Eight Phillipsburg High School wrestlers banned from postseason competition due to a controversial photo that surfaced this week offered profuse apologies last night to the people they offended, but expressed anger toward the school district for not allowing them to compete.
The wrestlers sat solemnly with their hands clasped in front of them at a long table last night at the Phillipsburg office of their attorney, Scott Wilhelm, who read the statement before 29 media reporters and 12 video cameras.
The controversial photo shows seven of the boys posing around a wrestling dummy wearing a Paulsboro High T-shirt and hanging with a rope around its neck. Two of the boys wore hoods pulled over their heads in a point.
“We did not intend to disparage anyone,” Wilhelm read on behalf of the teenagers. “We apologize to everyone for our actions, especially the Paulsboro community. From this photograph we have learned a valuable lesson — that all actions have consequences.”
The wrestlers — Tyler Agans, D.J. Wissing, Tylor Petchonka, Jimmy Schuitema, Broderick Bupivi, Tim Hinkle, Andrew Horun and Garrett Wolfinger — did not speak directly to reporters during the seven-minute news conference.
Wilhelm said last night that Wolfinger took the picture, and the other seven appeared in it.
Wilhelm said he was “confident” there was no racial component to the photo produced by the boys. In the statement, the boys said they believed all wrestling dummies are manufactured in darker leather. They added that “our poses were not premeditated, but rather were spontaneous gestures without any forethought.”
The boys have been suspended from school for three days in addition to being banned from wrestling for the rest of the season. Wilhelm said the teens could also be subject to a criminal investigation by Phillipsburg police.
After dedicating most of the statement to explaining their actions and apologizing, the boys finished by taking aim at the Phillipsburg School District, saying they were “extremely disappointed in the manner in which they have handled the entire situation.”
According to the statement, each boy met individually with principal Gregory Troxell, and Troxell assured the boys and their parents that they would not be suspended from the wrestling team.
“Now for some reason, without any further explanation and despite our repeated unanswered inquiries, the school has done an about-face,” the statement read. “We would have expected more.”
Messages left last night for Troxell and Phillipsburg’s athletic director, Thomas Fisher, were not returned.
Phillipsburg’s wrestling team is undefeated at 19-0 and ranked No. 4 in The Star-Ledger’s statewide poll.
Wednesday night, seven of the wrestlers were scratched with no replacements from the seeding for tomorrow’s District 1 tournament, ending their seasons. The eighth wrestler, Wolfinger, was not seeded and also will not compete tomorrow.
The photo ignited a lot of criticism across the state. And the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association — the state’s governing body for high school athletics — issued a news release yesterday condemning the photo, saying it “depicts a fundamental disrespect for an opponent, using violent imagery that has no place in high school sports.”
The NJSIAA added it supports the decision banning the wrestlers from postseason competition.
Now, Wilhelm said the wrestlers are hoping to learn from their mistakes and move forward. “We understand how some members of our community may be offended by our actions,” the boys said in the statement. “We are truly sorry for the harm we may have caused.”