NEW YORK Just after Christmas, Poly Prep Country Day School, a venerable Brooklyn institution, settled a lawsuit alleging a more than 40-year cover-up of the predatory pedophilia of its legendary football coach, Philip Foglietta.
The terms of the settlement have not been disclosed, but the lawsuit charged that school administrators were repeatedly informed from the 1960s until his forced retirement in 1991 that Foglietta was sexually abusing boys on campus, in his apartment and during trips. Foglietta, who died in 1998, fondled and raped dozens, if not hundreds, of children.
I played, without distinction, on some of the great Poly teams of the 1970s; at least one of my teammates was a plaintiff in the case. The case raises difficult questions for a generation of Poly boys: What did we know about Coach Phil? Who else must have known? What should we have done? What can we learn to protect our own kids?
What did we know about Coach Phil? It is difficult to separate what we felt as teenagers from what we have discovered since. We feared and loved him. He was a squat, grizzled bear of a man. Despite having only 300 boys, mainly of marginal talent, Poly beat New York City public high schools many times its size. We used to joke that there were guys on our team who would, if told to do so by Coach, try to tackle the B70 bus, which ran alongside our field. We were small and slow, but relentless.
Coach was often a bully. He would hit a player with his own helmet or instruct an offensive lineman who missed a block to hold the ball like a quarterback while the entire defensive line slammed into him. Water breaks in the August miasma of two-a-day practices had to be earned through performance. Kids who had quit the team, he would suggest, deserved to be beaten up. He would talk about the fruits and homos on the male faculty. He would bark curse words in a strange argot of Italianized English.
But when he stopped yelling and his eyes twinkled and he said, Nice hit, you would smile ear to ear. He brought alumni to practice, as well as big-time college and pro players, who appeared to revere him. He coached every summer at Joe Namath (Joe Namath!) football camp. I was desperate to go; my mother wouldnt let me.
I recall returning to Poly years later and Coachs asking me to come to practice so he could tell the team how I stuck with football despite a lack of skill, and how my discipline and persistence should be an example to all. It was a peak moment for me, up there with my improbable interception against Horace Mann. Most of us would have said that Phil Foglietta taught us what it meant to be a man, circa 1975 in south Brooklyn.
But many of us also knew that Coach Phil showered with the fifth-graders. We knew that he hung around the locker room and checked that each of us had thoroughly rinsed off. Most of us knew he invited kids for car rides to Coney Island in his green Chevy Impala and for overnight stays at the apartment he shared with his mother. Most of those kids were young and small, often boys who had lost their fathers. He didnt bother kids whose fathers were in local politics (my dad was in the state Senate) or allegedly high up in the mob (a couple of Gambino grandsons went to our school). Those boys were never offered a ride in the green Impala.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit was the younger brother of a classmate. The brothers dad died in 1970, when my classmate and I were in seventh grade. Both brothers were slight; only the younger one played football. My classmate, Scott Smith, went to Cornell, made a fortune in finance and is now Polys chairman of the board. His younger brother, Philip, never went to college and slid into multiple addictions. According to the lawsuit, he was sexually assaulted hundreds of times.
We knew something was going on. We joked with one another about the showers and the car rides. One of my teammates wrote on a website created for Coachs victims, How is it that as a 14-year-old Poly freshman, I just knew that something was very wrong? Another former student wrote, I am heartbroken that I lacked the wits and guts to comprehend what was happening to classmates, friends, and the guys that followed me.
I am not sure whether we would have known what raping boys entailed. We avoided knowing too much; the urge to repress and avert was overwhelming, not only for the victims but also for the bystanders, who understood that for whatever reason they had been left alone. As far as I know, none of the boys who were abused talked about it to other members of the team. The Poly board chairman has said he learned about the abuse of his brother only last year. Back then, we were uncomfortable and embarrassed, unwilling or unable to make sense of what was highly threatening to teenage boys in the homophobic hothouse of a Brooklyn boys school. (Poly Prep went coed in 1977, two years after I graduated.)
There is little doubt that senior administrators were told about the abuse on multiple occasions. The lawsuit recounts specific meetings between boys, their parents, the headmaster and the athletic director. That athletic director, who went on to become dean of students and assistant headmaster, reportedly witnessed abuse in the showers and walked away. In 1991, the headmaster allegedly told one of the victims that Coach was a bitter, sick old man who should be left alone. Coach Phil was powerful, intimidating, successful, not to be trifled with. And so for a quarter-century, he freely abused vulnerable boys, virtually in plain sight.
What should we have done? We should have told our parents and teachers that Coach was hanging out by the showers and it made us feel weird. Maybe we should have reached out to the boys who were riding off in the Impala and warned them away. We were just kids, of course, but in retrospect our lack of curiosity, our lack of action and our lack of courage were inexcusable.
Pedophilia remains endemic, a powerful, difficult-to-treat compulsion. Prosecutions are rare, and victims who come forward years later are often barred from court by inflexible rules. Statutes limiting lawsuits should be altered to recognize that these crimes emerge slowly. Every school should have an investigative protocol available to parents online. There should also be at least one experienced person in every institution to whom incidents can easily be reported on a confidential basis.
Sexual abuse of children presents itself in confusing, ambiguous ways, so pedophilia education should be a mandatory part of the curriculum. Abused children need to understand that they have done nothing wrong, that it is safe to come forward.
Shame ruined lives at Poly Prep; our great successes of youth have turned to ashes. I am angry at the school for failing to protect so many boys. But I am also ashamed of myself, that I was so intimidated, so desperate for Coachs approval, so eager to be a boy winning football games, that I failed to be the man I know I should have been.
New York Times News Service
Eric L. Lewis is a partner
at the law firm Lewis Baach.