In a stunning turn of events, the NJSIAA, which barred the Wayne Hills (N.J.) football team from participating in the postseason after determining it used ineligible players during the regular season, has, for the time being, reinstated the top-seeded Patriots into the North 1 Group IV playoffs.
The decision follows the ruling of a stay from acting State Commissioner of Education Kimberley Harrington who, following an appeal from the Wayne Board of Education and attorneys representing three players who the NJSIAA declared ineligible, determined on Thursday that those players were not afforded due process.
“The NJSIAA will abide by the Commissioner’s ruling which was based on a due process issue,” NJSIAA Executive Director Steve Timko said. “The tournament will return to its original seeding although game dates and times may need to be adjusted.
“The NJSIAA believes it appropriately enforced the association’s rules and reserves the right to hold future hearings related to the students’ eligibility in all those sports in which they participate. If those hearings determine the players to be ineligible, the outcome of all games in which the students participated – including those this weekend – and the potential for future games could be impacted.”
It would appear that the NJSIAA will in the near future conduct a hearing at its Robbinsville headquarters, where the three Wayne Hills players, who the statewide athletic association determined transferred from another high school without a bona fide address change, will have an opportunity to prove they did not have to sit out the requisite 30 days under NJSIAA rules.
If the NJSIAA determines during the hearing that the players were ineligible, Wayne Hills would have to forfeit all eight of its regular-season victories and any of its playoff wins, should the hearing take place after the postseason.
Asked if his clients were indeed eligible to compete this season, Darren J. Del Sardo, a Woodlawn-based attorney representing the Wayne Hills players alleged to have been ineligible, told Gannett New Jersey on Thursday that “as far as all the information I’ve received from them and that I provided to the commissioner, (the information) would indicate that they were eligible.”
On Monday, Wayne Township Schools Superintendent Mark Toback self-reported a potential NJSIAA eligibility violation to the statewide athletics association.
According to a press release from the school district: “A situation was brought to the Superintendent’s attention that a few players were possibly ineligible due to suspected non-residency within Wayne Township. The district is affirmatively obligated to directly report to the NJSIAA all potential violations of NJSIAA by-laws. After reviewing the scenario and the appropriate documentation, the NJSIAA notified the administration that certain students on the Wayne Hills football team were deemed ineligible because they did not have a bona fide change of address.”
The NJSIAA ruled that, as a result of the infraction, Wayne Hills was ineligible for the postseason, a verdict the district initially accepted.
“It is with much regret, that we have been advised that the NJSIAA has determined that the Wayne Hills High School football team has been disqualified from all 2016 tournament play (playoffs) based on the season-long participation of the ineligible players,” Wayne Schools said in its press release. “Because of these students’ ineligibility, the team is required to forfeit any games that it has won in the season. As such, the Wayne Hills football team will not be allowed to move forward with the state playoffs.”
Following backlash from players and their parents during a contentious meeting, the school district reversed field and joined Del Sardo in appealing the NJSIAA’s ruling to Harrington.
“I understand and share in the students and parents concerns,” Toback said after the meeting. “Their outrage and disappointment is justified, and unfortunately, many dedicated and hard-working student athletes have lost a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
In a letter of appeal to Timko, Wayne Board of Education President Eileen Albanese and Vice President Donald Pavlak wrote in part:
“It is our understanding that the administration reported to you concerns regarding potentially ineligible players. The intention of the administration was to work collaboratively in addressing the concerns, so as to not impact the playoffs. Unfortunately, that is not what occurred. In addition, the harsh penalty does not encourage others in similar situations to self-report concerns. We certainly do not condone any player, coach or staff member who does not follow NJSIAA rules. We intended to have their matter fully investigated, and all responsible parties within the control of this Board will be held accountable.”
It is the responsibility of the athletics director and principal to ensure that all student-athletes meet NJSIAA eligibility standards.
It is believed that a State Commissioner of Education has only once before reversed an NJSIAA eligibility ruling.