In a recent decision, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, the state’s second highest court, upheld a commissioner of education decision finding that that a local basketball coach violated recruitment rules of the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA).

In Griles v. New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, local media reported that a high school basketball coach was the temporary guardian of five or more basketball players from areas outside New Jersey. All of the players were either 17 or 18 years old, and four of them enrolled at the district high school the previous September. The report also indicated that five of the young men listed the coach as their legal guardian and claimed his condominium as their primary address.

In response to the allegations, the school district hired an independent investigator who, after conducting a full investigation, determined that the coach took the players in for humanitarian reasons and that while other NJSIAA rules were violated, the report concluded that the coach did not seek an “athletic advantage” in his actions.

Following the report’s public release, the NJSIAA conducted a hearing, ultimately concluding that a recruiting violation did occur. The organization issued the coach a two-year suspension, a fine of $1,000, and a requirement that the coach attend additional training. On appeal, the commissioner of education upheld the violation and penalty.

The coach then appealed to the Appellate Division, which noted that while the independent investigation focused on whether the coach engaged in conduct seeking an “athletic advantage,” the NJSIAA, in the initial hearing, and the commissioner upon appeal, properly focused on a critical distinction; the fact that NJSIAA rules prevent recruitment for “athletic reasons” as opposed to “athletic advantage.” Accordingly, the court upheld both the findings and the penalty.

The Appellate Division acknowledged that the findings were not without controversy but reasoned that the NJSIAA, as a voluntary organization, had the right to interpret its own rules and further noted that an appellate court was obligated to respect any interpretation of such rules that was not “plainly unreasonable.” The court, in upholding the findings, concluded that neither the NJSIAA nor commissioner’s conclusions were arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.

For more information about this matter, board members may wish to speak to the board attorney, or may reach out to the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.