In Tom Rotanz’s impassioned 109-second plea to the Shoreham-Wading River School Board Nov. 19 to keep his job as the varsity boys lacrosse coach, there was one notable omission.
He spoke of being “disappointed.”
He asked Superintendent Steven Cohen for “guidelines. Do’s and dont’s.”
He said he didn’t want to be “controversial.”
What he never said was: I’m sorry.
Of course, he’s the victim here, he’ll be quick to tell you. In 19 years, he’s never done anything wrong, always putting the kids first. And anyone who says anything to the contrary is out to get him for their own personal agenda.
It’s always the same script.
I’ve known Mr. Rotanz since the spring of 2006, when I covered Shoreham-Wading River’s county championship win over Mount Sinai. The Wildcats were in the midst of one of their most successful runs in program history, capped by a state championship the following year in Syracuse.
I’ve always respected him for his ability to mold teams into winners and rally the community around the game of lacrosse. His résumé speaks for itself.
But I’ve also known Mr. Rotanz to be a polarizing figure, a larger-than-life coach who can be awfully persuasive. Most coaches shy away from the politics; not Mr. Rotanz, who has always been a vocal advocate for the lacrosse program. After word got out that Mr. Rotanz would not be rehired, Mr. Cohen and the school board declined to provide any specific details, citing it as a personnel decision. The school’s attorney, Greg Guercio, spoke at a school board meeting.
“I’ve directed the board … that they are not to release any of the contents of a personal file or any of the information that forms a basis for the superintendent’s decision not to make a recommendation,” Mr. Guercio said.
Given the lack of information provided by the school, it’s worth examining all aspects of Mr. Rotanz’s record. One area worth consideration is Mr. Rotanz’s company, The Power Shaft, and how it relates to Shoreham-Wading River.
In 2010, Mr. Rotanz, a retired teacher, invented a weighted lacrosse shaft that’s designed to connect with the head of a player’s regular stick. Training with the weighted shaft improves shot speed for offensive players, increases hand speed for face-off specialists and puts a “pop” in defensemen’s checks, according to The Power Shaft website.
After launching the product, which retails for between $89.95 and $125.99, in 2011, Mr. Rotanz made a promotional video that was featured on the home page of the company’s website.
The video details some of the benefits, before a narrator says: “Don’t take my word for it. We brought the Power Shaft to a collection of amateur and professional lacrosse players and, boy, were they amazed at the result.”
The video features demonstrations by several lacrosse players from Shoreham-Wading River, who are wearing Power Shaft apparel.
The video appears to have first been uploaded to YouTube on May 4, 2011. Mr. Rotanz uploaded clips from the video to his YouTube account in August 2011.
At least one athlete in the video is now a Division I lacrosse player. There’s no evidence that the player sanctioned the use of his image once he became an NCAA athlete.
When asked if that could cause a potential issue with the player’s NCAA eligibility, Mr. Rotanz said: “No, it’s not. We looked into it. They’re all sophomores and juniors in high school. That was checked.”
However, once a student becomes an NCAA student-athlete, he cannot appear in a commercial video promoting a product, according to Emily James, a spokesperson for the NCAA, who deals with eligibility and infraction issues and provided a description of general guidelines.
“Once the prospect becomes an NCAA student-athlete, the high school coach could no longer use the promotional video containing current student-athletes,” Ms. James wrote in an email. “If the coach did, the current student athlete’s school would have to issue a cease and desist letter.”
After Mr. Rotanz was contacted for this story, the video was removed from the Power Shaft home page and deleted from Mr. Rotanz’s YouTube account. Some clips still remained on an inside website page.
The newest video is a 12-minute instructional video featuring drills to use with the Power Shaft. The video was filmed this year at Shoreham-Wading River High School and features Shoreham lacrosse alumni who are no longer in college programs. It was uploaded to Mr. Rotanz’s YouTube account in October.
Shoreham Superintendent Steven Cohen confirmed that filming such a video on school grounds violates the school’s facility-use policy.
“Not acceptable,” Mr. Cohen said.
For-profit organizations can use school grounds under certain conditions, Mr. Cohen said, such as contributing to educational programs. The board is currently considering prohibiting all for-profit organizations from using facilities, to clarify the rule, Mr. Cohen said.
Filming the video did not appear to factor into Mr. Cohen’s decision on rehiring Mr. Rotanz. The superintendent said he was unaware of the video when contacted for comment a few weeks after making his decision.
Mr. Rotanz said he was unaware the video violated any policy and was never told he couldn’t film on school grounds.
“If you go to the library, there’s people that do tutoring there privately,” Mr. Rotanz said.
Asked if that was a fair comparison, he said: “They’re making money off it … I think it’s pretty much the same.”
Mr. Rotanz said the video serves as an instructional film for anyone to see, and is not merely to sell his lacrosse shaft.
Asked if he ever made instructional videos before inventing the Power Shaft, Mr. Rotanz said, “Not really, because I had no avenue to get it out there.”
While Mr. Cohen said that, from the school’s perspective, there was no issue with students appearing in a commercial video filmed off-campus, the circumstances certainly raise ethical questions about whether it’s appropriate for a coach to use his athletes to promote a product he sells.
Mr. Rotanz maintained the students in the video were not compensated, which would have been an NCAA violation.
Mr. Rotanz added a philanthropic note to his website with a message saying: “For every Power Shaft sold, The Power Shaft will be making a $1 donation to the New York Police and Fire Widow’s and Children’s Benefit Fund.”
Out of curiosity, I checked with the organization to confirm whether it had received donations from The Power Shaft. Mr. Rotanz said he spoke with a representative of the organization Dec. 2.
Afterward, Lauren Profeta, associate director for development, wrote back to me in an email: “We will be receiving our first installment this week.”
I asked Mr. Rotanz when he started donating from Power Shaft to the benefit fund.
“For a period,” he said, adding that the charity hits home on a personal note because he benefited from it growing up.
The message explaining the donation was taken off the website shortly afterward. It had appeared there since at least February 2011, according to a screenshot from archive.org, which takes periodic snapshots of websites and stores them in an online archive.
Taken individually, the mishaps and missteps and misinformation swirling around Mr. Rotanz may not seem like such a big deal. But questionable judgment adds up. As the coach of young men, Mr. Rotanz needs to hold himself to a higher standard, whether it’s in his role as coach or as the owner/operator of a private company.
As chronicled in the adjacent story, turnover in the athletic director position has been rampant at Shoreham.
At the Nov. 19 board meeting, former Shoreham assistant lacrosse coach Mike Delia spoke in Mr. Rotanz’s defense. In part of his statement, he said, “Why not wait for the AD to come and make a decision on coach Rotanz?”
In my opinion, Mr. Delia misses the point.
Dumping this onto a brand-new athletic director only sets him up for failure. How could a new athletic director possibly make an objective decision about Mr. Rotanz without taking ample time to review the background? The new athletic director could never make a decision against Mr. Rotanz and come out alive.
That’s why I believe Mr. Cohen made the decision when he did, fully aware of the backlash that would follow.
Despite the grim forecast from all of Mr. Rotanz’s supporters, I don’t believe his departure will mark the end of Shoreham lacrosse as we know it. The passion for the sport runs deep. I don’t see that fading.