By Steven Timko, executive director, NJSIAA

October 10, 2014

As reported in the media, the current allegations regarding Sayreville War Memorial High School are jarring, and based on what we know, the school district’s administration took swift, decisive action — it is to be commended for putting the safety and security of young people above all else. Now, appropriately, law enforcement officials have taken the lead in the ongoing process of discovering and rooting out wrongdoing.

Outrage and calls for justice should be matched by collective compassion, care and concern for possible victims.

Made up of both public and non-public schools, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletics Association (NJSIAA) has the singular mission of protecting, promoting and providing for New Jersey’s student athletes. To meet these lofty goals, NJSIAA has reams of rules and regulations that dovetail with state and federal laws, school policies and procedures, and assorted best practices and even individual principles and character.

In this particular instance, if press reports prove true, wellbeing of students was not protected. As is often the case with criminal allegations, the guilty, the onlookers, even those who turned away while saying nothing, are forced to wrestle with their own guilt and shame. But it’s crucial to keep in mind that everyone with a role in safeguarding the welfare of students should take this opportunity to do some serious soul-searching and assessment. I know that I am.

Our organization’s authority to intervene is limited to instances when specific NJSIAA rules are not followed and/or a particular administration fails to self-report or remedy a wrong. At this stage, given what we know, canceling the season and quickly alerting law enforcement were absolutely appropriate actions — and the NJSIAA will continue to closely monitor the situation to determine if future action is required.

We’re also going to continue our ongoing review of rules and regulations to ensure we meet our mission, and will solicit feedback from our 428-member schools, 25,000 coaches and 11,000 officials, along with our partner organizations and parents, to determine whether revisions to our rules may be appropriate. As a member of the National Federation of High School Sports (NFHS) Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, I will reach out to all states’ high school athletic/activity associations, mining the nation for best practices and protocols. I also look

forward to speaking with the New Jersey Department of Education, which is represented on our Executive Committee, to consider new strategies for protecting students.

NJSIAA is going to expand our annual education programs on HIB and athletics-related hazing, and will continue our first-of-a-kind partnership with New Jersey’s Division on Civil Rights to improve sportsmanship and react to any possible bias-related acts between member schools. And, our medical advisory board will be tasked with considering new safety measures and programs for victims of sex crimes, while we’ll continue advocacy efforts in Trenton to ensure that appropriate laws are in place.

In short, I’m re-committing this organization to continuing the fulfillment of its mission of protecting student athletes, including our ongoing drive to stamp out hazing of any form in interscholastic athletics.

That said, we’ve learned that the responsibility for care belongs to many — boards of education, administrators, teachers, coaches, trainers, and also officials. In addition, an essential part of this safety net falls to parents and guardians, along with students themselves. The drive for victories and winning records — even the quest to be cool and accepted — can never supplant safety or standing up to injustice. The good that’s in most of us is the lone remedy for the evil in a few. And so the apparent tragedy in Sayreville should serve as a teachable moment for everyone.

Interscholastic athletics has been my career for nearly half a century — and you won’t find a bigger advocate for high school sports anywhere. But enthusiasm for competition must never distract us from the fact that scholastic athletics are a privilege, not a right, and are actually a valuable extension of the classroom. We must never fall into the trap of viewing interscholastic athletics through the same lens as we do professional sports.

Unwavering respect for rules, team, opponent, officials and self are not some vague concept from a pre-season speech — they’re the very foundation of a successful interscholastic sports program. And a team void of respect for itself or others is really no team at all.