Legislation with Big Impact on High School Sports Headed to Governor's Desk

Sparta High School football from 2017 season Credits: Jennifer Dericks

TRENTON, N.J. – Ground-breaking changes to the state’s high school athletic program are about to hit the desk of Gov. Chris Christie.

According to legislation passed by both the state assembly and senate on Monday, local high schools that are a part of a multi-secondary school district will now be allowed to field one, combined team if either school has trouble fielding a team, in any sport.

Sponsored by Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex) and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), the bill is an effort to reverse a Fall 2017 NJSIAA decision that prevented West Windsor-Plainsboro High School from fielding a varsity football program due to a decline in participation.

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“This will just allow super teams to be built with all elite players,” Sparta Athletic Director Steve Stoner said. “You’ll get the top players from each team and the other players will lose out." According to Stoner the concern is that it will limit playing opportunities to a lot of students as well as affect the level of competition among schools.

“Football offers much more than just athletic rewards,” Benson, who represents Plainsboro, said in a press release announcing the legislation.  “It’s a community in and of itself and for many students it’s a pathway to future opportunities, opening the door to college and beyond.  It’s also a booster for countless other programs, such as the marching band and cheerleading, all of which would suffer if a football program is forced to shut down.  This bill will ensure that programs can stay afloat for the sake of all of these students.”

NJSIAA procedures used to prohibit schools that are designated sized “Group 3 or higher” from forming a “co-op” with other schools for football. However, during a vote at its December business meeting, NJSIAA member schools voted to allow schools to combine teams, but not be eligible for the state tournament.

According to NJSIAA executive director Larry White, the bill will “grant super powers” to the 20 school districts that have multiple high schools.

“As background, these bills would allow schools within the same school district to merge teams for any varsity-level sport, with neither external oversight nor review,” White said in an op-ed last week. “The result would grant 20 multi-school districts, unilateral, unchecked super powers over 415 other schools and hundreds of thousands of children.

“For those living within one of 20 school districts with multiple high schools, the proposed legislation could close the door to playing opportunities for your kids. For those residing outside one of the aforementioned school districts, this legislation will give those 20 districts authority and powers you simply do not have, as they expose your children to unfair competition, all without oversight or review.”

Quijano said the bill is an opportunity for all students to participate in varsity athletics.

“All students within a school district should have equal access to extracurricular programs regardless of which school in the district they attend,” she said. “This bill is just plain old common sense.”

Stoner said current NJSIAA rules allow for students in charter or county schools to participate in sports at the school in their home district, if their school does not offer the sport.

White and the NJSIAA believe this bill will have the same outcome as the “school choice” legislation that allowed certain school districts to enroll students from outside of boundaries. According to the NJSIAA, the school choice program directly led to state championships for the Bound Brook wrestling program and Hoboken football program.

Multiple reports said Christie will sign the bill before he leaves office next week.

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