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Anastasia: Plenty of gray in public v. non public debate

New Jersey Commissioner of Education David Hespe is expected to rule Monday on the hot-button issue of our time in high school sports: the widening divide between public school programs and non-public school programs.

New Jersey Commissioner of Education David Hespe is expected to rule Monday on the hot-button issue of our time in high school sports: the widening divide between public school programs and non-public school programs.

Hespe will turns thumbs up or thumbs down on two landmark proposals that were strongly endorsed on Dec. 7 by the NJSIAA's general membership. They will take effect for the 2016-17 school-year with his approval.

The first proposal will separate wrestlers who represent non-public schools from wrestlers who represent public schools in district and regional competition of the individual state tournament.

The second proposal will remove all non-public schools with football programs from their existing leagues and place them in a statewide, non-public football conference - division alignments, travel issues, sub-varsity competition, and cross-over schedules to be determined by the fractious, furious members.

The votes to approve the proposals were just short of landslides - 216-121 (with eight abstentions) in favor of the wrestling proposal and 215-128 (with two abstentions) in favor of the football proposal.

Not-exactly-breaking-news: There is strong sentiment in this state to separate the non-publics from the publics in those sports.

And more than a few folks believe the enactment of these bylaws will serve as the tipping point for a complete separation in all sports, boys and girls, in the not-too-distant future.

This would all be neat and clear if the differences between the two were neat and clear - publics on one side, non-publics on the other side.

But that's not the case.

Pretending otherwise is, well, pretending otherwise.

We all know that some non-public schools are actively engaged in attracting athletes. This is 2015. Non-public schools are actively engaged in attracting students, period.

They need them to survive.

But yes, there are students at St. Joseph who went there to play football. There are students at Gloucester Catholic who went there to play baseball.

And on and on. That exists. And that is an understandable source of frustration for coaches and administrators at public schools that compete against those schools in those sports.

But it's only one part of the story.

One of the underlying problems with this public-vs.-non-public debate is the outdated notion that all public school programs are filled with athletes who live in that school's sending district.

That's just not the case in 2015.

Sure, there are powerhouse public school programs that exclusively feature home-grown local kids - Cherokee and Shawnee football and Paulsboro boys' basketball come to mind - and there are many others.

But one of the big problems with the focus on the "advantages" that non-public schools have over public schools in athletics is that it doesn't take tuition students and school-choice students into account.

Where's the "level playing field" that many public school people shout about when it comes to those notable exceptions?

There are dozens of public schools in South Jersey that either accept tuition students or participate in the school-choice program.

There are hundreds of students who are attending public schools outside their home district under those programs.

Think any of them are athletes?

And that doesn't even address other issues that muddy the waters in public school sports - magnet schools that can attract students from within an entire multi-school district and technical schools that can attract students from an entire county.

And we haven't even gotten to the wink-wink stuff that we all know happens with some public school programs in some sports - kids finding their way there by "moving" into the district or adults with residence in that district assuming "guardianship" of talented athletes.

But only the non-publics have an unfair advantage?

Public vs. public is always a fair fight?

No matter what Hespe decides, the chasm between public schools and non-public schools in athletes probably will continue to deepen.

And with legal challenges on the horizon, the people in charge of scholastic sports in this state will continue to wrestle with the complications of creating fair competition.

They just should stop pretending it's neat and clear and black and white, with public schools with their restrictions on one side and non-public schools with their advantages on the other.

In fact, it couldn't be more gray.