Months of tension, frustration, and uncertainty between football players, parents, coaches, and administration, came to a head on Sept. 19, when the cancellation of the remainder of Kaiser High’s football season was officially announced. The announcement followed an altercation from the previous day between varsity coach, Arnold Martinez, and two team parents. The recent parent-coach conflict was one of many which occured over the course of the season. “That’s not the way adults are supposed to act. Not at all. Irresponsible, totally unacceptable. It was not the players’ fault. Zero,” Principal Justin Mew said. With the cancellation so early on in the season, the football team was only able to play one varsity game, losing 71-0 against Campbell. “This is not how we wanted to go out,” senior varsity player Andrew Choi said.
All of junior varsity and 22 varsity players were personally notified in a private conference with Martinez, Athletic Director Nelson Chee, and Mew. For many players, it was a day of disappointment and lost opportunities. “We didn’t get to play much – only one game really. We were shocked,” anonymous senior varsity football player 1 said. “It’s really hard not to play especially since this week was going to be our last game.” To the team, football was more than just a sport. “I’ve been playing since fourth grade. It really means alot to me. The game teaches you a lot of things: commitment, working hard, not giving up, and just doing your best,” senior varsity player Joaquin Tafao said. “When I put on the jersey, it’s go time. I represent myself, my family, the school, the players around me.” For other players, the sport was their sole opportunity to earn athletic scholarships. Because of the abrupt halt to the season, any hopes of a scholarship were dashed. “We definitely had a lot to lose. A lot of seniors wanted to play college ball but [with the cancellation], colleges can’t scout anyone,” Choi said.
The season already had a rough start with a low player turnout at practices. In addition, with Martinez as the new replacement for the old coach, Cameron Higgins, veteran players were dissatisfied with his new policies, which were stringent and rigorously structured as opposed to the laid-back approach of Higgins. For example, he would not let players who had missed the fall recruiting deadline to join. “One kid tried to come out six times. He came out every Monday and he either got a nasty comment or turned down. He was very open. He kept trying but coach didn’t want anything to be done,” Tafao said.
Martinez’s insistence on structure ended up driving a wedge between him and the players, some of whom decided to drop the team. “It was a cultural issue. What coach was doing was kind of right — morally right. He put structure in but some people couldn’t handle the structure so they couldn’t stick with it and left,” said an anonymous JV player. Other players did not agree with Martinez’s policies at all. “This problem could have been avoided very easily by allowing two or three players to come up from varsity. He could have accepted more players. Those policies only work if you have three-hundred students or half the school coming out, but we only had twelve kids coming out during the summer. We kind of need more kids to play. It doesn’t make any sense,” Tafao said. In the process, the rift between football players and Martinez grew and respect for the other was lost. “Of course, he’s not going to be perfect—I know he put in a lot of effort,” anonymous varsity player 3 said. “We could understand Martinez’s efforts, but we were never going to be one team.”
Tensions further escalated between Martinez and varsity, who felt that the coach prioritized the JV team over them. For instance, JV was given first choice of equipment and were also given compression shirts while varsity went without, much to their frustration. “[Martinez] would go to JV games and coach them himself. He would spend more time with them in practice,” anonymous senior varsity player 2 said. In addition, the varsity players were relegated to the side field while JV played on the main field. “Coach had a small plot of areas for our plays and JV had the larger proportion He’s a varsity coach not a JV,” Tafao said. For many players, this was the breaking point. It seemed that Martinez had abandoned them. “Ever since freshman year, I had to work myself up. I’ve been doing it for four years,” stated Choi.
As Martinez did not respond to a request for comment, Mew came to the coach’s defense, and said: “Whenever you have a new coach, or a new principal, new teacher, you are going to bring in your policies that you believe would work, to build whatever he’s trying to build… If you really love the sport, you would try out for it. If you really like anything: sport, music, art, science, regardless of teacher, regardless of coach, you are going to do it.”
Uncertainty of whether the season would proceed continued to shake the players’ faith in Martinez. “[Practice] felt pretty pointless. We honestly didn’t know if we had a game or not, so we never got our hopes up,” said anonymous varsity member 2. As the season progressed, many players felt like that it was not worth the effort to practice for a game that may or may not happen. “It was hard to come to practice when there were only two games. We were all working hard in full pads on a hot field just for two games. People were saying we don’t need to show up,” Tafao said. “It was July. From that time to now, we were all working hard in full pads on a hot field just for a season we didn’t know would happen.”
The situation was further worsened by the players’ parents who started catching wind of the controversy after the first cancelled varsity game. “Football parents are gonna be big and scary. If there’s something they don’t like they will confront you and if you can’t stand up for yourself, things will go downhill fast,” Choi said. There were several incidents—verbal and physical—that occurred throughout the season. “There was a series of incidents where I was confronted by very irate parents and fans after a game, to the point where I had to call the police. The incident that happened was so volatile, and it was scary, and as your principal, I didn’t feel that I could control it,” Mew said.
Still, varsity football players felt that the administration did not do enough to prevent the cancellation. “They should have addressed it before the season started and should have been working with Martinez on getting a team,” Choi said. “It’s the athletic director’s job to have a team ready. It’s not my job to tell him to make us play. My responsibility is to show up to practice and work hard.” One of the solutions that many players had agreed with was moving JV up to varsity—a common practice at other schools. In Division 1, every single team has pulled up at least one underclassman, from only one at Leilehua to up to thirteen at Kahuku High School—the best team in the state. Kaiser was the only anomaly with more than forty JV players, yet not one of them was moved up to meet the minimum quota of varsity players. “There’s a lot of JV players who are more capable than varsity. Lots of the them wanted to come up, but Martinez brushed them off. Even Campbell had a freshman playing varsity,” a JV player known as Drey said.
The decision not to promote JV was ultimately made by Coach Martinez, who cited player safety as an issue of concern. “Yes, we want to play the game, absolutely yes. But not at the expense of players’ safety,” Mew said. “We heed what the coach is saying in terms of players’ safety and readiness, because he is the one that works with the players, we don’t.”
On Sept. 30, after a series of threats made against his family, Martinez submitted a letter of resignation to Kaiser High School. “Although I will miss our players, I must prioritize. The emotional, mental, and physical well being of my wife and children are my highest priority,” Martinez said in his statement. “[This] is not how I wanted it to end.”
A month later, Martinez’s replacement, Timothy Seaman, was named the new head football coach. The longtime teacher and coach is taking small steps towards the future, but sees bright skies moving forward. “This year, we want a broader participation and more students to come out, connect with the school, and each other,” Seaman said. “I’m excited about taking on the challenge of getting students to come out and engage in a positive environment. I’m a pretty firm guy, but flexible in the sense that [I’m] willing to help meet the needs of individuals.”
Now that the controversy of this season has, for the most part, cleared, Mew and administration are already looking forward to next season, citing an OIA theme about competition. “It’s very simple: if we can live… [by] the OIA creed: let the coaches coach, let the players play, let the officials officiate. Be supportive. Cheer positively. That’s what we need to learn,” Mew said. “Let’s not have this incident define our year or ruin anything because the more we can show our character by moving forward, the better this will be for all of us.”