Facebook post on Muslims costs Fryeburg coach his job

By Daymond Steer

FRYEBURG – After four years at the helm of Fryeburg Academy's boys lacrosse team, Scott Lees of Conway said he was forced by academy officials to resign as head coach after sharing on Facebook an open letter to President Barack Obama that was unflattering to Muslims.

The letter, written by "An American Citizen," was about Obama's speech given in Cairo in 2009. In that speech and in another made last month, the president said Islam has long been a part of American history.

In the first part of the letter, it wonders whether anyone has have ever seen a Muslim hospital or heard a Muslim orchestra. The writer goes on to charge that Muslims "are still the largest traffickers in human slavery," that they were allied with Adolf Hitler in World War II and that they were either pleased with or silent on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The writer adds that the Barbary pirates were Muslims.

"I just thought it was an interesting article," said Lees, who added he's a politically minded independent conservative. "I thought it was an interesting letter to President Obama and his current administration who are not paying attention to Israel and focusing on Iran."

Lees, 48, shared the letter on his personal Facebook page on March 17. Two days later, he was handing in his resignation as Fryeburg Academy's lacrosse coach. He said that although he was supposed to meet with Head of Schools Erin Mayo and Dean Charlie Tryder on March 19, Athletic Director Sue Thurston told him a decision to fire him had already been made.

According to Lees, a property manager who is married and has two children, said he did not want a firing to go on his record. He asked Thurston if they would consider a letter of resignation.

"I've never been fired in my life," said Lees, who also coaches hockey locally. "I've been coaching kids since 1992."

Mayo said the season will start on time. She said Thurston is looking for coaches and Thurston will provide updates as they become available.

"We've got a great team," said Mayo.

The decision on an interim coach could be made as soon as today, Thurston said. 

Regarding the letter that led to his departure as coach, Lees said a friend had emailed it to him, and he posted it to see what people would say. Lees — who has since removed it from his Facebook page — said he did not comment on the letter online and that he meant no disrespect to anyone.

Lees said the post didn't get much response. No students "liked" the post though it was liked by four adults, one of whom commented on it. "It's not like it went viral," said Lees. "It's not like everyone and their brother saw it."

But according to Mayo Fryeburg Academy has "a number" of Muslim students as well as students of numerous other faiths.

"We prize each young person we enroll as an individual, and we prize the diversity that they bring," said Mayo, who pointed to the school's mission statement, which says that "the Academy believes that a strong school community provides the best conditions for learning and growth. Therefore, we strive to create a supportive school environment that promotes respect, tolerance, and cooperation, and prepares students for responsible citizenship."

Mayo said the school's teachers, coaches and other staff need to live up to the mission statement.

Lees said he is not a bigot. In fact, he said that two years ago he invited a former Fryeburg student from New York City named Mohammed Islam to stay at his house for nine days. At the time, Islam had a court date in the area for a minor offense.

"If I had a problem with people who are Muslim, then why would I have allowed a Muslim to stay in my home?" asked Lees.

In a phone interview, Islam, who now attends Drexel University in Pennsylvania, confirmed that his former coach had opened his home to him.

"I never saw him as a bigot," said Islam, who played under Lees for three years.

When asked of the posting, Islam said he spoke to Lees about it. He  didn't think it should have cost Lees his coaching job. Islam said Lees seems to take issue with Obama's handling of the Middle East.

"I don't agree with Scott's opinion, but that doesn't make him a bigot," said Islam.

Lees said that if the administration had spoken to him about this issue, he would have pointed out that before this, he had never posted anything that could be considered derogatory toward a race or religion and that it should not have been considered a firing offense.

According to Mayo, Lees resigned without attending a meeting they had scheduled.

"Scott Lees did post a message on Facebook regarding Muslim people last week that was negative and, of course, public in nature," said Mayo. "When it was brought to my attention, I requested that he remove it, which he did. Charlie Tryder and I then made an appointment to meet with Scott last Thursday morning. When he asked, (Thurston) recommended resignation. He did then resign, and the meeting didn't happen."

Lees said he would have attended the meeting had he believed there was a chance he could keep the coaching job, which pays $3,200 over the course of the spring and which, he says, works out to less than $7 an hour.

Lees added that he used his own money to donate two helmets with a combined value of $360 to the team and he would have coached for free if asked. 

Lees said that after he shared the post, Thurston called and said Tryder was upset by what Lees had shared. Upon hearing that, Lees said he took down the post and "unfriended" all of the student athletes on his friends list.

"I took them all off because I was basically instructed to do so," he added.

Lees also said he was told to remove himself from the lacrosse team's Facebook page, which he had been managing. He said that as he left Thurston's office last week, he ran into a couple of lacrosse players and told them he would no longer be their coach. He said one student became emotional.

Since then, Lees said he's been getting support from several parents and players. He said that a group of players tried to get him reinstated but that Mayo refused to honor their request.

Lees said that he would have apologized if Mayo had asked him to.

"I would have done anything," said Lees. "That job meant the world to me. I lived year-round for that job."

He said he began preparing for the upcoming season in January, making equipment and uniforms would be ready for the spring.

Lees said that since he started coaching, the team has made steady improvement. In his first year, it didn't win one game. In 2013, the players won two games. Last year, they won six games and made the Class B West playoffs and won the Class B West Sportsmanship award.

But for Lees, coaching isn't just about racking up wins. Instead, he said he wants to train athletes to respect themselves, their teammates, officials and opponents. "It's all about respect and being respected," said Lees. "Winning comes secondary to that."

Lees has served as an elected member of Conway's planning board and has also been a member of the Kearsarge Lighting District Board of Commissioners.

According to Lees, during his years as coach, there was never a policy about what coaches could and could not do with their personal Facebook pages. He says has heard through secondhand sources that the academy is now urging other coaches not "friend" students on Facebook and to be careful about posting materials online.

Mayo said the policy isn't new.

"It was reviewed with faculty and staff last August," said Mayo. "Teachers, coaches, and any other adult staff are not supposed to 'friend' students on Facebook through a personal account. This is a pretty standard expectation in many schools."