Word Watch

January 29, 2015

When the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) passed a bylaw last summer aimed at curbing the use of biased language during athletic contests, administrators everywhere took notice. With a year of games now played under the new rule, has it been successful?

Larry White, Assistant Director for the NJSIAA, believes the answer is yes. He cited the reduced number of disqualifications for unsportsmanlike conduct as proof of a changed culture. In the 2012-13 winter sports season, for example, there were 132 player ejections. This past winter, there were 76. Three of those disqualifications resulted from enforcement of the new bylaw, the same number as in the fall season.

"The new rule is aimed at changing the culture," says White. "Game officials go over the rule during pregame captains' meetings, and it's read to the fans over the PA system. By emphasizing our expectations around biased language, it heightens and educates everyone about sportsmanship.

"I compare what we're doing to a large ship turning around in the ocean," he continues. "It's not going to turn on a dime, but it will get there eventually. The idea is that by the time the athletes in this freshman class are seniors, they won't even be thinking about using biased language in games. And hopefully, their example will filter through the rest of the student body."

The bylaw states that any negative statements or actions made relating to race, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or religion are grounds for immediate disqualification from an athletic contest. Besides ejection, players and coaches who violate the rule face a subsequent one- or two-game suspension. In addition, the NJSIAA reports any biased-language ejections to the state's Division on Civil Rights in the Office of the Attorney General, which has the option of pursuing further discipline.

White says that educating officials on how to properly call the rule has been important. "Our referees were told, 'If you just think you heard something but aren't sure, don't do anything,'" he says. "They have to be 100 percent positive of what was said and who said it before disqualifying anyone. We'd rather err on the side of caution than have refs thinking, 'I'm not sure if it was number 22 or 25, so I'll just pick one to eject.'

"In addition, a lot of our referees weren't sure what to do if two African-American student-athletes on the same team referred to each other using the N-word," White continues. "In nearly all cases, saying the N-word merits an automatic ejection. However, we told officials to remember the intent of the rule in this scenario. If the players are clearly joking with each other, give them a warning, but if there is any aggression, officials must abide by the bylaw and issue a disqualification."

In terms of fan behavior, enforcement of the new rule has been a partnership between athletic directors and officials. "If a referee hears biased language coming from the stands, they are to notify the game management personnel, who are then responsible for issuing any ejections," White says. "It's very difficult for officials to monitor the game and the fans at the same time, so athletic directors need to be on hand to help."

If New Jersey's experience is any guide, more states may follow suit. "When I spoke at a convention last summer, around 30 state association representatives told me they were going to be watching how the rule panned out," White says. "I think a lot of other associations will soon jump on board and adopt a similar policy."
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