by Steven J. Timko
Last week the NJSIAA announced that all sectional football state championship games will be played at a neutral site, a practice that already was standard for North and Central section finals, and that also is standard throughout the NCAA. Previously, football championship games in the South Section were held at the home field of one of the participants. This coming season, games will be played at the College of New Jersey in Mercer County. Future sites are under consideration.
The important move to a neutral site provides teams with a level playing field and gives New Jersey student athletes an opportunity to showcase their talents on a college or professional field – a literal field of dreams. Attendees will have the added benefit of enjoying multiple championship games and ticket prices will remain affordable for all fans.
The decision to move the South Jersey finals to a neutral site was made unanimously by the NJSIAA Football Committee, comprised of football coaches from the North, Central and South regions. The move also was supported by the New Jersey High School Leagues and the 49-member NJSIAA Executive Committee, which includes representatives from both public and non-public high schools from across the state, the New Jersey School Boards Association, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, the New Jersey Association of Secondary School Principals, the New Jersey Council of Catholic Diocesan Superintendents, the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association, New Jersey state officials, the Directors of Athletics Association of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools.
Despite this overwhelming degree of support from football and high school athletics experts, and the obvious benefits to a neutral site that are supported by football leagues across the country, one southern New Jersey Assemblyman – John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) – is calling the decision ‘bizarre,’ claiming a potential one-hour drive to a championship game is unacceptable and that a home field – like his hometown of Paulsboro – is the ideal setting for a championship game.
This position completely ignores the obvious fact that the football championship games in the North and Central sections have a long, successful history of being played at neutral sites. In addition, the hugely popular state wrestling tournament in Atlantic City annually draws crowds of approximately 40,000, representing every group and every corner of the state.
Almost all sports fans will recall the culminating scene in the film “Hoosiers,” when student athletes from a small town travel to a grand – and neutral – arena for a championship contest. It seems Assemblyman Burzichelli is willing to rob our athletes of a similar experience.
While New Jersey is faced with a State of Emergency, hundreds of thousands of residents are without power, thousands have been displaced from their homes and jobs, reports of crumbling roads and infrastructure are widespread, and the state continues to wrestle with serious economic issues, politicians like Assemblyman Berzichelli should not be turning high school sports into their own political football game. High school sports are not about politics; it’s about our 250,000 student athletes and honoring their hard work and commitment.
The NJSIAA is committed to protecting, promoting, and providing for our high school student athletes, and the neutral championship sites provide athletes and coaches with the ideal environment to compete and showcase their talents. I have no doubt that true fans recognize the appropriateness of this decision.
Steven J. Timko is the executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, a non-profit group that represents the interests of more than 250,000 student athletes from 433 accredited public, private, and parochial high schools.
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