by Mike Pavlichko
The last 72 hours have been brutal for the 48 players, 12 assistant coaches, and the one head coach of the Union Farmers football team, Lou Grasso, Jr.
Less than eight hours before kickoff of their North Jersey, Section 2, Group 5 semifinal game against Eastside Paterson, they learned there would be no game.
Their season was over. Just like that.
That’s a damn hard pill to swallow, especially considering they were (are) one of the top teams in the state, and a heavy favorite to win North 5, and maybe even the regional championship.
For those not paying attention, here’s what happened, in a nutshell:
Two symptomatic players tested positive for COVID last Thursday. Officials decided to test the unvaccinated players; those who already got the jab were not tested. Two more on the squad tested positive, but had no symptoms. The Superintendent sought guidance from local health officials, who initially thought it would be acceptable to play Friday, but upon further review suggested to halt the game. The Superintendent did so, but wanted to play Sunday or Monday. The NJSIAA has a rule in place addressing just that type of situation: the answer was no. Union withdrew from the tournament.
That unleashed a firestorm – politely and respectfully – from the student-athletes, who met with Superintendent Dr. Scott Taylor to express their concerns, and ask questions, like why the players who couldn’t play because they may have been exposed were allowed in school Friday. Dr. Taylor said it was a “valid point” and he’d look into it and get back to them. (He has since told Central Jersey Sports Radio the kids students were allowed in school before health officials reversed course and suggested the game shouldn’t be played.)
#LetUnionPlay became the hashtag on Twitter, with numerous variations, with most directed at Mr. Taylor, but others at Colleen Maguire of the NJSIAA, whose organization’s Executive Committee in September approved a measure that would allow no room to reschedule the state tournament if a team couldn’t play due to a COVID-related issue.
So now Clifton and Paterson Eastside are getting set to play each other in the North 2, Group 5 Championship Game Friday night. Dr. Taylor told the Twitter-verse Sunday he’s had his attorneys file for emergent relief, basically trying to get the NJSIAA to let Union play Eastside now. But it’s way too late at this point of the game. It’s Monday night, and they’ve already been studying film of each other, and practicing. The pull the rug out now would be unfair to both teams.
Many on social media are taking this out on the Superintendent, calling for him to be fired or to resign, claiming he doesn’t care about the students, doesn’t understand the football culture at the school, and is relatively new in the district anyway.
That’s unfair. I don’t know the man. But whether I agree with the assessment of the risk of COVID spreading among a football team – or one football team to another – is irrelevant. He got medical advice that it wasn’t safe to play, and went with it.
In the end, there are myriad moving parts to this. So let’s look at each point of view on this.
Because no one else has.
Let’s start with the Superintendent: Dr. Taylor told me Monday in a one-on-one interview, when asked why the students who couldn’t play in the game were allowed in school on Friday, that his medical people had “additional information” that led them to reverse course. He did not ask what that information was, and let’s be clear: he should have. (We have a call out to the Union Township Health Director; we’ll let you know if we hear from him.) But whether he asked or not, he still would have listened to his health experts. Is that wrong?
Before you answer, consider this: if a Union kid did come down with COVID, and maybe not died, but “just” came down with severe symptoms and suffered long COVID for the rest of his life, I’d put money down in a hot minute that those parents would sue the district from here to Kingdom Come because they didn’t listen to the “experts.” Don’t even try to tell me I’m wrong.
Now, did he explore all avenues? What if the team only played with its 24 vaccinated players, who were not required to take a COVID test? Here’s where the players and coaches should be consulted. That didn’t happen.
Were the players’ parents asked to sign waivers? Absolving the district from any liability? No. Should they have been asked. It’s a legitimate option.
But you do have to look at the flip side. What if Eastside is not comfortable with it? What if they don’t think it’s safe? There are two teams playing here. Is it right to make them forfeit if they’re not comfortable when there are four COVID cases on the team they’re supposed to tackle and jump on for 48 minutes?
All that being said, even if you think the district should have at least postponed the game, remember, the NJSIAA said no. And not just in this case. They have had a rule in place for two months, since September 15th.
Should they have been more flexible? Should there have been some wiggle room? Was it just because Union was a heavy favorite? Would there have been the same outcry for Toms River South, which made the playoffs at 3-6 as the 16th overall seed and got blown out 58-0 by Millville, the top public school in the state? Be honest.
Then again, look at it from the NJSIAA’s perspective. If you do it for one team, you have to do it for everybody. And that’s why they’re not budging at all. And it’s a more than fair point.
Because right now, it’s just Union that has an issue, and after they delay the game a week until all is clear, what if Eastside had an issue this Thursday and couldn’t play until Thanksgiving? So your sectional semifinal is with turkey leftovers, the title game is the first week of December, and if there’s one more delay, you’re practically playing on Christmas Eve. This isn’t basketball, where playing back-to-back games often happen. These players need rest and prep time in between. Oh, and what about North 1, Group 5, which could have ended up with 2-3 weeks in between games? How is that fair to East Orange or Passaic Tech, to make them wait?
Even moving the game to Monday with another on Friday isn’t the best option. But could they have let Union play Sunday, then move next Friday’s games to Saturday? Probably. Maybe.
Then there’s the question of vaccination. This isn’t going to be a popular take, but remember: only the unvaccinated players were tested, and two additional players came up positive. So, what if all the players had been vaccinated? Would they have even bothered to test anyone? Would we even be having this conversation? Maybe not.
I feel terrible for the kids at Union. Just awful. They have – like everyone else – endured so much. Losing a good chunk of last season, and the playoffs. Maybe some lost friends or family members to COVID. They’ve lost so much of their childhoods to this dreaded virus. I’m ready to get back to normal, or as close as we can, aren’t you?
(By the way, the four kids who tested positive are fine, Dr. Taylor told me. Has anyone asked about them at all? I haven’t seen a single social media post about that over the last three days.)
Ultimately, this is like a nothing-nothing baseball game that’s in the 17th inning. It’s a shame someone has to lose.
Unfortunately, someone has to lose. And like any coach will tell you, you learn more about your team from a loss than you do from a win.
We’ve learned a whole helluva lot about the 2021 Union Farmer football team in the past 72 hours.
But mostly this: Every single one of them is a winner. Every one a champion.