Local Basketball Team Embroiled in Controversy

While ‘local’ is a relative term, I’ve passed signs on the highway for Rutland, Vermont so that’s local enough for me. The small city (population 16,000) is receiving a bit of national attention for a seemingly unremarkable thing – a local Catholic school’s basketball team. As the New York Times reports, the success of Mount St. Joseph’s Academy’s high school varsity basketball team has caused quite a stir in the Rutland community, although perhaps not for the expected reasons. The team, which was been a perennial loser has suddenly found success, going from a 2009-2010 record of 2-18 to a 2010-2011 record of 16-7. The success has continued this year, with the team currently 15-1 and in line to contend in the state playoffs.

So what changed? Well that’s exactly what has some Vermonters so upset. The team’s upswing is tied to the transfer of five students, all of whom hail from the Bronx. The boys’ coach in New York, Mugsy Leggett saw a chance for the boys to escape the violence and crime of their projects and play basketball while getting a good education in the process. When Leggett contacted Mount St. Joseph coach Mark Benetatos, the match was confirmed immediately. But not all has been rosy for the boys, who live with area host families. Though the Mount St. Joseph community has embraced them and celebrated their on court success, others are none too pleased. They have been the target of racial epithets and derogatory chants. Further, others complain about the Bronx boys taking playing time away from local players.

But both Benetatos and the school’s principal, Paolo Zancanaro, have maintained that their actions are pure. They cite the numerous international students who attend the school as evidence that the Bronx boys are not merely hired athletic guns but a chance for the school to practice its mission of creating a just world. Unfortunately, the tensions have ensured that Mount St. Joseph will not be receiving any more students from Mr. Leggett, who has placed over 60 students in high schools outside of New York City in his twenty five year coaching career. While other placements have been smooth, the outcry in Rutland has turned Mr. Leggett off from Mount St. Joseph, at least for the time being.

It’s a shame that petty prejudices have soured what seems to be a truly symbiotic relationship. Racial tensions are alive and well in this country, although perhaps more hidden than in the past. The sooner tolerance pervades every aspect of our society, the better. I think that’s something we can all get behind.


–Benjamin M. Riley