A high school football team in New Jersey advanced to the state championship game amidst a cloud of controversy on Friday night, after nine players who have been accused of violently beating two other teens were allowed to participate in the game after their suspensions were rescinded at 1 a.m. Friday morning, less then 24 hours before the game's opening kickoff.
As reported by the Newark Star-Ledger and Bergen Record, among other sources, Wayne (N.J.) Hills High defeated Paramus (N.J.) High, 48-21 in the North Jersey Section 1 Group 3 state semifinal, a result that sent Wayne Hills to the state championship game. A victory there would earn the program its eighth state title under head coach Chris Olsen, who happens to be the father of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen.
While being the father of an NFL star is often the most newsworthy tidbit cited about the elder Olsen, he has found himself in the center of a media maelstrom since October 29, when nine of his players were accused of assaulting two other teenagers at a house party in Wayne, N.J. While eight of the teenagers involved are underage and, as a result, have had their identities protected, the one 18-year-old involved -- Wayne Hills senior wide receiver Andrew Monaghan -- retained his captainship after the incident and received no punishment from the school or its football program.
There's no question that the charges against the teenagers are very serious. The attack against the two Wayne (N.J.) Valley High students sent both of the victims to the hospital and left one unconscious after they were reportedly stomped on repeatedly.
That appeared to change on the brink of the North Jersey semifinal, with all nine players involved receiving aggravated assault charges for their involvement in the violent encounter. The players were allowed to participate in the team's first state playoff game after the charges were levied -- a 48-0 shellacking of Vernon (N.J.) High -- but following public outrage at that decision, Wayne Interim Superintendent Michael Roth banned the students from all extracurricular activities on Wednesday.
Within hours of the announcement of the superintendent's ruling, the football program had been granted an emergency school board meeting to overturn Roth's decision. That meeting was held on Thursday night and, after a four-hour closed door meeting with the nine charged players and lawyers representing them, the Wayne Board of Education unanimously decided to issue a stay regarding Roth's decision, which immediately made the players eligible for Friday's game. Before the meeting had gone into a closed-door session, the elder Olsen and 60 of his program's football players were present in uniform for an open town hall meeting about the incident, at which members of the public both praised and attacked the superintendent's decision.
"The information that was presented to us raised significant concern as to whether some of the players were even present or involved with this alleged altercation," Wayne school board president Donald Pavlak Jr. told the Star-Ledger. "We heard from two independent witnesses and we saw some evidence. It made it very difficult for us to maintain the superintendent's decision at the time.
"If they are truly guilty, let the criminal justice system determine that. That is not for us to determine, whether they are guilty or not."
In the meantime, much of the North New Jersey public has continued to express outrage that teenagers who have now officially been charged with such a violent act are being allowed to continue to participate on such a high profile stage. With that in mind, the editorial board of the Star-Ledger wrote condemning the decision on Friday, with a second column from Dave D'Allesandro criticizing Chris Olsen himself published just hours later.
Those opinions -- among others -- drew the very public ire of Greg Olsen on Twitter. The tight end aggressively attacked a series of New Jersey journalists on Twitter after initial stories criticizing the school board's decision began to leak out. Those critiques have spread into a second day. Olsen has issued more than 10 Tweets supporting his father and calling editorials from outlets like the Star-Ledger "embarrassing."
It seems likely there will be more Olsen Tweets to come, given the animosity toward the Wayne Hills program that continues to grow in the aftermath of the team's controversial victory on Friday. With the Wayne school board set to meet again on Nov. 29 to discuss whether to re-instate the superintendent's original suspension or revoke it until after the players' respective trials, the situation will only get more toxic for all involved.
"It sends all the wrong messages in terms of sports, that winning the game is more important than teaching a life lesson," New Jersey State Senator Richard Codey (D-Essex), told the Star-Ledger. "That's wrong. Here you have a very serious offense: aggravated assault. A kid was beaten unconscious and there's no suspension? You've got to use common sense here."
Beyond that, Wayne Valley principal R.V. Reis expressed significant concern about the longterm psychological effects the attack's two victims would face after watching their alleged assaulters escape without immediate punishment.
"This will have an impact on those boys for the rest of their lives and will undoubtedly require counseling services if they have not already occurred," Reis said in a statement today obtained by the Wayne Patch. "I continue to speak with (one of the boy's) parents who are so worried because their son can't sleep and is having flashbacks of being repeatedly kicked while on the ground.
"And what must they be thinking that the town has made this about football and the coach, and not about their child? This is only about kids being hurt."