Tough trash-talk rules for N.J. high school sports

Referee Jeff Simonetti reads the new rules to the Haddon Heights and Haddonfield High School girls soccer teams before their match last week. Referees will brief players and coaches before every game in 16 sports, and fans will hear an announcement.
Referee Jeff Simonetti reads the new rules to the Haddon Heights and Haddonfield High School girls soccer teams before their match last week. Referees will brief players and coaches before every game in 16 sports, and fans will hear an announcement. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 24, 2013

Thousands of high school athletes across New Jersey are getting a new lesson in sportsmanship.

Before every game this season, referees are briefing players on tough new rules that ban taunting and baiting that can escalate into hateful speech in the heat of competition. The rules also apply to fans in the stands.

The new rules go beyond harmless trash-talking between rivals and target anyone who crosses the line with derogatory racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual slurs.

New Jersey is believed to be the first state to implement strict guidelines to clean up school athletics by banning bias language and imposing penalties for violators. Several states are considering similar steps.

"We're trying to make a bold statement that there is no place for it," said Larry White, assistant director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

White said the guidelines essentially extended classroom expectations of appropriate behavior to the playing field. Athletes can get kicked out of a game for dropping the "f-bomb" or the n-word or using other offensive, discriminatory words.

"We're not accepting it [even] if the n-word is used between two kids of the same race on the same team," said White, who oversees the referees. "We're taking a stand."

The rules, drafted in the summer, apply to every public, parochial, and private school in the state that uses referees and affect about 270,000 student athletes who compete in 16 sports, from football to field hockey.

Players caught using offensive slurs face immediate ejection as well as disqualification from the next game for football and the next two events for other sports.

"Learning to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat are critical life lessons," Craig Sashihara, director of the state Division on Civil Rights, said in an interview last week.

Players and coaches are being reminded of the new rules as they take to the field this season. They are briefed before every game during a huddle with the referees.

"As far as I am concerned, that's the way it should have always been," said longtime Shawnee High football coach Tim Gushue. "We owe the game the respect by respecting each other."

Said Haddonfield head girls soccer coach, Lori Quintavalle: "We're building character. If we don't teach them now, it's just going to get worse."

The rules were drafted after an ugly incident during the Thanksgiving Day football game last season between Paramus Catholic and Bergen Catholic that was marred by taunts and racially charged comments.

Paramus Catholic player Jabrill Peppers, who is black, alleged fans directed racial slurs at him and his teammates and their white coach. Some fans painted "Jabrill can't read!" on their chests and dressed in prison attire to ridicule Peppers, whose father was in jail at the time.

An investigation by the state Division on Civil Rights found that the incident was not isolated and that there were other alarming and widespread cases. The state worked with the NJSIAA and the Coalition for Racial Equality in Education to develop the guidelines.

Some officials say students are emulating misconduct by collegiate and professional athletes such as Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper, who was caught on video making a racist comment at a concert in June.

"What we wanted to do was reshape the landscape of high school sports," Sashihara said. "We're simply saying don't allow the kids and fans to scream racial epithets to opposing players."

During the 2012-13 school year, there were 417 player disqualifications statewide for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The new guidelines were added to existing NJSIAA sportsmanship rules. Violations must be reported to the NJSIAA by referees and will be forwarded to the Division on Civil Rights, which will review whether the matters were handled properly.

The new rules are not just for players and coaches, but also for spectators. A statement will be read at every game over the loudspeaker for fans.

"It's important for people to feel comfortable on the field and not feel like they're being targeted," said Haddonfield High soccer player Grace Bacarre, 17, a senior. "It's sad that this even needs to be an issue."

Her teammate Lizzie Hammon, 16, a junior, acknowledged tensions can run high but said the players have learned how to handle it without losing their cool.

"We like to keep our mouths shut and just play the game," she said. "We're out there to win."

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mburney@phillynews.com

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