PHILLIPSBURGH, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — An attorney for eight members of the Phillipsburg High School wrestling team said the photo that surfaced of team members apparently simulating a lynching was meant “innocently,” and expressed disappointment at the wrestlers being banned from the state individual tournament and suspended three days from school.
The picture showed seven boys in Phillipsburg wrestling attire surrounding a black wrestling dummy wearing a rival Paulsboro High School T-shirt and hanging from a noose. The photo, which was taken after the team won the Group 4 state championship Sunday, also shows two of the boys with the hoods on their sweatshirts fixed into points.
“When we spontaneously set the scene and posed for the photograph, our sole purpose was to promote school spirit and portray our wrestling team as victor over two of our archrivals – Paulsboro High School and Kittatinny High School, and not for any other purpose,” attorney Scott Wilhelm said on behalf of the students — Andrew B. Horun, Tyler Agans, Jimmy Schuitema, Tim Hinkle, Broderick Bupivi, Tyler Petchonka, Daniel Wissing, and Garrett Wolfinger.
The group represented the seven wrestlers who appeared in the photo and one other who snapped the picture.
Wilhelm said the dummy was not intended to represent a person of any race or ethnicity.
“The inanimate figure in the photograph is a wrestling dummy, which is owned by the Phillipsburg High School, and is used in our daily practices, and is used by most high school wrestling teams,” Wilhelm said on behalf of the students. “It is our understanding that the dummies are manufactured in only dark leather. In outfitting the wrestling dummy, we did not give any thought to the physical appearance of the dummy as anything other than an unidentified, generic wrestler – clothed in a Paulsboro T-shirt over a Kittatinny (Regional High School) singlet. Likewise, our dress was standard wrestling uniforms, and our poses were not premeditated, but rather, spontaneous gestures without any forethought.”
The teenagers said through their attorney that their judgment was “clouded” by their success and understood that some might have found them offensive, “however innocently intended” it was.
“We are truly sorry for any harm we may have caused,” Wilhelm said on behalf of the boys. “We are especially sorry to the Paulsboro wrestling team, the coaches and the entire Paulsboro community. As teenage boys transitioning into adulthood, we are constantly facing challenges to become more responsible and productive young men. In that transition, we have made mistakes, and understandably will have further transgressions. Yet from this photograph — we have learned a valuable lesson, that all actions have consequences.”
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association said in a statement Thursday that after reviewing the report filed by Phillipsburg High School, as well as the photo online, it chose not to allow the teens to participate in its individual tournament this weekend, citing unsportsmanlike conduct.
“As Executive Director, it is my obligation to take appropriate action when confronted with any flagrant violation of the Sportsmanship Rule,” NJSIAA Executive Director Steven J. Timko said. “The photograph violates the principles of good sportsmanship and is a flagrant violation of the NJSIAA Sportsmanship Rule.”
Timko said the photo shows a “fundamental disrespect” and uses “violent imagery that has no place in high school sports.”
Wilhelm said the wrestlers were disappointed by the decision – given, he said, that the principal had previously told them that while they would be disciplined, they still would be allowed to participate in the tournament.
“Now, for some reason – without any further explanation and despite our repeated, unanswered inquiries, the school has done an about-face,” Wilhelm said on behalf of the boys. “As the present-day leaders of our community and school district, we would have expected more.”
The teens themselves did not speak during the news conference. Wilhelm declined to take questions, since an investigation was still under way, and there might be “other consequences for the boys, including a possible investigation by law enforcement authorities.”
The Phillipsburg school district released a statement saying: “The incident reported is a student matter dealing with minors. An investigation was undertaken and upon conclusion of the investigation actions were taken by the district consistent with its policies.”
As CBS 2’s Dave Carlin reported, some Paulsboro wrestlers saw nothing innocent about it.
“I think they knew what they was doing,” Zack Richard said.
Paulsboro Superintendent Walter Quint said the boys and other students can learn from the incident.
“Phillipsburg is doing an investigation, and we’re giving them time to conduct their investigation,” he said. “This is a teachable moment where we can say, ‘Now you can see what can happen when you make a mistake online.’”
Phillipsburg students said the team is typically well-disciplined.
“They are all good kids from good families,” Ryan O’Dowd said. “Coach (Dave) Post is very disciplined and teaches them well.”
“They’re great kids,” fellow student David Seldow explained. “They were just excited about winning the match and they deserved it. It just got to their heads.”
The state Division on Civil Rights is also looking at the case.
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