hope that all of the people of the immediate community and around the Commonwealth as well rally around this family and send them their support and remind them what I know to be true, which is that we are better than this,” said Patrick, whose comments reminded some of President Obama’s statements in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting. The President’s statement that Martin “could have been my son” came days before evidence emerged that Martin had attacked Zimmerman.
“Why can he not rally behind us?” asked Leinson, who was frustrated enough by Gov. Patrick’s remarks that she contacted his personal secretary. “If it was an election year would it make a difference?”
“The governor should have stayed the heck out of it until he had all the facts,” said a small business owner whose son was a Blue Knight senior. The man also asked to remain anonymous for fear that his business would be targeted for speaking out.
But neither Patrick nor Piers Morgan have to circle back to revisit the story, even though they did not hesitate to weigh in on when it seemed to be in line with their political bent. Occupying their own powerful bully pulpits, both the pundit and the politician have the privilege of getting to weigh in on a story and then ignoring any developments that might undermine their initial stance.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Patrick told me that the governor would not be making any more comments on the case. A representative for Morgan waffled back-and-forth between saying that staff were conducting their own investigation on Brazier and Phillips to issuing a “no comment.”
But the parents wait and they worry about the long-term fallout from the false accusation.
Howes said that her son hopes to become a Marine. “He certainly doesn’t want the false allegations of a deranged woman to ruin his unblemished record.”
“Being accused of being a racist this day and age is awful,” said Howes who wonders if Knights football teams will be received kindly by other teams in the future.
The small business owner asked a similar question. “What’s going to happen when the team takes the field next year?”
Leinson also worried that the accusation would hinder the students’ collegiate hopes. “What if we are not vindicated nationwide and a college application is overlooked because of this incident?”
Lunenburg is a small town whose lone high school and football team is a central source of pride. It’s probably safe to say that these institutions and the kids and families at the center of them are less able to sustain accusations than people and schools in bigger cities. Or big TV talk show hosts and politicians. When you look at it like this and consider the new facts in the story, who seem like the bullies now – the Lunenburg Blue Knights or CNN, Piers Morgan, and Gov. Patrick?
Chuck Ross is a reporter for The Daily Caller News Foundation.