Pending the state commissioner of education’s approval and in the absence of a successful legal challenge, New Jersey’s scholastic sports landscape could change dramatically with member schools overwhelmingly voting in favor of two key proposals during the NJSIAA’s 98th annual meeting Monday at the Pines Manor in Edison.
A third key proposal, which would have instituted a postseason ban in addition to the mandatory 30-day sitting-out period for student-athlete transfers, was rejected.
Members voted 215-128 with two abstentions to relegate nonpublic schools, beginning in 2016, to a separate conference for football, with interleague play against public schools taking place at the discretion of each school. Details here: Create a non-public football conference.
Members also voted 216-121 with eight abstentions to restructure the state individual wrestling tournament, beginning in 2016-17, with the formation of two nonpublic school districts and one nonpublic school region to compete separately from 28 public school districts and seven public school regions. Details here: Change the state wrestling championship structure.
According to Jerry Smith, the athletic director at St. Joseph of Metuchen, the NJSIAA’s nonpublic football-playing members will meet on Thursday at Rutgers University to discuss what options those institutions may have moving forward. Smith said details regarding the time and location of that meeting, which St. Peter’s Prep head coach Rich Hansen is organizing, will be sent to nonpublic football-playing schools via email this week.
A possibility exists that state Education Commissioner David C. Hespe could reject at least one, if not both, of the approved proposals.
In 2009, then-Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy rejected an NJSIAA rule that would have had public and nonpublic schools competing separately in the district and region wrestling tournaments.
“The unconditional separation of public school wrestling programs from nonpublic school wrestling programs at the district and regional levels is inconsistent with the principles articulated by the commissioner and upheld by the courts through previous legal decisions concerning the administration of school athletics in New Jersey,” Davy wrote in the 2009 ruling.
NJSIAA Attorney Steve Goodell, who will present the newly approved bylaws to Hespe immediately, said he could not speculate on a potential legal challenge to the football or wrestling plans, should Hespe approve either or both.
“In my mind, that’s premature,” Goodell said. “I can’t imagine that any legal proceeding would be heard until the commissioner has made a determination. The next step is for it to go to the commissioner of education. Then, I’m sure anybody who has interest in this will be trying to contact the commissioner to get (him) their position on it.”
Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, who has spoken with Hespe on several NJSIAA matters in recent years, said he expects a fair ruling.
“I can’t speak for the details of the law associated with the decision-making process,” Burzichelli said, “but I have great respect for the commissioner and expect nothing less than a ruling of fairness for all parties once it’s evaluated what the law requires.”
Red Bank Catholic athletic director Joe Montano said he believes that the results of Monday’s vote signaled “the beginning of the end of the NJSIAA the way it is currently constituted” and that the proposals were introduced largely as the result of a handful of Big North Conference schools and others dominating in two sports.
“At some point you have to ask what do the nonpublic schools need the NJSIAA for,” Montano said. “Obviously, I’m disappointed. Quite honestly, there is enough blame to go around on both sides of the asile. We call ourselves educators, but we have people in the state picking the rules they want to follow, and quite honestly, it ends up angering, and what ends up happening is you have a lot of animosity. It is not just a North Jersey thing anymore. There are people in other parts of the state not following the rules, and it happens on both sides of the aisle.”
Bishop Ahr athletic director Mike Wolfthal, who served on the NJSIAA’s public/nonpublic committee, said he was “shocked” that both proposals were approved.
“In both of these proposals, the NJSIAA is not looking out for the interest of all the student-athletes,” Wolfthal said. “They are looking out for the public schools, not looking out for the nonpublic schools, and that is not a positive. I think (the new bylaws) have far-reaching implications that are negative for the entire state. I just look at this as the tip of the iceberg. If this holds, I would expect to see separation in everything, and it could reach the conference level.”
NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko said he did not believe that a separation of nonpublic and public schools was on the horizon for other sports.
“I personally didn’t get that feeling,” he said. “If that’s something, that’s down the road. It will be a surprise to me. People were asking for change (in football and wrestling). Change was presented, and that’s what they voted on, so we’ll go from there.’’
MyCentralJersey.com football analyst Marcus Borden, a past NJFCA president and NJSIAA Hall of Fame coach, said the football vote was “a huge mistake.”
“I don’t think it was thought out very well,” Borden said. “The decision was made for a select few teams in the north, and I don’t think the best interest of football is being served throughout the state. I think we created a monster.”
Greater Middlesex Conference president Carl Buffalino said his league members were torn on both the football and wrestling proposals.
“It was a mixed bag,” Buffalino said of the football vote, “only because some felt it didn’t really affect us in the GMC, but that it’s going to harm (GMC nonpublic schools) St. Joseph and Bishop Ahr. It’s a huge problem up north, not really a GMC or Central Jersey problem.”
Regarding the wrestling proposal, Buffalino said GMC member schools expressed concern that the realigning of districts and regions will adversely impact not only nonpublic but also public school teams, which may be forced to compete in new districts and/or regions.
Donovan Catholic High School athletic director Joe Gomulka said he believes all nonpublic schools “have to pay the price for the few.”
“For football, we’re not a strong program, and this is only going to make it worse for us,” Gomulka said. “In wrestling, forget it, we’ll have kids that won’t come out because they’re going to say, ‘I’m not going to travel two hours to get beat.’ It kind of ruins our wrestling program.’’
A lifelong resident and former mayor of Paulsboro, whose high school wrestling program is a perennial state power, Burzichelli said he opposes the new wrestling bylaw because, starting at the district level, the sport is an individual tournament, but he is in favor of the separation of nonpublic and public schools in football.
“In football, I think there should be separation,” Burzichelli said. “We have, in New Jersey, a long-established history of groups based on student population to ensure a level playing field and fairness. With the inability of the NJSIAA to get their arms around school choice and transfers, that playing field is now tilted. As painfully as it sounds to some, the only (existing) remedy is to separate the schools to ensure a level playing field for all.”
With a vote of 244-99 with one abstention, member schools rejected a proposal to amend the NJSIAA transfer rule. Details of the proposal can be found here: Amend transfer rule, including distinguishing between closed-enrollment schools and open enrollment schools; would eliminate the bona fide change of residence condition presently in the transfer rule bylaw.
Timko said he was pleased with the membership turnout at the Pines Manor, during which several coaches and administrators spoke in favor of and against the proposals.
“We’ve had a lot of big votes in the 16 years I’ve been in the association,” Timko said. “Was this a significant piece of legislation? No doubt. I think all our legislation is important, and it gives our membership a chance to talk.’’
Member schools approved two other proposals:
With a vote of 205138 and two abstentions, an early start date for the fall season was approved. Details here: Change the start date of the fall season.
An early winter tryout start date was approved by a vote of 279-66 with no abstentions. Details here: Add winter season try-out period prior to Thanksgiving.
Should the new football and wrestling legislation be enacted, Timko said the NJSIAA, if asked, would assist in any restructuring.
“I think we will provide any type of assistance they ask us for,” he said. “I think they probably will get the ball rolling on their own and see what type of difficulties they run into that may need our help.”
Contributing: Staff Writer Steve Falk.
Staff Writer Greg Tufaro: email@example.com