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Football: Why state finals might never happen

By Phil Anastasia

In 2011, more than 50 percent of the NJSIAA's general membership voted to revamp the playoff system to allow state championships in public-school football.

That wasn't enough, as a two-thirds majority was needed to change the organization's constitution.

On Monday, less than 35 percent (95 of 278, 34.1 percent) voted in favor of a nearly identical proposal.

This was much more than a Save-Thanksgiving-Games revolt.

This was notice that there won't be state finals in public-school football for a long time -- if ever.

Opposition to the notion of playing championship games in the No. 1 sport in the state was widespread and deep -- and it's not going to fade away in the foreseeable future.

The biggest change in the climate around the football in the last two years is the biggest reason why a stunning 65 percent of voters at the NJSIAA's general membership meeting turned thumbs down to a constitutional change for which the organization's leaders had openly lobbied -- concussion concerns.

"That's really the only thing that's changed in the last two years," NJSIAA counsel Stephen Goodell said Tuesday.

Goodell was surprised by the margin of defeat. This was a rout. The clock was running in the fourth quarter.

To be sure, there were folks who voted against the proposal because of concerns the NJSIAA would use the new system to further marginalized the Thanksgiving games.

Absegami AD Steve Fortis spoke about that issue before the vote, expressing concern that the NJSIAA would change the system after two years to eliminate Thanksgiving Day games.

That issue resonates in South Jersey, although not as loudly as you might suspect. There are quite a few people who think the Thanksgiving tradition is an overblown relic of a bygone era, offered far too much reverence given the reality of the pedestrian crowd support and player excitement at a majority of the events.

Other administrators expressed concerns over additional costs in the form of increased salaries for coaches, trainers, custodial and support staff, as well as the earlier start to the season, the encroachment on the winter season and the sanctity of Labor Day weekend.

But if there is one issue that seems to superceded everything, it's concern about lengthening the season and exposing athletes to additional risk in this new era of concussion awareness.

Nobody stood up with print-outs of a study that proves that playing 14 games as opposed to 12 -- as teams in state finals would have done under the proposal -- would increase the risk of athletes sustaining concussions or experiencing health problems later in life.

But in some ways, it's just math: More games, more risk.

And the tough thing for proponents of state championships is that nobody wants to line up on the side of an issue that seems to advocate increased exposure for athletes.

Concussions are kind of the rustling in the grass in contact sports. You know something is there but you don't know just how dangerous it is.

But the last thing any school official can do is downplay concerns about concussions. The safe route -- both for the kids, and from a political standpoint -- is to err on the side of caution.

More games flies in the face of that.

Some teams have reduced their in-week hitting. Some have cut down on pre-season scrimmages.

But to many, the notion of adding games in today's climate -- when NFL and NHL players have sued their respective leagues over the debilitating long-term effects of the violent collisions that are inherent in the sport -- is out of touch with the times.

This increased awareness is no fad, either. It's become part of the fabric of the sports world, especially football, from pee-wees to the pros.

So short of doctoring the system to get to state championships in public-school football in 12 games -- which could be done if regular seasons were cut to eight games and just four teams qualified for the playoffs in each section and good luck getting that passed -- the current format will stay in place.

Football people love their game and with good reason.

But no educator can stand up and advocate change that others can argue will put students in harm's way.

-- Contact Phil Anastasia at

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