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Students, Professors Weigh in on Phillipsburg Wrestling Photo at NAACP Forum

By: Sarah Peters/The Express-Times
03/27/2014, 09:44 AM

Centenary College students and professors didn't limit their discussion to race when they talked about the controversial Phillipsburg High School wrestling photo with a local NAACP leader tonight.

Charles Boddy, NAACP president for Warren and Sussex counties, discussed the photo with about 12 people during a roundtable discussion at the school, opening the conversation with a disclaimer his remarks were as a private citizen not on behalf of the entire NAACP.

Assistant professor Matthew Mendres reviewed the history of the photo before conducting a question-and-answer session with Boddy. He asked, among other questions, how the involvement of athletics affected the issue.

"The wrestling program is the pride of Phillipsburg," Boddy said. "Athletics are particularly problematic because the community takes pride in certain programs and they don't like to see those programs or the athletes associated attacked."

One Centenary student said his high school coaches told athletes to treat themselves like business professionals. He questioned why the athletes were left alone and where the coaches were when the wrestlers took the photo.

The photograph taken by a Phillipsburg wrestler in the school's wrestling room a few days after Phillipsburg's Feb. 1 defeat of rival Paulsboro High School depicted seven members of the wrestling team posing around a dummy hanging by its neck and wearing Paulsboro colors.

Scott Wilhelm, a Phillipsburg attorney representing the wrestlers, has maintained the boys did not intend any racial imagery and that the photograph depicted a suicide. The dummy hanged himself because he was forced to wear the rivals' clothing, Wilhelm said.

One student said the image transcends race, questioning why a suicide is to be revered and why violent imagery is OK in today's culture. Boddy called for stronger punishments for violent crimes.

"We tend to celebrate (violence)," Boddy said. "We've become desensitized from (ages) 8 to 80." 

The NAACP leader has avoided calling the photo overtly racist, saying that's a judgment he can't make without knowing the athletes' intent. Had he taken that approach, the conversation would have stopped there, he said.

The fact they felt comfortable taking the photo suggests they believed they're in an environment where they won't be chastised, Boddy said.

Mendres said he received a phone call from a former Phillipsburg resident upset with the media coverage of the photo. Boddy said he doesn't think the community has been indicted but that the photo has been used as a "teachable moment."

"That is a common reaction to any controversy," Boddy said. "Those kind of reactions change when you're on the other side of the coin."

Boddy said the state Division on Civil Rights, which is investigating the photo, will review the diversity training implemented by the school district. The Phillipsburg School Board on Monday approved an assembly with a bias investigator, a sports psychology program and the services of a diversity institute.

He said he plans to review Phillipsburg's plan with other school districts and see when they last considered their diversity training.

"Let's not just stop with Phillipsburg," he said.