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New Jersey imposes ban on biased language at high school football games

All across New Jersey, something new will happen before every one of the roughly 2,000 high school football games this season.

The crew of referees will call together the coaches and captains from both teams and go over the prevailing rules for the game.

Not the rules you think, though.

New Jersey this season is believed to be the first state in the country to institute new biased-language rules for high school sports. Officials are carrying laminated cards in their pockets outlining what will be considered crossing the line between competitive back-and-forth banter and discriminatory language.

Whoop and shout after delivering a big hit and you might get a warning.

But drop the “N-word” and you’re not only finished for that game and the next, but referees must report the infraction to the state’s governing body for high school athletics, which then passes the player’s name and the violation on to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights in the Attorney General’s Office.

Calling an opponent a “faggot” also will end a player’s day immediately. In fact, any verbal, written or physical conduct related to race, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation is grounds for disqualification. After that, it can get a little tricky. In some instances, using the “F-word” is sure to get you tossed; in others, referees seemingly will have leeway to chalk it up to good-natured trash talking.

The new rules apply not only to football but every high school sport that uses officials. They also extend to fans in the stands, who often will be read a similar statement about biased language and behavior over the loudspeaker before games.

“We’re making it absolutely crystal clear to everybody that this kind of language is unsportsmanlike and it has no place in high school sports,” said Steve Goodell, attorney for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Referee Bill Scanlon explains the NJSIAA’s new sportsmanship rules to players on Colonia High School’s football team Friday night before their game against Iselin Kennedy High School.  

Officials say they hope the new rules curb an ongoing trend of taunting and the use of derogatory language on all levels of sports. Recently, NBA All-Stars Kobe Bryant, Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah have been fined for using homophobic slurs; Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel has used hand gestures to taunt opponents after throwing touchdown passes; and last week, video footage of a 7-year-old Jets fan screaming at an adult Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan went viral, a tirade that was supported by the boy’s father.

The NJSIAA’s rules were a strong response to allegations that Paramus Catholic High football players and coaches were subjected to racially charged comments and ugly taunting during the team’s Thanksgiving Day game last season against Bergen Catholic High.

Paramus Catholic star player Jabrill Peppers, who is black, said he and teammates were called racial slurs by some fans. He said some fans painted their chests to say, “Jabrill can’t read!” and dressed in prison garb to mock his father, who was incarcerated at the time. Peppers’ coach, Chris Partridge, who is white, was also denigrated with a slur by an adult fan for supporting his black players.

Bergen Catholic principal Timothy J. McElhinney said his school took the allegations “very seriously,” disciplined students involved in the taunting and sent information home to parents. McElhinney said Bergen Catholic supports the new sportsmanship rule.

“I could understand if they want to have a little fun,” said Peppers, who has also heard racial slurs from opposing players. “I’m not the only athlete that gets that. But the racial slurs and some of that other stuff, that’s not even football anymore. That’s taking it a step further. I just felt that that was extremely disrespectful.”

After the game, officials from the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association and the state’s Division on Civil Rights said they received several complaints about the taunting. Craig Sashihara, director of the Division on Civil Rights, said his office did some outreach and found that similar instances of nasty taunting were happening in other parts of the state.

“The allegations were widespread and in some cases orchestrated race baiting,” Sashihara said. “These are allegations of players and fans screaming racial epithets at opponents, at 15-year-old kids.”

Officials from the NJSIAA, the Division on Civil Rights and the Attorney General’s Office met in May and worked together to broaden the NJSIAA’s sportsmanship rule, which was already in place.

The officials agreed to spell out what constitutes biased language and implement harsher penalties. Players or coaches who are found violating the rules will be thrown out of the game immediately — with no prior warning — and the infraction will be documented to help the state keep track of offenses.

The new sportsmanship statement was typed and sent to administrators, coaches and referees chapters across the state.

“That type of language would never be tolerated in a classroom,” said Larry White, the NJSIAA assistant director in charge of referees. “And high school sports — educationally based, the fields, the courts, the rink, the mats — is an extension of the classroom. That’s why we’re saying, ‘That’s not going to be tolerated now.’”

Some coaches and fans say a sufficient sportsmanship rule was already in place to safeguard against vicious language, and they worry that the new rules could lead to an increase in quick player ejections by officials asked to make judgment calls on what they hear on the field. Some fear the NJSIAA is trying to completely eliminate even innocent, competitive trash talking and cheering.

“For some reason, people think it was out of control,” St. Peter’s Prep football coach and athletic director Rich Hansen said. “So putting another rule in place, to me, doesn’t necessarily fix the issue.”

Others say derogatory language, disturbing taunting tactics and especially race baiting have grown worse in New Jersey high school sports. Peppers said trash talk that crosses the line is “absolutely” on the rise. Moreover, many coaches and administrators recount troubling stories from their careers, adding they’ve noticed an increase in vitriol both on the field and in the stands.

“In this part of the state, it’s been a growing societal issue in general,” said James P. Vail, president of Paramus Catholic, located in Bergen County. “People shouldn’t become numb to it and tolerate it. It’s just reached a point that people said, ‘We’re just getting numb to this, and we really shouldn’t.’”

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