Ed chief upholds NJ football players' suspensions

December 2, 2011 5:14:04 PM PST
New Jersey's acting education commissioner on Friday upheld the suspension of nine high school football players accused of beating up two people at a party, likely dealing a final blow to their efforts to have the sanctions set aside in time to play in a state championship game Saturday.

Christopher Cerf's two-page decision echoed the finding Thursday of an administrative law judge who heard arguments from attorneys for school officials and for the nine Wayne Hills High School players.

Cerf's decision could be appealed to a state Superior Court judge who could halt the suspensions. Attorneys for the players were reviewing whether to make that last-ditch effort with the hope that they could play in Saturday's sectional championship at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford against Old Tappan, attorney George Abdy said.

The players were charged with assault after a brawl at an off-campus party in late October in which two students from rival Wayne Valley High School were injured. Attorneys claim the nine were punished without due process and have charged that at least two of the players weren't even involved in the alleged attack.

"Everybody's pretty upset," Abdy said Friday. "They could have done in-school suspension, community service, anything. They could have punished them in other ways, but for some reason they made football the issue."

Cerf agreed with Administrative Law Judge Ellen Bass that, while the players demonstrated that being barred from a once-in-a-lifetime experience such as a state championship game would constitute irreparable harm, they didn't satisfy the other requirements to have the suspensions lifted - chiefly, that the school board's decision was "arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable" and that the players' appeal had a likelihood of success on its merits.

"These petitioners have no property interest in playing football, as doing so is a privilege," Bass wrote in her opinion released Friday. "While they are entitled to be treated fairly and with courtesy, the actions of the Board do not need to comport with formal due process."

The dispute drew widespread attention as it dragged on for over three weeks and coincided with the national debate over the culture of organized sports in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations at Penn State and Syracuse universities. The players initially were suspended by Interim Superintendent Michael Roth but had the suspensions lifted by the school board, allowing them to play in a state playoff game. The board then reinstated the suspensions a week ago.

Wayne Hills is a perennial football power in northern New Jersey under longtime coach Chris Olsen, whose son, Greg, played at the school and now plays tight end for the NFL's Carolina Panthers.