By Robert Kanaby
AS THE FALL high school athletic season has concluded and the winter season has begun, we’ve been treated, as always, to some truly inspiring performances by student athletes across New Jersey. And this is wonderful news because, more than any other country in the world, the education system here in America provides participation in athletic endeavors directly into students’ overall educational experiences.
On most days, the ecosystem that is high school sports in our state functions smoothly and without incident or controversy. Players, coaches, parents, administrators, officials and fans come together under the governance of the NJSIAA, a nearly century old non-profit Association of 433 member schools and more than a quarter of a million student athletes. It is a remarkably efficient, productive environment, particularly when you consider that it is about the only place where you will find public, private and parochial academic institutions all working together on behalf of young adults toward common educational goals.
But as with most ecosystems, troubles arise when uninformed detractors deliberately attempt to distort the purpose and service for which the NJSIAA is known. Specifically, I’m referring to the intrusion by selected individuals who hold political office, lawyers and others that attempt to shift the focus from education and sport to something unrelated which could well be harmful to young people.
Sadly, these dark clouds on the horizon have risen to cast doubt about the association of New Jersey’s schools from questions about expecting student athletes to conduct themselves properly to backroom political wrangling over something the vast majority of high school fans are perfectly content with – tournament ticket prices.
It is a shame that this issue has reached this point during our 2011-2012 school year, but it reinforces why now, more than ever, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association is more important and necessary to the future participation opportunities of the student athletes in our state.
I must comment that most complaints I have heard raised by a small number of individuals strike me as not having been thought out all that carefully. Consider discussions about the cost of tickets for championship football games. It’s the definition of a non-issue, yet a confrontation with a few in our state capital who act in a manner best explained by Shakespeare when he described what the overwhelming majority of the American general public feel in poll after poll, and that is the ”insolence of office.” The prices in question are generally about ten dollars, which is far less expensive than the cost of most other entertainment options (been to the movies lately?), particularly when your admittance entitles you to watch multiple games in top-notch venues.
More significantly, and completely disregarded, is the fact that these ticket sales help finance championship events in many other sports, such as bowling, fencing, and gymnastics – which could not exist without being subsidized by football and more heavily attended sports. So, when someone rails against the cost of playoff football tickets for their own self-serving purposes, what they are really doing is threatening to eliminate athletic opportunities for students who likely never even play football.
As an aside, it is also instructive to note that the Department of Education proceeded with a $5.50 admittance price for football championship games held at Rowan University – despite NJSIAA warnings that failing to round the fee to an even dollar amount would result in change-making chaos. Sadly, the result of ignoring the Association’s concern was a massive delay for parents and other fans when ticket clerks first could not make change quickly enough, and then ran out of change altogether.
Even more vexing and illustrative of the need for the NJSIAA is the issue of appropriate sportsmanship behavior on and off the playing field in support of the primary purpose of education based sport in our schools – namely to use the experiences of the sport to teach our young people to be productive citizens in our society.
What better lesson is there to teach than that a person’s decisions in life, at any age, result in a consequence related to that decision?
Having spent decades within the high school ecosystem – both in New Jersey and on a national level – I know for certain there must be immediate consequences for young people who are in need of that learning experience. There is no greater lesson to learn and carry through life.
The NJSIAA serves as the unbiased balance point as a result of dedicated educators who serve the organization when parents, students, lawyers and others fail to see beyond a self-serving attitude and refuse to recognize the need for reasoned expectations and behavior by students and student athletes.
The NJSIAA, a fully independent organization governed by its membership, remains dedicated to the best interests of student athletes from the member schools, while also staging a full slate of championship events, in 32 different sports, which places it in the top five in the nation. It’s a prodigious responsibility, conducted by a very small number of individuals and volunteers operating under a limited budget. And when you consider how smoothly these tournaments are run, year in and year out, you realize they do a remarkable job.
Without a doubt, when it comes to high school sports in the state of New Jersey, the NJSIAA – in accepting a bond of service leadership to student athletes for almost one hundred years – truly is one of the very best institutions our schools, communities and young people who participate in school sports have going for them.
Robert Kanaby is a former executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA). He recently retired as executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), where he served for 17 years.