EDISON — New Jersey's high school football community voted overwhelmingly Monday against a plan that has been debated for years to create true state championships for public school football teams.
That debate may finally be settled after a lopsided vote Monday morning during the general membership meeting of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. New Jersey high schools voted 183-95 with three abstentions against changing the NJSIAA constitution to allow public schools to play for a state title. The NJSIAA governs New Jersey high school sports. Two-thirds of the 281 schools that voted needed to approve the change for it to take effect.
“I think the membership spoke loud and clear” about maintaining the current status, NJSIAA Executive Director Steven J. Timko said.
Public schools currently play for South, Central, North I and North II sectional titles. But if the constitution change had been approved Monday, those four sectional winners would have gone on to play for one state championship in each of the five public school enrollment groups.
Most Cape-Atlantic League schools opposed the change. The new playoff format would have lengthened the season. In some years, the new season would have started Labor Day weekend. The current season ends with sectional title games the first weekend in December. The new format would have required the season to end the second weekend in December — just a few days before the start of the winter basketball and wrestling seasons.
School officials were wary of making the football season longer, considering the attention being given to concussions and how physically grueling the game can be.
“The concussion issue is coming out of the games,” said CAL President and Mainland Regional Athletic Director Mike Gatley. “You’re talking about adding games, starting earlier. That’s something that concerns us and something that we talked about as a league.”
Local officials also feared the new format would lead to the end of Thanksgiving rivalries, such as Atlantic City vs. Holy Spirit and Millville vs. Vineland. The new format would have preserved the holiday games, but many feared that would change. New Jersey is the only state that does not hold state football championships. Massachusetts did not play for state titles until this season. In many parts of the country, Thanksgiving Day games have disappeared.
“You are expanding the season,” said Absegami Athletic Director Steve Fortis. “It’s one of the longest seasons to begin with. At some point, People are going to come back and say, ‘It’s too long of a season. There’s too many injuries. We have to address this.’ The only way to make it work is to get rid of Thanksgiving. You see the reaction of kids (playing) on Thanksgiving. It’s their Super Bowl.”
The New Jersey high school football playoffs began in 1974, and no one now connected with the NJSIAA can remember exactly why the ban on state champions for public schools was put in the constitution. New Jersey non-public schools have played for state titles since 1993.
Monday’s vote was expected to be close. This was the third time in eight years that New Jersey high schools have voted against the idea of a true state champion for public school football teams. With how lopsided Monday’s vote was it’s difficult to imagine a new system being proposed any time soon.
“Will it come back again?’ Timko said. “We’ll find out. I thought (Monday’s) vote was a resounding answer to the question.”
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