PAULSBORO However it was conceived, the photo that ended the season of several North Jersey high school wrestlers early has now led to the shutdown of a long-established rivalry between two highly regarded wrestling programs in the state.
The Phillipsburg Stateliners and the Paulsboro Red Raiders will not compete in their annual out-of-conference match next year - marking the end of a 15-year staple, Paulsboro officials said Thursday.
The decision follows the controversy that erupted in February over a photo featuring several Phillipsburg wrestlers that some deemed racially insensitive.
The picture depicted seven white Phillipsburg wrestlers, many in the school's athletic attire and two with pointed hoods, posing around a hanged dummy clad in a Paulsboro T-shirt. The photo was taken in early February, days after Phillipsburg beat Paulsboro.
Paulsboro Superintendent Walter Quint said Thursday that the high school's decision to not compete against the Warren County school next year was difficult.
"On one hand, you don't want to color an entire relationship by one incident," Quint said. However, he added, "if we continue the relationship immediately, it's disrespectful to people who are here that are hurt by it."
The two teams have faced off every year since 1999 with the exception of one year, when the match was canceled due to the weather, said coach Paul Morina. Paulsboro leads the series, 8-6.
The meet has been described as cloaked in tradition, with the host team providing food for the visitors before the long trek home.
"We looked forward to it every year, it was a big match," said Morina, also the school's principal. "It was hard to drop."
But Morina said he discussed the decision with fellow coaches, staff and school officials, and there were "a lot of concerns."
"I felt it was the right thing to do for our community and the people," he said. The players, he said, understand. "They're fine with it."
The photo was met with outrage from civil rights groups. The involved Phillipsburg wrestlers, eight in total, attended a news conference after the image came to light, during which an attorney for the students maintained that the photo was not "premeditated," and that the dummy only comes in black and its complexion wasn't considered.
After the photo became public, the Phillipsburg school barred the student wrestlers involved from participating in a state tournament - a decision supported by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
A spokesman for the NJSIAA, Michael Cherenson, said Thursday that the decision for the two schools to not meet was "only theirs." The organization is awaiting a final report outlining the Phillipsburg school's sensitivity and diversity training efforts, Cherenson said.
Requests for comment to Phillipsburg's superintendent regarding the end of the rivalry were not returned Thursday.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), a former Paulsboro mayor, said of the decision: "It's just another casualty in this very unfortunate series of events."
Loretta Winters, president of the Gloucester County chapter of the NAACP, called it an "excellent decision."
"I still think some type of charges should have been filed instead of just a slap on the wrist," she said. The Warren County Prosecutor's Office announced in April that it would not pursue criminal charges.
Scott Wilhelm, an attorney speaking for the eight Phillipsburg athletes, said Thursday "there was never any malice from these boys" and the ending of the long rivalry was "unfortunate."
Quint and Morina left open the prospect that the tradition may one day resume.
Paulsboro has received apologies from Phillipsburg, Quint said. "We accept those."