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Hate Speech Guidelines for NJ school sports get mixed reception from Coaches and Officials

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In the fall of 2012 Bergen Catholic and Paramus Catholic played their annual Thanksgiving Day football game. The game, normally a sense of pride in athletics for the state of New Jersey, became a stain on its reputation. During the course of the game Bergen Catholic fans and students taunted the Paramus players and coaches with racial slurs.

Students were suspended but the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) wanted to send a clearer message: “the days of taunting, baiting, and trash talking are over,” according to a NJSIAA press release.

The measures taken by the NJSIAA, the governing body of high school athletics in NJ, were dramatic. Under the new sportsmanship guidelines, any player using malicious or profane language, or language interpreted as ‘driven by bias’ are immediately ejected from the game and are subject to suspension. This includes “four letter words” and “trash talk.”

“Trash talking,” or verbal sparring, between opposing players during competition, is a practice used by friends, student-athletes and professional athletes alike. It is a mental game-within-the-game, and its objective is to rattle your opponent and gain an advantage by attempting to make them lose focus.

NJSIAA Executive Director Steven Timko stated, “Other incidents had occurred previously but this (the Paramus/Bergen game) was the last straw.”Timko received numerous emails from “groups around the state and country” urging NJSIAA action.

The ramifications for student-athletes and fans are significant. The NJSIAA, in conjunction with the State Attorney General’s Office and the NJ Division of Civil Rights monitor and enforce these rules. Individuals found to be in violation of the new sportsmanship rules could be charged with a crime, and more seriously, they could be charged with a hate crime.

There are some coaches who believe this triumvirate of authorities are exuding too much power. “The vast majority of schools already promote and encourage fair play, respect and sportsmanship throughout their athletic programs,” according to Princeton Day School (PDS) Assistant Athletic Director Scott Bertoli.

Before he became hockey coach in 2006 or PDS Assistant AD, Bertoli spent eight seasons playing professional hockey with the Trenton Titans. As the franchise’s first team captain, Bertoli gained a unique insight into sportsmanship.

He explained “hockey is highly competitive, confrontational and physical, and in the heat of the moment, players react. They say and do things that would compromise the NJSIAA ‘sportsmanship rule’ as it is stated.” Bertoli added, “But I can’t say that the intent (of the players reaction) was deliberate or malicious in each instance.”

“I’d like to think that every school and athletic department across the country already had policies in place (prior to this rule enhancement),” Bertoli told the VOICE, “ones that promoted a culture of respect, integrity and sportsmanship amongst their players, coaches and teams.”

It would seem logical for all schools to have policies in place that would protect their student athletes from the ails of poor sportsmanship, and harsh punishment for those who violated those guidelines. But have these new rules gone overboard?

According to Bertoli there have not been any incidents involving PDS students that breached the new “hate speech” rules, however there was an interesting case involving a member of an opposing team.

“I was on the sideline during a soccer game early this year,” Bertoli recalled, “a player was ejected for, according to the officials explanation, ‘profane language that included religious connotations’,” he continued, “when the opposing coach asked the refs what the player said, they replied ‘Holy Shit’.”

The VOICE was told “It is better to overreact than under-react,” by NJSIAA Assistant Director Larry White speaking in reference to the incident. According to White’s statistics, there have been no criminal charges filed against any student or fan since the implementation of the new sportsmanship rules.

The former Titans centerman went on to say, “I didn’t hear it from the sideline so it couldn’t have been that loud. I think the expansion of the rule has made it so black and white, it has eliminated objectivity for the officials. It probably wasn’t necessary to expand the existing rules.“

Kevin Kerins, Head Baseball Coach for Mercer and former Head Baseball Coach for Hamilton High-West told the VOICE “I think its an overreaction. There are many rivalries within towns that have been embraced. What is taunting; and what is not? “ Kerins continued, “I feel this will be tough to enforce and its very subjective.”

High School Official Gordon Thomas offers a different perspective to the expansion of the sportsmanship rules saying, “I think it helped the game, I think they [the student athletes] played better.” Thomas, a Lawrence Township native, just finished his third season officiating football at the varsity level and will enter his second year umpiring varsity baseball this month.

According to Thomas the officials were made aware of the changes to the sportsmanship rules at their first rules interpretation meeting back in July.

“Football is a game where things can escalate quickly,” Thomas told THE VOICE, “if we start having the control of the game get outta hand then it tends to mount on itself,” he continued, “this rule eliminated all that before the game even started so it helped make it easier to manage the game.”

West-Windsor-South Field Hockey Coach Christine Cabarle gave a glimpse into how the students are reminded of their sportsmanship obligations. “Before every game the refs read a prepared statement informing the coaches and the captains that no derogatory language will be accepted. If the rule is broken it results in an automatic disqualification.“

When asked how she felt about the rule Cabarle said,”Sports are a microcosm of life. So, I think it is important to teach our athletes respect for others.  I also believe most coaches have been doing this since before this state-mandated rule came out.”

Everyone the VOICE spoke to regarding this topic was in agreement that racial slurs or biased language should not be tolerated and that is not a new policy. Bertoli added, “most schools and athletic departments encourage a culture of respect and sportsmanship…already.”

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