Paulsboro takes high road in photo controversy

"This is a teachable moment, not just for Paulsboro kids but for all kids," Paulsboro wrestling coach Paul Morina (above) said. "Everybody can learn from this."
"This is a teachable moment, not just for Paulsboro kids but for all kids," Paulsboro wrestling coach Paul Morina (above) said. "Everybody can learn from this." (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 22, 2014

The coach in Paul Morina hated this week.

The educator in him loved it.

The coach hated how his Paulsboro wrestling team was forced to deal with the dreaded "D" word in the days before the opening of the individual state tournament.

"Distractions," Morina said Thursday morning of the controversy surrounding the surfacing of a photo of seven Phillipsburg High School wrestlers posing in front of a dark-skinned dummy hanging from a noose and wearing a Paulsboro wrestling T-shirt.

Every good coach is an educator first. Morina has a unique standing on that, as he also is Paulsboro's principal.

So while the coach in him was lamenting the impact the controversy might have on his wrestlers on the brink of the District 29 tournament, the educator in him knew this was a rare opportunity to set an example and to use the situation as a teaching tool.

"That's what we've talked about, that this is a teachable moment not just for Paulsboro kids but for all kids," Morina said. "Everybody can learn from this."

Morina and everybody associated with his program have taken the high road. They understand - and far too many people haven't processed this - that practice dummies are typically dark-skinned and that it's routine for a team to dress a dummy in a jersey or T-shirt of an opposing team.

That point hasn't been made clear enough in this controversy. It's not as if the Phillipsburg kids went looking for a "black" dummy to illustrate a hateful scene because Paulsboro is a "black" team and the rivalry between the programs has been besmirched by bad blood with racial overtones.

That's simply not the case.

Paulsboro is a predominantly white team in wrestling - although the Red Raiders have always featured prominent black athletes - and the program's long-standing rivalry with Phillipsburg is anything but mean-spirited.

Coaches, wrestlers, parents, and fans from both teams always sit next to each other during the state tournament at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. The schools compete against each other in a dual meet every year, and it's a tradition for the host team to feed the visiting team before the long bus trip back home.

"It's not bad blood. It's good blood," Morina said of the rivalry.

But let's be clear: Those Phillipsburg kids made a big mistake. Staging that scene was incredibly stupid and incomprehensibly insensitive.

"I don't know what was in their hearts," said New Jersey state assemblyman John Burzichelli, the former mayor of Paulsboro and lifelong resident of the little town along the Delaware River in Gloucester County.

"But there are consequences to actions. What matters is how it was viewed, and to a lot of people, especially to people of the older generation, it was extremely hurtful."

Phillipsburg is prohibiting the seven from participating this weekend in the District 1 tournament. The coach in Morina feels badly that the kids won't be able to participate, finishing their season - and for the seniors, ending their careers.

"I'm sure some of those kids worked their whole lives for this opportunity," Morina said.

But the educator in him sees the value in the example set by Phillipsburg officials - many of whom reached out to Paulsboro officials this week - in quick and decisive punishment.

"Kids make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes," Morina said. "But you have to learn there are consequences. You turn 18 and get in a fight and hurt somebody, you could end up in jail. You have to think about your actions."

Paulsboro has about a 60/40 split in student population between whites and blacks. The Red Raiders' potent athletic program is rooted in that diversity.

But Morina said Paulsboro's ability to respect and honor differences stretches far beyond the playing fields.

"These kids are unbelievable," Morina said of Paulsboro students. "They get along so well. Even kids who might be handicapped or have some other issue, they are accepted here.

"Our diversity is the strength of our schools. Our kids embrace that."

Paulsboro kids make mistakes, too. It was just a few years ago that some football players posted a video filled with vulgarity and profanity directed at their rivals from Woodbury.

"That was the first thing I thought of," Morina said.

That's one reason Morina feels badly about this situation. He knows the Phillipsburg students made a mistake, but he suspects that they weren't fully aware of the impact of their actions.

So the coach in him gathers his wrestlers before practice and talks to them about using good judgment and resisting our baser urges to bully others and realizing that social media in 2014 can turn a brushfire into an inferno in a hurry.

The principal in him walks the halls and stresses the same things to the entire school.

The coach in him wishes this whole thing would just go away so his athletes can focus on wrestling. It's state tournament time, after all.

But the educator in him senses the opportunity to set an example and to teach a priceless lesson to his kids and everybody else with the good sense to listen.


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

www.inquirer.com/

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