The football teams from Camden and Pleasantville are scheduled to resume their playoff game Wednesday on a neutral field in an empty stadium.

A packed house would be better.

A standing-room-only crowd would create a far more fitting environment for those players and coaches.

The NJSIAA announced Saturday that the Central Jersey Group 2 playoff game that was stopped by gunfire that injured three people Friday night at Pleasantville would be resumed Wednesday at a neutral site that will be closed to the public.

"Utilizing a neutral, closed site will enable student-athletes to conclude their game without outside distraction,” NJSIAA executive director Larry White said in a statement.

The point here isn’t to criticize the NJSIAA’s safety-first decision. The organization isn’t wrong to err on the side of caution and make the well-being of players, coaches and spectators the top priority in staging an athletic contest.

It’s just a shame that approach will end up punishing the players from Camden and Pleasantville.

It’s just a shame those kids have to resume the game in an awkward atmosphere that will make it seem like they have done something wrong, when the opposite is true.

The NJSIAA will ask another school to host the game. They will drastically reduce the complications involved in the site management of the event by closing the gates to the public.

Through no fault of either high school, Friday night’s event attracted some bad actors who used the occasion of a high-stakes football game between two strong teams in front of a large crowd to pursue their own criminal agendas.

Crime-scene tape on the bleachers at Pleasantville High, where a shooting Friday night injured three people and interrupted a playoff game between Camden and Pleasantville.
VERNON OGRODNEK / For The Inquirer
Crime-scene tape on the bleachers at Pleasantville High, where a shooting Friday night injured three people and interrupted a playoff game between Camden and Pleasantville.

"This incident had nothing to do with the students of Pleasantville High School or Camden High School,” Atlantic County prosecutor Damon Tyner said in a statement Saturday. "The venue simply presented an opportunity for criminals to pursue their own form of petty vengeance against one another.”

To avoid even the remote possibility of another incident, the NJSIAA plans to resume the game in what will be surreal, sterile environment – a stadium with empty bleachers, a playing field behind locked gates.

No cheers.

No chants.

No parents, no siblings, no students, no alumni.

Nothing but the sound of clashing pads, the raised voices of the coaches, the referee’s whistles piercing the unfamiliar quiet.

It will be so odd, so unnatural, so unfair.

Camden High football players walk down Park Blvd. in Camden as they head back to their football field and locker room on Friday night, after their playoff game at Pleasantville was interrupted by gunfire that injured three people.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / AP
Camden High football players walk down Park Blvd. in Camden as they head back to their football field and locker room on Friday night, after their playoff game at Pleasantville was interrupted by gunfire that injured three people.

Buena coach Jon Caputo, whose team lost a tough battle with Willingboro in the Central Jersey Group 1 semifinals on Friday night, has proposed a great idea. He thinks players from all the teams that lost playoff games this weekend should be allowed to attend the Camden-Pleasantville contest wearing their jerseys as a show of support and solidarity.

It would be something else to take Caputo’s proposal a step further and play the game under the lights Wednesday night at site roughly equidistant from Camden and Pleasantville and invite the entire South Jersey football community to show up.

Encourage everybody to attend – players and coaches and students from all teams in South Jersey, plus alumni and fans of the sport.

Make it an event, a thunderously loud show of support for Camden and Pleasantville as well as a spirited rebuke to the actions of those guys who stole the scene from the kids on the field.

These games don’t belong to them. They belong to the athletes, the teen-agers who wear their school colors and represent their towns.

Little more than an hour after the incident, Camden coach Dwayne Savage was asked about his players. They’re doing OK, Savage said on his cell phone, as the Panthers’ team bus turned on the Garden State Parkway.

"Sad to say, they’re kind of used to it,” Savage said.

See, that’s the thing. Some kids in Camden and Pleasantville and too many other places are numb to gun violence. The devastating impact is part of their childhood.

You know else they are used to? Wordy promises that things will be better from well-meaning politicians and community activists and people who don’t live their reality.

And know this: They will be numb on Wednesday, playing one of the most important games of their careers in an empty stadium. They will shrug their shoulders and give their best. They always do.

But imagine how these kids would feel if instead of silence they were surrounded by applause, if they ran on the field to a standing ovation, if people didn’t just tell them how much they cared but showed them?

Those student-athletes deserve better than to finish a tournament game in a barren stadium. They deserve better than to play the final 17 minutes of such a meaningful game in such a strange atmosphere.

They deserve cheers – lots of them, from both sides of the field, from every level of the bleachers, from every corner of the crowded stadium.