How — and Why — NJ High School Sports Association Is Taking on ‘Trash Talking’

New rules have zero-tolerance for bullying, harassment on the field, threaten stiffer penalties

New Jersey’s new anti-bullying law has stepped out onto the sports field, with the state’s high schools athletics association taking steps to clamp down on “trash-talking” that goes too far.

The new rules have won national attention — and captured the talk-radio airwaves – with their requirements that eliminate referee warnings for any talk or gestures that demean fellow athletes, officials, or spectators, specifically citing those targeting race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

Advocates of the measures said the new rules are an expansion of existing sportsmanship bylaws, more borrowing language from the state’s new anti-bullying law than actually extending it.

But clearly they come at a time of heightened awareness to bullying, particularly given the state’s new law and the high-profile suicide of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student who killed himself after experiencing online harassment.

The new guidelines also are rooted in an incident that occurred last year between two Bergen County high school football teams, in which accusations of race baiting were widely reported.

“We dealt with that, and when they played again there were no incidents” said Steve Goodell, attorney for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletics Association who spearheaded the new language.

“But we wanted to make absolutely clear that these [sportsmanship] rules applied to race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation,” he said. “Trash talking, we’re not banning that. We’re saying that race baiting, attacking one’s race or ethnicity, that’s out of bounds.”

The NJSIAA announced the new regulations two weeks ago, saying that it was adding a few lines to its bylaws to make clear that bullying on the field is no more tolerated than bullying off of it.

“High school sports enhances and supports education,” said Steven Timko, executive director of the NJSIAA. “Obscene gestures, profanity, or unduly provocative language or action toward officials, opponents, or spectators won’t be tolerated in the classroom or the field of play.”

Currently, the rules read that “any student-athlete or coach who is cited before, during, or after an interscholastic event for unsportsmanlike and flagrant verbal or physical misconduct will be disqualified from participating in the next two regularly scheduled events, or in the case of football, disqualified from the next game.”

The amendments to the sportsmanship bylaws would “(a) clarify that harassing conduct related to race, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or religion at an interscholastic athletic event constitutes unsportsmanlike conduct, and (b) clarify that such conduct shall be reported to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights and may result in further investigation by NJSIAA.”

In addition, the changes mandate that officials before the games will remind team captains of the rules in no uncertain terms.

According to the NJSIAA that pregame statement will read:

“The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association requires officials to enforce all rules regarding unsportsmanlike conduct by coaches and players.”

“There will be no tolerance for negative statements or actions between opposing players or coaches. This includes taunting, baiting, berating opponents, or ‘trash-talking’ or actions which ridicule or cause embarrassment to them. It also includes harassing conduct related to race, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or religion.”

“If such comments are heard, a penalty will be assessed immediately. We have been instructed not to issue warnings. It is your responsibility to remind your team of this policy.”

State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), the chief sponsor of the state’s anti-bullying law, said she had no problems with the new sportsmanship rules as a natural extension of her legislation.

”That’s just good sportsmanship,” she said. “You can’t teach it in school if the same rules don’t apply on the field.”

Still, there are a few twists. For one, Huttle’s law calls for internal school investigations of any incidents of bullying, while the new rules make the NJSIAA the first investigator, with the discretion to pass long incidents to the state Attorney General’s office.

For another, the sportsmanship rules apply to all high school sports — at public or private institutions – while the anti-bullying law only applies to public schools.

Huttle acknowledged that the athletic field did not come up while she was developing her law, but said that she’s glad her measure been extended in this way. She hopes to soon have an “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights 2” that will apply to colleges and universitiea, too.

“Bullying takes on a life of its own on the field,” she said. “Our law never specifically spoke to it, but I would have thought it applied anyway.”

Goodell, of the NJSIAA, said that there is a clear distinction between the association’s rules and the state’s. For one, the NJSIAA is not a state agency, and it has a broader base than the public schools. In some cases, the rules may overlap, and others not, he said.

But he said there was still clearly a problem that needed fixing, and it hopes the NJSIAA’s changes, in conjunction with the state’s, will help.

“When we brought this up to our executive committee — a big group and pretty much a cross-section of communities in the state — there were definitely members who said this was an issue they had to deal with,” Goodell said. “It is an issue out there.”