State Education Commissioner David Hespe re-set the landscape for competition in high school football and wrestling in New Jersey, overturning two recent votes that would have separated public and non-public schools in those sports.

In December, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the ruling body for high school athletics, voted to split public and non-public schools in football and wrestling. The NJSIAA voted, in two separate measures, to place non-public school football teams into their own statewide conference, and move non-public wrestlers into their own pool at district and regional levels.

Just a few weeks later, however, Hespe overturned the vote. Pertaining to football, the commissioner stated that “excluding these non-public schools without a compelling rationale deprives them and the state of the benefits of diverse interscholastic athletic competition and equal athletic opportunity.” He also said the NJSIAA’s move would have taken away the ability to develop full schedules for “non-elite, non-public schools that are appropriately matched with public schools in their region.”

Regarding wrestling, he said splitting the schools “fails to address how the proposal maintains equal athletic opportunity for non-public students.”

The initial votes by the NJSIAA addressed a long-running issue in New Jersey high school sports, namely the athletic disparity between public schools, whose students come from within set community borders, and non-public schools, which can draw students from all over.  Traditionally, some non-public schools have developed powerhouse teams in certain sports, leading to concerns about fairness and even safety in competition.

The issue has come to the commissioner level before, and Hespe cited a 2009 decision, also affecting wrestling, which was reversed by an earlier commissioner.

Acknowledging the concerns, Hespe also directed NJSIAA to study the issue “as soon as practicable,” taking into consideration “how implementation of any proposed initiative will ensure equal athletic opportunity, such as the provision of full schedules without creating transportation hardships or a loss of instructional time.”

NJSIAA Executive Director Steve Timko said in a statement that “the NJSIAA will continue seeking a recipe for fair play among member schools,” according to published reports. He also said the NJSIAA will review the decision, map out a strategy, and work with NJSIAA members and the state Department of Education to address issues.