Wrestling team without half its members after controversial photo

Scott Wilhelm, an attorney for the suspended wrestlers, said the students wished to apologize to Paulsboro.
Scott Wilhelm, an attorney for the suspended wrestlers, said the students wished to apologize to Paulsboro.
Posted: February 22, 2014

PAULSBOROThe North Jersey wrestling team under fire for a photo depicting members surrounding a hanged black practice dummy will compete in a state event beginning this weekend without half its starting lineup.

Seven Phillipsburg High School wrestlers have been removed by school officials from the District 1 competition, which on Saturday starts the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association State Wrestling Tournament.

An eighth wrestler, who was not seeded for the tournament, also has been disciplined.

In a statement issued Thursday, the association's executive director, Steven J. Timko, said the wrestlers would not be participating in the multiweek tournament.

The photo has seven wrestlers, most in Phillipsburg athletic attire and two with pointed hoods, surrounding the figure, which is wearing a Paulsboro shirt. It sparked much online debate about racial overtones.

At a brief news conference attended by the wrestlers Thursday night, their lawyer, Scott Wilhelm, read a statement saying their "poses were not premeditated, but were merely spontaneous gestures." He did not indicate when the photograph had been taken. Phillipsburg defeated Paulsboro in a match Feb. 1.

He said that "upon further reflection," the wrestlers understood "how our actions, innocently intended, may have been harmful to others," and that they wished to apologize to the Paulsboro team and community.

Earlier, the Gloucester County NAACP had requested that a letter of apology be sent to Paulsboro and the county. It asked for "sensitivity training" for the Phillipsburg team.

Wilhelm also said that the Phillipsburg wrestlers believed all wrestling dummies are manufactured using "dark leather" and that they viewed the dummy as an "unidentified generic wrestler." He said that the wrestlers, many of whom wore shirts and ties at the news conference, would not be answering any questions because they are aware that law enforcement was contacted to look into the matter. He said the wrestlers were "extremely disappointed" that school officials chose to suspend them from the tournament, but added that they have learned that actions have consequences.

The Phillipsburg School District said in a release Thursday that it was "taking steps to educate the entire student body as to the culture and expectations" of the district.

"The administration conducted a thorough investigation of the recent allegations and, with the information at hand, took the necessary actions to hold accountable those involved," it continued.

The superintendent's office said it declined to comment further on the matter since it is a student issue. The district has not stated what action it has taken.

Timko, after reviewing a report from Phillipsburg High School, said Thursday that the players violated the organization's sportsmanship rule and appropriately are being barred from the tournament.

"The photograph violates the principles of good sportsmanship and is a flagrant violation of the NJSIAA Sportsmanship Rule," Timko said in a statement. "Most importantly, the photograph depicts a fundamental disrespect for an opponent, using violent imagery that has no place in high school sports."

Timko's statement did not address the perceived racial overtones of the photo. The association had already reported the incident to the state Division on Civil Rights.

Division spokesman Leland Moore said the division "is monitoring the respective responses of the school and the NJSIAA" and will review whether further investigation is warranted.

Last weekend, Phillipsburg clinched the Group 4 state title. With half the starters not competing, it is unlikely Phillipsburg will be able to win this weekend's District 1 competition.

For the seven barred players, their season is over as individual competitors. By not being allowed to wrestle in this weekend's district-level competition, they cannot earn the points to advance to the next level of the tournament, even before Timko said they will not be participating.

When Phillipsburg and Paulsboro, both with well-regarded wrestling programs, faced off this month, the Stateliners came up victorious at home. (Phillipsburg is on the Pennsylvania state line, opposite Easton.)

Paulsboro Superintendent Walter Quint said he did not know exactly what action was taken by Phillipsburg.

"Whatever discipline they took caused them to not be able to wrestle this weekend," Quint said.

Quint said he was at the Feb. 1 match between the schools.

"I was there. We had a good day there," he said. "I felt welcome."

The schools' programs always make for an eventful match, Quint said.

"It's the best of high school rivalries," he added. "You couldn't ask for anything more."

People familiar with wrestling and both teams say there has been no bad blood. While some people have viewed the photo as having a racist message, others say they do not know what to make of the image.

For one thing, they said, wrestling practice dummies usually are dark-colored, for easier maintenance. Paulsboro uses a red dummy.

And while Paulsboro has usually had some minority wrestlers, its team typically has been predominantly white. Of the 14 starters on the varsity team, three are minority; of the 53 students on the wrestling roster, 16 are minority. Paulsboro as a community has a larger minority population than Phillipsburg.

"I feel bad, because we have a great relationship with Phillipsburg," said Paul Morina, Paulsboro High's principal and wrestling coach. "They all called here this week - coaches, principal and superintendent - and felt so badly."

Of the boys involved, he said, "Kids make mistakes, everybody makes mistakes. But you have to learn there are consequences."

State Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), a former Paulsboro mayor, said different people can look at the same image and perceive it differently, but the photograph was hurtful for many people.

"The message of that photo is not welcome, especially for a lot of older people who have memories of different times," he said.


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917

@AJFichera

Inquirer staff writers Phil Anastasia and Jan Hefler contributed to this article.

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