By NJSIAA Executive Director Steven Timko
Back when I was a kid, my friends and I played pick-up games whenever and wherever we could. The sport itself didn’t matter – sometimes, we’d even invent games. The important thing was having fun. We’d create rules to address the tree in the middle of the field, the branch overhanging the basket, and even what to do if one of the guys left early for dinner. We’d select sides before each contest, and if the game became a blowout, we’d stop and simply re-balance the teams.
And every once in a while, when someone brought along a younger, smaller sibling who couldn’t quite keep up, we’d adapt our rules to include them in some fashion. We kids didn’t have much money, so we’d share equipment to ensure everyone was safe — or, at least, safe according to the standards of a bunch of 12 year olds. And occasionally, we’d have someone who wanted to fight or who’d get carried away with trash talk … and we quickly found ways to ditch them.
Yup, that was my own version of the good old days.
Today, I’m executive director of the non-profit NJSIAA — not a state agency — that’s controlled by our 433 member high schools and administered by a professional and support staff of 14. These member schools, which include public, private and parochial institutions, determine our budget and provide financial oversight, establish our overarching strategy, and make our rules. And when there’s a question, they hold hearings and issue decisions. The staff enforces the rules and manages day-to-day operations as dictated both by the budget and the overall strategy. The NJSIAA also runs championship tournaments in 32 sports — more than our counterpart organizations in any other state. Chief among our duties is developing rules and protocols to ensure the safety of student athletes; for that we turn to our Medical Advisory Board, which includes some of New Jersey’s top physicians.
Sure, things have changed since those sand lot days, but, then again, some things remain the same. From my perspective, the NJSIAA is simply a group of people – specifically, educators — who join together to make rules that help ensure scholastic athletics are safe, fair, fun, and provide important life lessons. Beyond our own rules, there are those set by our national partner, the National Federation of High School Sports, plus individual sports association and various state and federal laws related to equal rights and protections for all. When you’re dealing with New Jersey’s 270,000 student-athletes, structure and rules are essential. And, when you’re also dealing with private schools that don’t fall under state control, only an independent association like NJSIAA can do the job.
And this job we’re doing clearly is benefitting our student-athletes. During the past two years, overall participation in New Jersey high school athletics has increased by six percent, and in some specific sports the results are even more impressive. Take boys basketball — in just two years, total participation is up 11 percent. For girls volleyball, participation since 2010-11 has increased a remarkable 25 percent.
Of course — like all non-profit organizations — we don’t enjoy the fiscal safety net provided to government agencies, so we have a clear fiduciary responsibility to maintain a healthy balance sheet. And this includes reserve funds. During eight of the past 11 years, due to new state regulations, we’ve seen a depletion of these reserves. But, thanks to our member schools and staff, we’ve managed to stabilize the association’s finances, while still striving to reach industry targets of six months (50 percent) of annual unrestricted operating expense. Our members and their fans appreciate the value of our events and have always supported our ticket pricing and commitment to maintain financial stability.
We’ve recently dealt with two high-profile issues, one involving our new rule to curtail on-field “trash talk,” and the other to address a special-education student seeking a an additional, fifth year of athletic eligibility. Clearly, the “who” and “what” of these issues are far less important than the “why.” And while both are separate and distinct, in the end they deal with the same issue — the NJSIAA ensuring opportunities for all kids to participate and showcase their talents in a structured, safe environment promoting fair play and competitive balance.
My childhood friends and I never liked the on-field bullies, and neither do our 433 member schools — which is why the new rule regarding trash talking was enacted. And just like on the sand lot of my youth, the NJSIAA makes accommodations for kids who want to join the game.
Yes, there are lots of rules, regulations, equipment and financial considerations these days in scholastic athletics, but I’m happy to say that in the end, the spirit of the sand lot lives on in New Jersey’s high school sports.
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