A photograph showing seven members of a high school wrestling team apparently simulating a lynching has ended the more than decade-long matchup between two New Jersey powerhouses.
"We recognized clearly that an unfortunate incident took place following the last match between Phillipsburg and Paulsboro [High Schools]," said Walt Quint, Paulsboro superintendent of schools.
"But, on the other hand, the imagery in that photo was terribly hurtful to people and we have citizens that were hurt and rightfully hurt," he said. "We need to respect them and we need to allow some healing to take place."
The photo, which surfaced online in February, showed seven white teens wearing Phillipsburg High wrestling attire posing with a black tackling dummy in a Paulsboro wrestling shirt hanging from a noose. Two of the teens had the hoods on their sweatshirts fixed into points and one was holding a paddle.
Quint said the decision was made by the wrestling team after Paul Morina, the coach and high school principal, met with his staff and team members and spoke with community members.
"We have an athletic department and program we value a great deal," Quint said. "We trust and value our coaches' instincts."
The wrestling teams from the two schools, which do not face off in other athletic competitions, have met for 14 of the past 15 years.
At this point, the decision is not permanent, but Paulsboro officials will readdress the situation after the next season, Quint said.
"We are not indicting a community or school," he reiterated.
Just a few days after the image began circulating online, eight Phillpsburg wrestlers were scratched from a state tournament. Pictures of seven of the wrestlers cut resembled those appearing in the photo. Later that day, an attorney for the wrestlers pictured issued an apology on their behalf.
A lawyer representing an African American student, who was also on the Phillipsburg wrestling team, announced his client's intent to sue his teammates and the school district in March.
Quint said he hopes some positive will come out of the unfortunate incident.
"We have a group in our school called Students United for Respect and Equality," he said. "We are hoping maybe our SURE group can reach out to a group of ambassadors from Phillipsburg High School and this could become a learning opportunity."