A group of athletes at a western New Jersey high school in the spotlight for a photo recently will tell their side of the story at a news conference Thursday night.
Seven wrestlers from Phillipsburg High School in Warren County came under fire earlier this week for a picture of the group with a black dummy that had a noose around its neck.
Two of the teenage boys had their hoods up in a point and another appears to be saluting.
The dummy was wearing a T-shirt of a rival team, Paulsboro High School, whom Phillipsburg defeated in a wrestling match on Feb. 1.
"It's inappropriate, insensitive. It's just wrong on so many levels," said Superintendent Walt Quint, Paulsboro Public Schools.
The head of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced Thursday that none of the students pictured in the photograph will be participating in the NJSIAA State Wrestling Tournament, which starts this weekend, because of their unsportsmanlike conduct.
Some have questioned if the photograph was racially inspired.
Quint said there are black students on Paulsboro's squad, but he doesn't believe it was a direct attack on race or any specific individual.
Fellow students told 69 News earlier this week the photo was intended more as a comment about their recent win over Paulsboro.
"Nothing toward racism, it was more of a joke. If you know the boys, they didn't mean anything offensive by it," said Meghan Wicks, a student at Phillipsburg High School.
Parents weren't amused.
"I don't think it's kids just being kids. They're clearly old enough to know better in this picture," said Elaine Valk, a parent.
According to a statement from the Phillipsburg School District's law firm:
"The administration conducted a thorough investigation of the recent allegations and, with the information at hand, took the necessary actions to hold accountable those involved. Additionally the Administration is taking steps to educate the entire student body as to the culture and expectations of the Phillipsburg School District."
There's currently no word on any disciplinary action taken against the athletes.
The wrestlers have scheduled a news conference for 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Atty. Scott Wilhelm's office at 305 Roseberry Street in Phillipsburg.
Wilhelm is representing the wrestlers.
Steven J. Timko, executive director of the NJSIAA, issued a detailed statement Thursday afternoon explaining why the wrestlers can not participate in this weekend's state competition.
“The NJSIAA Sportsmanship Rule requires that 'high standards of courtesy, fair play, and sportsmanship must be featured at Association competitions'. The Sportsmanship Rule is the heart of the NJSIAA program. Good sportsmanship, respect for rules, respect for others, and fair play are the fundamental principles that support an interscholastic athletic program.
“Over the past year, the NJSIAA has made sportsmanship a priority. Statements cautioning student-athletes against unsportsmanlike conduct are read before each competition. Students are told that “actions which ridicule or cause embarrassment to opponents are unsportsmanlike.” In addition, the NJSIAA has agreed with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights to forward any complaints of unsportsmanlike conduct involving bias incidents.
“As executive director, it is my obligation to take appropriate action when confronted with any flagrant violation of the Sportsmanship Rule.
“I have reviewed the report submitted by Phillipsburg High School and reviewed the photograph posted online through several media outlets. The photograph violates the principles of good sportsmanship and is a flagrant violation of the NJSIAA Sportsmanship Rule.
“Most importantly, the photograph depicts a fundamental disrespect for an opponent, using violent imagery that has no place in high school sports.
“None of the students pictured in the photograph will be participating in the NJSIAA State Wrestling Tournament, which starts this weekend. That is an appropriate response to this violation of the Sportsmanship Rule.
“The NJSIAA will continue to work with the Phillipsburg administration to develop a corrective action plan to ensure that actions like this do not happen in the future. “
Stay tuned to wfmz.com and 69News for more on this developing story.