OPINION – Play on to Group Champs: Why Article IX doesn’t matter

Somerville players celebrate their 2017 Central Jersey Group 3 championship – the school’s first since 1994 – at midfield at Rutgers’ High Point Solutions Stadium.

by Mike Pavlichko

On January 6th, there’s an important vote that will take place in Robbinsville, or at least virtually on line.

At stake is the future of the high school playoffs in New Jersey, and the apparent growing desire to play down to overall group champions among public schools, something only two states in the entire nation – this one and New York – don’t do.

Article IX of the NJSIAA Constitution says the following:

The Association may award trophies and prizes in such sports as deemed advisable, and determine State or District championships, when, in the judgement of the Executive Committee, it is deemed feasible and possible. No state championship, however, shall be declared in football.

Until 2018, the state playoffs only crowned sectional champions among public schools. From 1974 through 2011 there were 16 sectional champions, with four sections (South, Central, North 1 and North 2) in each of the four groups.

In 2012, a fifth group was added.

In 2018, the NJSIAA decided to move one step closer to playing for group champs, playing “bowl games,” which in 2019 became “regional championships.” It was a roundabout way of saying “a semifinal game with no final.” Fun, to be sure, but generally pointless.

It’s like watching a basketball game, and leaving when overtime tips off because you want to beat the traffic. You just don’t do it.

So, the push now by the Leagues and Conferences Committee is to play to a Group Champions in all five groups, and they’ve come up with a plan that would backtime the entire season so that Championship Weekend is the same weekend it’s always been, the week after Thanksgiving. It preserves Thanksgiving Day games, and allows even teams that get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs to play as many as 10 games.

But ah, that pesky Article IX.

Some have said the NJSIAA already violates its own constitution by playing to group champs in Non-Public. Of course, there are many fewer non-public schools in New Jersey than public, so each group tends to be its own section, and often so many take a pass on the post-season that there aren’t enough teams in each group to even fill an eight-team bracket.

The NJSIAA has said on the record that it believes – even with Article IX in tact – they could still approve the playoff plan and go all the way to Group Champions.

They are 1,000% correct.

At best, the language completely allows it. At worst, it’s open to wide interpretation.

Let’s look at two key words and phrases:

First, “state championship.” What defines a “state championship?” There is no language in Article IX that defines a state championship.

Is it a championship of any kind in the state playoffs? I’ve been on the field after many title games, and interviewed many players and coaches. Never have I ever heard a coach or player scream out in joy and say “Yeah, baby! We just won a sectional championship!!”

Instead, it’s “State champs baby!”

Go to the Phillipsburg Stateliners’ excellent website. It boasts of “14 State Championships”

Is that a violation of the NJSIAA constitution? If so, they’ve been in violation since 1974, so what’s the difference now?

But really it’s not because technically “14 State Championships” is wrong. It’s semantics, but it’s wrong. Just like when you say “I married my wife in 1983.”

You can’t marry your wife. You can marry your fiance, but not your wife. (A pet peeve of mine, but I digress.)

It is a “sectional championship.” Now, if we can all agree on that, having the playoffs last long enough to determine the best team in each group is what gets you a “Group Champion,” not a state champion. A state champion is the entire state.

This means the non-public title games have not been a violation, nor would having five group champions be a violation.

And yet, all of this still may be moot, which brings us to the second word I want to focus on: “declare.”

Playoffs don’t “declare” a champion. Playoffs “determine” a champion. There is no language in Article IX that prohibits the NJSIAA from holding playoffs to determine a state champ.

Even if it wanted to go even further and have a playoff between all the group champions, much like the Tournament of Champions held in other sports.

The language clearly prohibits the NJSIAA from “declaring” – from saying – High School X is the champion of the state. It doesn’t say you can’t determine champs on the field.

So don’t get hung up on the January 6th vote, folks. It’s a nice formality. It would make things neater and cleaner.

But Article IX should have no effect on whether New Jersey finally makes its playoffs pay off.

Play on, folks. Play on.

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